Although shelter-in-place orders have led to so many anticipated events being cancelled, some thankfully were moved online… and YALLWest 2020, cleverly renamed YALLStayHome, was one of them. YALLWest is a book convention featuring Young Adult and Middle Grade authors, usually taking place in Southern California. Their decision to host YALLWest virtually gave me the opportunity to attend this convention for the first time, as I live too far away to visit in person. This past weekend, I watched three panels, on three different genres I love: urban fantasy, mystery/thriller, and contemporary. Strangely, the panel that stuck out to me the most was the panel on a genre that I don’t write myself—mystery/thriller.
As a writer, I’ve always been intimidated by the mystery/thriller genre. I’m fascinated by those author’s abilities to create so many shocking twists. I feel like as hard as I try, I’ll never be able to create so much suspense in my own stories. While many aspects of writing can be learned and taught, these authors must have some magical powers, some genius that is born, not made. This may still be true, but on the “Whodunit and Why Do We Care?” panel, authors Rory Power, Karen McManus, Stuart Gibbs, and Stephanie Garber offered four practical, concrete tips that they use to make their writing more suspenseful.
The Mystery Has To Matter — Rory Power (Wilder Girls)
Rory Power says that a key to suspense is that the mystery has to matter. If the reader doesn’t care about the mystery being solved, the book won’t be suspenseful! A problem the character can walk away from is a problem the reader can walk away from. The mystery has to be relevant or even key to the identity of the main character. Solving (or not solving) that mystery has to change them. And I think this is true of any story, not just a mystery. We need to connect with the main character, care about the main character, and then be presented with a problem threatening the main character’s very identity. That’s what makes readers care and keep turning pages—we want to see that character come out all right!
At a Crucial Point, Switch POVs! — Karen McManus (One of Us Is Lying)
Karen says that something essential to the suspense in her novels is using multiple POVs. One of Us is Lying and One of Us is Next both have four POV characters, and Two Can Keep a Secret has two. When one of her characters is right on the cusp of discovering something important or being caught doing something dangerous, she ends the chapter and switches to a different character, making you wait for that piece of the puzzle. As a reader, I can attest to the fact that this is incredibly frustrating, which means it’s very effective. In a suspenseful book, your goal is to keep the reader turning pages, and this technique is guaranteed to do that.
Consult Harry Potter — Stuart Gibbs (Spy School)
Stuart says that when he began writing mysteries, he took tips from the Harry Potter series. This struck me, because we never think of Harry Potter as a mystery series, but in actuality, Harry and his friends spend most of their time solving mysteries, like “Who is Nicholas Flamel?” or “How is Sirius Black connected to Harry?” JK Rowling is a master of mystery. The one tip in particular that he mentioned is this: every time another character, like Hagrid, is about to tell Harry something important and necessary, they suddenly have to leave for one reason or another, and Harry is unable to find them again for months after. This technique again is very frustrating, so it is quite effective!
Leave Room in Your Outline for Surprises — Stephanie Garber (Caraval)
Stephanie says that the secret to her process is not plotting out everything in detail, which was music to my writer’s ears. She says that her process is a bit chaotic, so she doesn’t necessarily recommend it, and it requires an abundance of sticky notes, but it works! When plotting a new novel, she plans out the major plot points, but she loves to be surprised, so she leaves a lot of room for the unexpected along the way. When first crafting her characters, she gives each one five potential “secrets,” and as she writes, she gradually narrows it down. This writing style is clear on the page—while immersed in Stephanie’s rich, magical world, it truly feels like anything is possible.
YALLStayHome (YALLWest 2020) took place online April 25-26, 2020. Learn more about YALLWest and its participating authors at yallwest.com.