With the release of my latest YA thriller, Very Bad People, I’ve been thinking a lot about what ingredients go into a truly exciting, thrilling story—for me as a reader and writer. We turn to murder mysteries and suspense novels and thrillers for the escape into darkness they provide. It might seem counter-intuitive—escape into darkness?—but just as rom-coms provide an escape into humor and ultimately love, thrillers take us to the dark side in a way that allows us to forget our real troubles, which hopefully fade in comparison to the extreme dangers and dilemmas faced by the narrators, at least for a little while. So after much mucking around in the dark, here are my five essentials for a truly absorbing, page-turning YA thriller.
Captivating Teen Characters
Whether the main character is a teen detective intent on solving a case or whether they find themselves at the center of a crime—or both!—I need to be fully drawn in by the protagonist and supporting cast of teens in a thriller. But note I said I needed “captivating” characters—not “likable” or “relatable.” They certainly could be those things, and I think many of my own protagonists are one or both, but some of my favorite thrillers center very un-likable characters I can’t relate to on a personal level—which is exactly what makes them so interesting. Think Andrew Winston Winters in Charm & Strange (and pretty much all psychological-thriller-master Stephanie Kuehn’s leading teens) and Jule and Imogen in E. Lockhart’s Genuine Fraud.
Among my own creations, I had perhaps the most fun writing Amanda Kelly in my thriller All Eyes on Us; she’s the least like me of any of my main characters, but I loved getting into the head of someone who appears to be a spoiled rich girl on the surface, but who harbors several unexpected layers beneath that façade. Give me a character I’m fascinated by, and I’m hooked.
Sky High Stakes
Here’s the truth about why writing thrillers for teens is such a natural fit for me: As a teen, the stakes of daily life—school, friendships, crushes—were incredibly high. Everything felt like life and death because that’s just how it is when you’re walking around with an adolescent brain. I remember those feelings viscerally. In a good thriller, the stakes are literally life and death, or similarly elevated to a fever pitch. Placing teen characters in situations with crazy high stakes has always felt like a natural extension of writing the teen experience. And those high stakes are a must for me, as a writer and reader of YA thrillers. Everything needs to be on the line—the main character’s own life, or the life of a best friend or romantic interest, or the course of the main character’s entire future.
In my murder mystery I Killed Zoe Spanos, the protagonist Anna is awaiting trial for a crime she confessed to, but can’t remember if she actually committed. Whether or not Anna—and the authorities—figure out the truth will mean the difference between freedom and a lengthy prison sentence, and the ripple effect that will follow Anna for her whole life. Those kinds of stakes hooked me as a storyteller, and they’re the kinds of stakes I’m seeking as a reader.
A Dynamic Setting
I love books that take me to a new place or invite me to revisit a seemingly familiar setting through fresh eyes. Many YA thrillers are set within high school walls, and while those settings may not be the most captivating at first blush, if the author can infuse that school with a set of characteristics and social dynamics that bring it fully to life, I’m all in.
That said, I’m even more likely to be drawn to a book set somewhere new and fresh, where the setting becomes a character in its own right. Take for instance the Dalloway School in Victoria Lee’s dark academia thriller A Lesson in Vengeance, the mysterious world of La Cachette, Louisiana, in Ginny Myers Sain’s supernatural thriller Dark and Shallow Lies, and the Story family’s island resort in The Cousins by Karen M. McManus.
I’ve had a tremendous amount of fun creating two such dynamic settings for I Killed Zoe Spanos—the wealthy and secretive Hamptons hamlet of Herron Mills—and Very Bad People—elite Tipton Academy, home of the righteous but morally gray Haunt and Rail Society. Set a mystery in a new and strange world, and I’m there.
Clues and Red Herrings
Not all thrillers are mysteries of course—think survival thrillers like I Am Still Alive by Kate Alice Marshall and revenge thrillers like The Female of the Species by Mindy McGinnis—but I’d be hard pressed to come up with a YA thriller that doesn’t utilize elements of suspense in its storytelling, even if there isn’t a “whodunnit” at the core. And many more YA thrillers are explicitly mysteries, presenting the reader with a who or a why to solve for.
With this in mind, as a reader I am most engaged when there are plenty of clues to follow and suspects and red herrings to throw me off course. This may seem like Mystery 101, but not all mysteries are created equal, and I’m likely to be disappointed when there are too few suspects or rabbit holes to go down, rendering the villain too obvious too soon, or on the flip side, when there aren’t enough clues to give the reader a fair shake at solving at least part of the mystery by the end. I want to be rewarded on re-read by clues that now seem obvious (why didn’t I see that the first time?!) and red herrings that are now clearly a misdirection, but which still make sense in the world of the story.
This is something I’m always striving for in my books. I won’t tell you which one (because spoilers!) but in one of my novels, nearly every clue you’d need to solve the mystery appears in the very first chapter. I love it when readers tell me that upon a second read, it was all right there.
A Jaw-Dropping Ending
Finally, I love a thriller with an ending that leaves me reeling. This doesn’t have to be a twist—although I do love a good twist!—but bottom line, I want to be left thinking about that ending for days. Without giving anything away, here are some YA thrillers with endings that have stuck with me: Allegedly by Tiffany D. Jackson, Sadie by Courtney Summers, The Cheerleaders by Kara Thomas, Complicit by Stephanie Kuehn, Dangerous Girls by Abigail Haas, We’ll Never Be Apart by Emiko Jean, and One Of Us Is Next by Karen M. McManus. Not to toot my own horn, but if you pick up Very Bad People, I can promise you the ending will stay with you. You may want to throw the book against the wall (muah ha ha) but you won’t forget what happens. For me, that’s essential.
Kit Frick is a MacDowell fellow and ITW Thriller Award finalist from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. She studied creative writing at Sarah Lawrence College and received her MFA from Syracuse University. The author of the poetry collection A Small Rising Up in the Lungs and the young adult thrillers Before We Were Sorry (originally published as See All the Stars), All Eyes on Us, I Killed Zoe Spanos, and Very Bad People, Kit loves a good mystery but has only ever killed her characters. Honest.
Visit Kit online at KitFrick.com and on Twitter and Instagram @KitFrick.