I used to think that the reason I couldn’t put a book down (it happens at least once a week!) was “I need to know what happens next.” Later, I decided it was “Because I care about the character.” Thanks to another writer’s blog note on what makes a strong story, though, here’s my latest version: “What’s at stake for this character continues to matter.”
For young adult (YA) mysteries, the stakes are often very high. It’s not “just” a friendship, not “just” whether your parents accept you, not “just” discovering how to thrive in school or in a group. The stakes can reflect many of the way mysteries for adult readers divide up: a personal chance at happiness; life and death; more people dying; a reputation to salvage; a scientific or medical disaster to avoid; a nation’s secrets to protect or to investigate. Rarer in YA are legal mysteries, and police procedurals. (In both of these types, it’s tough — but not impossible — for a teen to be the center focus. Of course, To Kill a Mockingbird, one of the early books to be labeled YA, could be called a legal mystery.)
That takes us to two questions that begin with HOW (our final “traditional journalist” topic). (1) How do you as the writer decide what the stakes are for your story? (2) How does the protagonist solve the mystery — and in the process, capture the stakes?
Remember the division between plotters and pantsers? (Recap: Plotters lay out the details of the plot before writing; pantsers work from the seat of the pants.) Deciding on the stakes is especially urgent for pantsers, since they often start with a character and a situation, and write forward from there. But plotters, who focus on the details of twists and pace, also can benefit from asking themselves what the stakes are. Here’s why: The clearer it is that your character has something seriously at risk, the more your reader will need to keep reading.
In Michael D. Beil’s Red Blazers Girls series (right on the border between middle grades and YA, but such a perfect modernization of Nancy Drew style that I savor it) the stakes in The Secret Cellar appear in a fortuneteller’s declaration at page 6: “Others seek the same treasure you do, and though your quest may become dangerous, you must not give up. Be careful who you trust.” Sure, Sophie St. Pierre is clueless at this point about what the treasure is — but she and her friends are almost instantly convinced that something is at stake and it’s their job to pursue it. All is soon revealed.
For the Mara Dyer trilogy by Michelle Hodkin (quick, how do you know a character is an extreme success? answer: she/he has the website: http://www.maradyer.com), the stakes appear at first to relate to surviving an uncomfortable school situation — then amp up to self-respect and possible love of a boyfriend — then rise to include the life or death of family members and possible imprisonment. A lot rests on Mara Dyer’s shoulders. No, that’s not unusual in YA; think of another of the books labeled YA when the label was new — The Fellowship of the Ring and its two sequels (and prequel). Enormous stakes are compelling in themselves.
“How #2” will determine whether you as the writer choose the kind of stakes that happen to most people pretty often — like self-respect, a best friend, finding a way to live proudly with what makes you different, taking care of the grandmother next door — or the kind of stakes that are threatened by a widespread conspiracy and are reclaimed through the courage of many people. Do you want to solve the mystery through careful observation of people in a small town? Through discovering hidden material with impact? Through detection or lab work (see the Flavia De Luce books)? Through international or intergalactic adventure?
One of the most exhilarating aspects of writing your own mystery is, YOU get to choose what suits you best, out of these “how” options.
I do have one more bit of “how” to mention, before moving on to dialogue in the next post. Last week, one of the writers I mentor, one who is herself a “YA,” said she’d become stuck in her latest novel (this is her third! she is awesome). “How do I get going again?” she asked.
If that’s your “How” issue lately, here’s the list this YA writer and I are using:
- Write a page about each character, including the worst that could happen to that person and the way that person is likely to grow most deeply.
- Look at your page 1 and consider what you’ve promised to the reader.
- Write a “persona poem” in the voice of your protagonist.
- Invent a ring-tone that each character would choose for a cell phone.
- Change one of the characters to reflect the inner self of your best friend and write the story you wish would happen to her or him.
What’s the “how” of the YA mystery you are writing — or planning — or reading, today?