YA KNOWHOW How to create suspense

Illustration of a character walking a highwire and carrying goldfish in a bowl

Writing suspense is key in keeping young readers hooked. In the third of her series on writing YA, Tracy Darnton talks us through ways to keep your readers hanging.

This week I’m looking at a popular area for YA and one close to my heart: thrillers and suspense novels. What are the techniques that you need to master to write a gripping thriller for a YA audience? 

This type of fiction needs plot and pace. So cut extraneous detail and description. Why not increase the pace with a ticking time-scale – a week until leaving the island, a ransom demand or even a bomb? 

The usual problem of getting rid of the adults is more acute. For any sort of crime, how do you stop a heavy adult presence of police, forensics and media solving the problem rather than your characters having agency? Consider using an old crime that no one is currently investigating (as in Sue Wallman’s Your Turn To Die) or use a closed location which excludes external help. 

You could opt for a psychological thriller which explores trust, deception or identity rather than crime. In adult thrillers, the stakes are frequently raised by shocking violence or a high body count. In YA, you’ll have to be more imaginative. The stakes still need to be high, with a real possibility of failure  maybe the character is tackling the most important problem of their life. The reader has to care about that character and what happens to them, which of course is not the same as making them likeable. I loved writing prickly Jess in The Truth About Lies

The thrill of this genre is the intellectual challenge in working out what’s happened, and solving the puzzle. Plant clues, often in plain sight, and red herrings. Use double bluffs and mess with expectations. Play with tiny details. Surprises and twists are great, coincidences are not. Look back through We Were Liars by E. Lockhart and spot all the well-hidden clues. 

And don’t forget the satisfaction of safety being restored and the good guys winning. In fiction at least. 


Tracy Darnton’s YA thriller The Truth About Lies was published by Stripes in July 2018. She has an MA in Writing for Young People. You can follow her on Twitter @TracyDarnton

Imogen Foxell is an illustrator with a particular interest in creating intricate imaginary worlds. She illustrates English literature revision cards for flipscocards.com, and interesting words for twitter.com/OED. Her website is imogenfoxell.com. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

Helen Liston is KnowHow editor, if you have any ideas about what you'd like to read about here, send them to knowhow@britishscbwi.org

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