Things That Go Bump in the Night: Creating Thrills and Chills in YA

Photo by Jared Austin

The “Thrills and Chills in YA” panel took place Saturday at 5:30PM in Marriott A707 on the YA track. Sarah Brown served as the panel moderator, with speakers Kaitlin Bevis, Jay Boyce, Claudia Gray, A.J. Hartley, and DL Wainwright.

The authors started off by sharing their favorite type of thriller read, which was varied between supernatural and thriller/suspense, with Gray noting that whatever type of story, it must have suspense and deal with a “psychological truth.” Bevis “prefers things that go bump in the night.” She’s fascinated by the freedom that comes with what you can do with monsters, and how they change over time, “depending on what we’re afraid of at the time.”

To ensure the chills in their novels are scary enough, but don’t go too far, the authors use beta readers for feedback. For Hartley, he asks his beta readers to give him letter grades as they are reading through the story. An “A” equals “Awesome,” a “B” equals “Bored,” a “C” stands for “Confused,” and a “D” means “Do Not Care.” According to Hartley, that feedback provides all the information he needs from his beta readers, though his focus is on areas rated B, C, or D. For Wainwright, beta readers are critical to make sure the twists in your novel make sense based upon what has happened thus far, instead of feeling like you’ve suddenly thrown something at them out of left field.

Brown then asked the authors if they like to weave in enough breadcrumbs that the reader guesses what will happen beforehand, or do they minimize the use of breadcrumbs. Bevis strives for enough breadcrumbs that the reader “figures it out just before it happens.” She finds it extremely satisfactory when she’s reading a novel and realizes what is going to happen right before it does, and she wants to create the same experience for her readers. Gray added that she wants to surprise people, but that the revelation has to “feel earned.” No twist for twist’s sake.

The panel explored the benefits and limitations of first person and third person narration when writing a story. Gray mentioned that when writing her first novel, she realized that writing in first person point-of-view made it challenging to give readers important bits of information at key moments if the POV character didn’t have that information. Whereas in third person different characters can get or share key information at different times. Additionally, when writing in first person with multiple POV characters it can be challenging to create “distinct voices” for each character. A solution Boyce presented to the challenges of writing distinct voices in first person is to co-author the story.

Bevis pointed out that horror is usually limited in scope. The scary things in the novel are happening to the narrator, not the whole world, so “first person fits well there.”

Brown then asked the panel if they like to pull ideas from true crime podcasts and documentaries. Gray felt that using real life examples of horror in stories feels very invasive. “Don’t leap on someone else’s tragedy.” Wainwright added the effective horror taps into pre-existing fears and conditions. What creeps us out? When “you’re home alone, but you hear creaks and sounds which make you think you’re not alone.” She does pull ideas from the distant past, such as folklore about a creature that eats its victims and leaves behind the heads on pikes, which is based upon Romanian soldiers leaving the heads of their opponents on pikes to demoralize the rest of the opposing army.

As for recommendations of good horror, Boyce pointed to the I Am Not a Serial Killer series by Dan Wells. Bevis likes the “unreliable memories” trope, because after a tragedy people think they know what happened, only to “learn they didn’t really remember things as clearly as they thought. That happens in real life.” Gray recommend The Witch Elm by Tana French, which wasn’t a YA novel, but dealt with things that happened to the characters when they were in high school. It dealt with a character who sustained a head injury that affects his memories and speech.

As for what scared them the most, for Bevis it was The Haunting of Hill House, both the show and the Shirley Jackson novel. For Gray, it was Still of the Night, which her parents let her watch when she was much too young. Hartley pointed to Dead of Night, an old British film that had a series of stories, one of which was about a ventriloquist dummy that was deeply disturbing.

Boyce then wrapped things up by mentioning a childhood trauma where her siblings tied her to a chair in the basement and left her alone to watch The Fear of Spiders movie.

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