The last few years have witnessed the relentless rise of the psychological thriller, accelerated by the phenomenal success of Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl and trumped this year by Paula Hawkins’s The Girl on the Train, the fastest selling adult hardcover in history.
This popularity has not been confined to adult novels, however. Recent years have seen thrillers for teens hitting the shelves in abundance, pioneered in the UK by authors like Sophie McKenzie, Cat Clarke, Helen Grant, Tanya Byrne, Louisa Reid, Keren David and Caroline Green. Some, notably Sophie McKenzie, have also gone on to write adult thrillers, while others, like Jane Casey in the UK and Harlan Coben in the US, have done the reverse and added YA to their established repertoire.
In part, this has been fuelled by the growing appetite for thrillers across the board. After all, young adult books are not just read by teens. According to a report by Bowker Market Research, 55 per cent of people who buy young adult books are actually fully-fledged, card-carrying grownups.
So what do teen thrillers add to the genre as a whole? Well, as someone who writes them, I’d argue they offer plenty. YA thrillers, by definition, concentrate on the perspective of a young person or people caught up in seemingly impossible or unfathomable situations. And that perspective is fresh, naïve in the best sense of the word, untainted by all the graft and grind of adult life and the disappointments that can bring. And there’s no relying on police procedural to unravel the mystery. In YA agency is given to the teen, not the adults around them – these young people are the ones who have to solve or resolve the predicament they find themselves in, so these stories offer appealing examples of courage and resourcefulness, and characters you can really root for.
Related to this is the frequent use of first-person present tense style in YA books; indeed, it wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to say that the rise of first person present in adult psych thrillers is due at least in some part to its prevalence in books for younger readers. First person present brings a lot to the table – an intense focus on the psychology and inner journey of the main character, coupled with the immediacy of the present tense, and its capacity to create pace, surprise and tension. After all, first person present is how we all lead our lives; embed that perspective into a dramatic, perplexing or harrowing situation, and you’re inviting your reader on an inherently compelling journey.
What YA thrillers offer over adult thrillers, I’d argue, is an over-riding commitment to pace. We’re writing for teens, and they’ve got plenty else competing for their attention, so there’s no hanging around to smell the roses, or describing their scent. Sure, you can create scenes rich in atmosphere and detail, but have to do that with flair and economy. Bore an adult reader and there’s a fair chance they’ll stick with you; bore a teen and they’ll dump your book fast.
Perhaps best of all, YA writers aren’t afraid to mash up the genre a bit. Take last year’s hit by US author Emily Lockhart, We Were Liars – one of the best books I’ve read in any genre, adult or YA – which adds a supernatural twist to the mix. C. J. Daugherty with her worldwide selling Night School series, gives her thrillers a political bent – ‘St Trinians with a murderous streak’, as Closer put it. Helen Grant gives her thrillers, particularly her brilliant Forbidden Spaces trilogy, more of a crime edge. Others mix thrillers with dystopia, as in Alex Campbell’s Land, or throw in a hint of horror, like James Dawson’s Cruel Summer. In YA, somehow, the boundaries of genre are less rigidly enforced, which can make for a much more interesting read.
But where YA writers really have it made is with their readers. Nowhere is there a more vibrant or supportive community than in YA, particularly in the UK, where the #UKYA brand is going from strength to strength with a growing and vocal band of supporters. Once you’ve got them on board, these young readers show enormous loyalty, and often act as ambassadors for your book across a wide range of social media. And nothing gives a writer more pleasure than knowing you’re doing just the same for your readers.
Emma has written a previous blog for Hive in the past, which you can read here.
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