writing thrillers for teens

14/09/2011 by Sophie McKenzie

The author of Girl, Missing and sequel Sister, Missing, Sophie McKenzie explains how to write stories where the teenager saves the day

For me, getting the grown-ups out of the picture is a vital aspect of successful children's fiction. Once I've come up with a story and invested it with (hopefully) compelling characters, I try to make sure that they are free to operate without too much adult intervention. Teenage protagonists need to be able to overcome their problems and save the day independently.  

As a principle, this isn't just relevant to high-octane kids' adventure stories. If the main character in any book isn't effecting their own salvation, then the chances are high that the reader will find them passive and the story boring.

For writers of young adults' science fiction and fantasy, it's possible to set up completely original worlds in which young characters are either oppressed by the adults around them or where the adults have no power (The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins and Uglies series by Scott Westerfeld are both good examples). Creating a whole new universe from the bottom up is an amazing achievement and not one that I've attempted - but I imagine that at least it must be easier to engineer scenarios where adults don't take over the story.

I write contemporary thrillers set in our own world which is crammed with authority figures. From parents and teachers to police and social workers, there are a hundred places where a child can turn for help, support and advice. Add in all the technology at their disposal, instantly connecting them with everyone else, and the challenge for the writer increases.

Moral dilemmas

In Girl, Missing, Lauren is 14 and starting to question her roots as part of a natural desire to establish her own identity. She lives with her adoptive parents who refuse to talk about her adoption as a toddler and her background before that. She goes online and finds a missing poster of a little girl she thinks might be her.  

Lauren soon starts to suspect that her adoptive parents stole her away from her original family. This suspicion is crucial. Without it, Lauren would naturally turn to her parents to help her find out the truth. With it, Lauren is alone and struggling to work out what really happened to her as a toddler without assistance from the official, adult world.

But having to act without guidance or support from the grown-ups also means Lauren has to face a series of moral challenges: What should she do now? How far can she justify lying and manipulating those around her in order to get the information she wants? How much danger can she withstand? How brave will she prove?

Forcing teen characters to make decisions and take action without adult help doesn't just put them at the centre of the story, moving the plot forwards. It is also at the heart of what makes that story compelling. Lauren faces ethical dilemmas wherever she turns. She has to make moral decisions and take responsibility for them. In this way, she grows up through the story. And, hopefully, her teen readers will be engaged by every twist of that development.

Tough decisions

In the sequel, Sister, Missing, Lauren (now 16) is used to the particular challenges that her family situation brings. When her sister is kidnapped under circumstances similar to those in which she herself went missing, Lauren finds herself having to step up and take responsibility for getting her back. Now Lauren does turn to the only parent available to her – birth mum Annie. But Annie is next to useless: neurotic and emotional. In Sister, Missing, Lauren is no longer the victim – or the child. And she has to face one of the hardest lessons of growing up – that adults don't have all the answers… that your parents will get things wrong.

All of these emotional challenges raise the stakes for the main character. Not only does Lauren face danger at every turn, but she is also morally troubled. One of the big areas of conflict in Sister, Missing concerns whether Lauren and her family should call the police after her sister's disappearance - the kidnapper has threatened to kill her if the authorities are alerted. Lauren goes along with this – though later regrets her decision. Here, the lack of adult intervention works to strengthen the story in two ways: Lauren is again alone, trying to save her sister without adult help. But also, she has to take a tough decision that brings her into conflict with others – and, ultimately, leads to an inner conflict that brings self-knowledge.

Girl, Missing begins with Lauren asking: "Who am I?". The story focuses on the practical answers Lauren seeks to that question: Where has she come from? Who are her parents? How did she spend her early years? In Sister, Missing, the same question is asked, only this time the focus is on Lauren's character: Who is she as a person? What are her values and her beliefs? How will she act under pressure? When the stakes are high, will she make the right decisions?

Throughout Sister, Missing Lauren makes many choices which she later regrets. However, the outcome is good. At the end of the story she makes a good, noble decision that ends in tragedy. It's this kind of irony that makes thrillers interesting to write – and, hopefully, to read.
 

Girl, Missing and Sister, Missing are published by Simon & Schuster Children's Books. Sister, Missing is published on 15th September.

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