Updated on 10/7/2020
Recently I finished revising my YA paranormal suspense novel, and let me tell you: it was one of the hardest things I’ve ever written. And it may still need another revision. But in the process, I’ve read a lot of YA suspense novels, and thought a lot about what makes a good one. Here’s what I’ve learned…
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10 Tips for Writing YA Mystery Books
1. They’re the same as adult suspense novels, except…
YA mystery books are just like adult ones except the main character is a teenager instead of an adult. Also, you won’t find as much graphic sex or violence in YA mystery books as you might in an adult novel, but that doesn’t mean there can’t be some sex and violence.
2. Don’t “dumb down” the mystery.
Teen readers are smart, and if you don’t make your plot twisty enough, they’ll see right through it. Don’t be afraid to make things complicated, dark, and deep. A great example is The Leaving by Tara Altebrando. With it’s somber and twisty plot, thoughtful theme, and interesting narrative style, it’s one of those YA mystery books that adults will enjoy, too.
(Keep in mind that if you’re writing for a middle grade audience, the mystery can be simpler, and there shouldn’t be any sex or graphic violence.)
3. Incorporate a “coming of age” change.
In every novel, mystery or otherwise, the main character should go through some kind of emotional or psychological change from beginning to end. In YA novels, the change is often some sort of transition from child to adult. At the end the protagonist sees the world, or themselves, in a new way, leaving a part of their childhood behind. In Last Seen Leaving by Caleb Roehrig, for example, the main character not only investigates the disappearance of his girlfriend but confronts his own sexuality, finally coming out to his family and friends.
4. Consider writing a paranormal or psychological thriller.
Although straight YA mystery books are super fun, teens do love the paranormal and the psychologically twisted. When brainstorming ideas, ask yourself if there’s a way to include ghosts, mental illnesses, or other spooky elements – even if it’s just the suggestion of something paranormal – into your novel. You can dive deep into an alternate reality, like Kali Wallace’s Shallow Graves, go for psychological suspense like We Were Liars by E. Lockhart, or dabble in both like Imaginary Girls by Nova Ren Suma.
5. Keep your readers turning pages.
Get to the mystery quickly and avoid including too much extra. There’s such a temptation when writing YA to want to describe the protagonist’s day at school, what she ate for lunch, what his English teacher said, etc., but too many details can bog down your story and teen readers will lose interest. Only include scenes that drop clues, add to the plot, or provide red herrings to distract readers from the real answers.
6. Read other YA mystery and suspense books.
Best-selling mystery author April Henry is a great place to start. She’s written lots of YA mystery books, and if you’re looking for straight mystery from someone who knows how to plot a fast-paced suspense novel, look no further. I’m especially a fan of The Girl I Used to Be. Then there’s my guilty pleasure, Sara Shepherd, author of the Pretty Little Liars series and The Lying Game series. I tell you what, that lady knows how to keep you turning pages!
You may also want to check out Sadie by Courtney Summers for it’s unique structure, or read books by YA horror writer Danielle Vega if you want something super scary. And here’s a list from Kirkus of the best teen mysteries and thrillers from 2019. As you read, make note of how the authors structure their plot: the clues they drop, the way they increase suspense, how they drive towards the big reveal at the end.
7. Heck, read mystery and suspense books of all kinds.
I’ve heard it said that the best way to learn how to plot a novel is to read mystery novels. So why stop at reading YA mystery books? Check out some adult ones as well. Might I recommend Jennifer McMahon? She is, in my opinion, the master of creepy suspense and has written both straight mystery/thriller and paranormal suspense. Some of my favorites are Promise Not to Tell, The Winter People, and and Don’t Breathe a Word. I also absolutely loved her latest novel, The Invited. In fact, I ranked every single Jennifer McMahon suspense novel in this blog post. Her books are especially good for those writing YA mystery books because she often has teenage main characters.
8. Try these plotting tricks:
- Start with the end and work your way backwards.
- Spend A LOT of time brainstorming and planning – maybe more than you think you need to
- Start with the antagonist and what they want.
- Or start with the protagonist and the steps they will take to solve the mystery.
- Or start with the answer to the mystery then think of other possible answers to use as red herrings
- Every time you plant a clue, plant a red herring immediately after.
- Every main character should have a secret, though it may not be a secret about the main mystery.
- Write your scenes in chronological order. Then decide if it could increase the suspense to tell the story in a different order.
- Think about the most obvious answers to the mystery then make it something else.
- Consider using an unreliable narrator, or multiple narrators.
The trick is that you want to keep your reader guessing then give them an “a-ha” moment at the end. The conclusion to the mystery should be something readers won’t guess but that makes complete and total sense once they get to it. In other words, make sure you’ve planted clues so the ending doesn’t come out of nowhere, but don’t be too obvious either.
Much easier said than done, right? A great example is the climax of The Madman’s Daughter by Megan Shepherd. When I read it, I thought, of course – in hindsight I realized the big reveal couldn’t have happened any other way – and yet I didn’t see it coming.
9. Get some beta readers.
Beta readers are important no matter what you’re writing, but they are especially important with YA mystery books! Once you have a draft, give it to a few trusted readers and get their feedback. Did they guess the answer to the mystery too soon? Or did the answer seem to come out of nowhere? Do you need to drop more clues or less? Do the twists and turns of your novel make sense or leave the reader totally lost? Is the violence too graphic or too tame? Did your writing keep the readers turning pages, or where there scenes that dragged?
10. Create fully-realized characters who drive the action.
Perhaps the very first thing you should do is get to know your main characters — the people who will be solving the mystery. Sometimes we get so caught up in the plot and the clues and how to deceive the reader that we forget: a good book, no matter the genre, should be character-driven.
Don’t make your protagonist do something out of character just to further the plot. Do come up with a backstory for your antagonist, even if you don’t use it in the story. Remember that as your protagonist is solving the mystery, he or she should also be confronting something emotional or psychological — going through an inner journey as well as an outer one. Having fully-fleshed-out characters is just as important in YA mystery books as it is for other genres.
How about you? Have you ever written a YA suspense novel? If so, what advice can you give? What are some of your favorite YA mystery books? Leave your comments below!