Have you ever wondered why some page-turning novels keep you up at night, while others fall flat? These 3 popular YA authors employ the same writing craft techniques in their books that guarantee a great read.
1. The Astonishing Color of After by Emily X.R. Pan
To begin at the beginning, this popular YA author demonstrates the first master storytelling secret: the hook. In the opening sentence—and certainly in the brief first paragraph—Pan captures the reader’s full attention:
My mother is a bird. This isn’t like some William Faulkner stream-of-consciousness metaphorical crap. My mother. Is literally. A bird.
Who can stop reading after that? She has your attention. She has a story tell. Something interesting is about to happen with this narrator.
In fact, I devoured Emily X.R. Pan’s lovely, heartbreaking, poetic, mysterious, and wonderful debut novel in less than 5 days—a fast pace for me.
The very best, most intriguing and engaging novels are the ones whose first thirty words introduce some kind of change that will become the catalyst for the rest of the story. It can be very simple. It can start in the middle of action. In fact, what often grabs you in a great first line is the disorientation: what’s happening? As readers, we are observers of some action that may have already happened, and we’re in catch-up mode. Who’s talking? In the case of Pan’s book, why does this character think her mother is a bird?
The story’s engine starts. We turn the page to satisfy our curiosity, and in a very good novel like The Astonishing Color of After, even more interesting questions unfold.
Want to read some more great hooks by popular YA authors? Here are some lists:
2. Missing by Kelly Armstrong
The hook in Missing is also compelling:
Reeve’s End is the kind of town every kid can’t wait to escape. Each summer, a dozen kids leave and at least a quarter never come back. I don’t blame them—I’ll do the same in another year. We thought it was just something that happened in towns like ours. We were wrong.
This novel employs a second storytelling secret: the ticking clock.
In missing-person cases, police only have so much time to find victims before their chance of returning home safe diminishes. In the case of Winter Crane’s sister, the timeline for how long she might have been missing is already unclear. As the mystery quickly unfolds, the urgency to find out what might have happened to her—and other missing kids—is tied to an invisible clock like a heartbeat. It creates suspense and raises the stakes. The tension increases with each turn of the page because we believe the situation is life-or-death. The hero spends a lot of time literally running from one place to another, trying to beat the clock.
Combined, the hook and the ticking clock make a one-two punch for great storytelling. In my novel The Future Unborn, here is the hook on page one:
I knew there’d be a ubiquitous plethora of tests to take my senior year—tests with vocabulary words like ubiquitous and plethora. But I never expected to need to take a pregnancy test, too.
The heading of this opening chapter is Week 2, which sets the ticking clock and identifies the structure for the entire novel, which is 10 weeks long.
In Hollow Beauty, the ticking clock is in the hook itself:
When I placed my order, I had no idea it would be my last medium curly fry and regular Coke for the next two months. If I’d known, I would have asked for a large.
What happens in the next two months? The prom. The narrator just needs to lose weight for it.
In my first novel, Straight A’s, the clock is the end of the nine-week grading period. The main character is overwhelmed with anxiety and academic pressure to be valedictorian of her class, and if she gets a B in calcuus at the end of the grading period, she’s making plans to commit suicide.
3. The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas
Angie Thomas and her debut novel became a bestselling success because of this next secret: conflict. In The Hate U Give, this popular YA author demonstrates how to layer inner and outer conflicts to create a dramatic story that readers cannot put down.
It starts with the hook:
I shouldn’t have come to this party.
I’m not even sure I belong at this party. That’s not on some bougie shit, either. There are just some places where it’s not enough to be me. Either version of me.
And there it is: the inner and outer conflicts. This narrator lives in two worlds, and those worlds soon clash when sixteen-year-old Starr Carter witnesses the fatal police shooting of a childhood friend. What makes this conflict harder for Starr is that she attends a suburban prep school far from the neighborhood where she lives and where the shooting happened, and the action she takes will shatter the careful balancing act she’s been maintaining between these separate versions of herself.
What makes this novel special and why it resonates with so many readers are the complex conflicts that each character faces. You will think about Starr for months after closing the cover on this novel because the multiple layers of conflict will continue to spin at the back of your mind. The questions and issues are important, and the answers aren’t easy. She is sympathetic in her struggles to find the best path.
Want to read some more popular YA authors with complex conflicts? Here are some lists:
If you are ready to learn more, you can download free samples of any of my books from this website.