Choosing the target age of a “young adult” (YA) mystery is an adventure in itself. The genre usually markets to readers aged 10 to 15, maybe 17. And, as mentioned by 22-year-old author of YA fiction Shannon A. Thompson (see my preceding YA Mysteries post), the fact that 10-year-olds may read a book means there are moral choices involved. To what will you expose your reader? How close to a Scandinavian noir will you cruise? Does your mystery depend on the grim circumstances that made, and still make, the fiction of Robert Cormier (The Chocolate War; Tenderness) so frightening and controversial? Or are you reaching for a less “fraught” and more direct mystery sequence, as in Michael D. Beil’s Red Blazer Girls sequence and Jane Langton’s The Mysterious Circus? These choices are style, and they have roots in who the writer is and what the writer believes fiction “is.”
Remember Hemingway’s quip about how being a writer is simple — just sit down at a typewriter and bleed? YA fiction at its best demands character depth, and while forging a character may not always be bloody, there’s a nakedness involved in it. Honesty and insight produce a protagonist like Mara Dyer in The Unbecoming of Mara Dyer by Michelle Hodkin (*caution: volume 1 of a trilogy, and volume 3 won’t be published until autumn 2013). Mara spends a lot of time looking into mirrors: seeing danger, but also seeing the changes in herself and not always thrilled about them.
When I write chapter 1, I know a lot of details about the person I’m portraying: name, age, hair color, manner of speech. And I know some character traits, which are usually (no coincidence here!) traits that are stubbornly my own, or facets of others whom I’ve admired or loved and thus studied in detail. “Write what you know” for me means writing the character I believe in, commit to, am willing to spend years with (oh no, you’re not done with a character when you write your last chapter — but we’ll get to that, later in this series).
But character is revealed most strongly through choices, not through interior monologue. Mara Dyer looking in the mirror can dread or embrace what she thinks she sees — but Mara Dyer confronting a bully or taking a stand against a killer becomes memorable. And the character’s choices are, of course, embedded in the Plot.
At the top of this post is a basic “plot diagram” of the kind used in many schools today (note: YA readers experience these!). It’s based on Freytag’s pyramid, which in turn comes from a study of classical drama, especially the Greek.
The second diagram, though, is one of mine — for Charlie’s Place, which I’m co-writing with teacher Sue Tester — and has a different shape. I like my crisis, my turning point, to come about two-thirds through a book, because I want the suspense and pressure to build steadily to that point.
Take a moment now and draw something that represents the movement of a mystery to you. Add labels. Include opening situation, complications, threats that grow in magnitude, and even decisions made by your protagonist. (Yes, this applies to “cozy” or amateur sleuth mysteries, too. And yes, to police or detective procedurals — even Sherlock Holmes has his “aha moments,” as does Watson.) If you have a hard time adding labels to the final one-third of your diagram, don’t worry, that’s normal … you’ll be able to fill those in later, and I’ll talk about this issue when I reach the posts about endings.
But the next post (two weeks from today) will address a “middle-ness” aspect of YA mysteries that is a bit harder to diagram: Threads, and how they multiply, interweave, and resolve. Hint: If you’ve thought of writing a mystery “about” something, that’s a thread.
What shape did you choose for your diagram (on paper, or in your thoughts)?