This diagram is one of the simplest to show how threads can be used to carry the movement of the mystery novel — in this case, from The Technique of the Mystery Story by Carolyn Wells (more here: http://gaslight.mtroyal.ca/ToMX24.htm). Three “hypotheses” to explain a disappearance are presented: murder, elopment, and theft. The author presents evidence for each, tangling them to the point where the reader can’t be quite sure — at least, until close to the end of the book! — which one is valid.
In my “three-dimensions” writing/reviewing lab (a.k.a. the little office), I’ve sometimes done this with actual yarn, trying to show how a novel’s threads go in an out, back and forth. But more often, I simplify to a flat sheet of butcher paper on the wall and color-code (markers, crayons, or sticky tags) what’s going on. For All That Glitters, where I’m posting first-draft chapters on WattPad (second draft begins this summer), the mystery’s threads that correspond to the “hypotheses” above are tracking why there’s a gun in teen sleuth Lucky Franklin’s house (a gun that’s been used to shoot her dad!); what scuzzy Sean Perkins is actually doing in the two bookstores (just how big is his illicit “weed” operation, anyway?); and whether state politics are involved somehow, considering that Lucky’s dad was appraising the governor’s old books when the shooter arrived.
An essential to keeping the threads in play is “red herrings” that are specific to the young adult audience: romance, family rules, wanting to be an adult but also wanting some protection … Stephen D. Rogers (a “brother” member of Sisters in Crime New England) sorts red herrings into those of person, place, and objects (http://www.writing-world.com/mystery/herrings.shtml) and adds, “There is a difference between misleading the investigator and misleading the reader. Readers watch Sherlock Holmes follow logical (and apparently logical) trails. Readers are riveted by investigators who don’t know something the reader does, especially if the knowledge could lead to a crisis situation.” [So there’s also the aspect of what the reader knows versus what the sleuth knows — and that can be the prime difference in the YA mystery experience for the younger reader versus the cross-genre adult reader, often the purchaser of the book. See the Flavia de Luce mysteries by Allan Bradley, especially I Am Half-Sick of Shadows — the entire series includes a gradual reveal to Flavia of something the acute adult reader may have guessed early on.]
YA mysteries may look “simpler” than the “grown-up” genre at first glance (and often the language is simpler) — but the best YA mysteries are about much more than the plot. Character, risk, integrity, challenging what’s wrong, seeking courage when you really wanted your folks to do it for you: those are all major parts of YA mysteries. Laurie Halse Anderson nails this (http://madwomanintheforest.com) and is now engaged in a stunning social justice movement as one result (http://www.rainn.org/speak).
So after laying out a few threads of plot, it’s helpful to also look at the threads of the YA character: facing the world, separating from childhood, standing up for what’s right, dealing with the wounds that arrive in such efforts. Those threads, as well as the plot ones, must move through the book.
How does the writer craft the final knot of all those threads for the YA mystery? See the next YA mysteries post. Meanwhile, here are the 2013 Edgar Award nominees in YA mysteries, in case you want to investigate some threads yourself: Kathryn Burak, Emily’s Dress and Other Missing Things; Elizabeth George, The Edge of Nowhere; Niall Leonard, Crusher; Kat Rosenfield, Amelia Anne Is Dead and Gone; and the winner, Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein.
What YA mystery threads are on your mind today?