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Ten Chilling Tropes That Make YA Thrillers Unputdownable



By Gledé Browne Kabongo Young Adult thrillers have carved out a unique niche in the literary world, captivating readers with their gripping plots, complex characters, and unexpected twists. Let’s dive into some of the most popular tropes that make YA thrillers unputdownable.

1. The Unreliable Narrator


This trope is not just for adult psychological thrillers. The Unreliable Narrator is a protagonist who is telling the story, but whose version of events ends up being called into question. This narrative device adds layers of complexity to the story, keeping readers on their toes as they question the reliability of the protagonist's account.  A prime example is E. Lockhart's We Were Liars, in which the narrator Cadence struggles to piece together fragmented memories of a traumatic summer on her family's private island, making her an unreliable narrator as she uncovers devastating secrets.


2. Secret Societies


Secret societies offer a tantalizing glimpse into hidden worlds of intrigue and mystery. From secret clubs to clandestine organizations, these groups play a pivotal role in shaping the plot and driving the narrative forward.


Jennifer Lynn Barnes’s Little White Lies follows protagonist Sawyer Taft who is drawn into the world of Southern debutantes and high society, where she uncovers a secret society with deep-rooted traditions and dark secrets. The intrigue and suspense build as Sawyer navigates this new world and its hidden dangers.


3. The Idyllic Town With Dark Secrets


On the surface, the small town setting seems perfect—a safe, tranquil community where families can put down roots. But YA thrillers love to peel back this veneer and uncover the seedy underbelly of these seemingly utopian locales.


Whether it's cults, serial killers, corruption, or other sinister forces at play, the idyllic town inevitably has horrifying secrets buried just beneath its pristine facade.

Maureen Johnson's Truly Devious series and the classic YA thriller I Know What You Did Last Summer both exemplify this trope masterfully.

4. The Tangled Web of Lies


When a character in a YA thriller starts lying, it's never just a single white lie; it's always a tangled web that spirals increasingly out of control until the climactic unraveling. Each new lie leads to complications as the character struggles to maintain the facade, sacrificing trust and relationships along the way. One of Us Is Lying by Karen MacManus is a prime example.


5. The Crumbling Friendship


Teenage friendships are complicated enough without throwing suspense and deception into the mix. Yet YA thrillers often hinge on formerly inseparable friends turning against one another due to secrets, betrayals, or threats of violence. This trope leads to heart-wrenching emotional turmoil as seen in Amanda K. Morgan’s Secrets, Lies, and Scandal about a group of students who become entangled in a web of lies and deceit after a deadly accident, causing their friendships to fracture under the pressure.





6. Missing Person


The trope of the missing person is a staple of the thriller genre including YA thrillers, serving as the central mystery that drives the plot forward. Whether it's a sudden disappearance or a long-buried secret coming to light, the search for the missing person becomes a race against time to uncover the truth. In Little Monsters by Kara Thomas, Kacey moves to the small town of Broken Falls and befriends two girls who harbor dark secrets. When one of them goes missing, Kacey must navigate betrayals to uncover the truth about her friend's disappearance.




7. High-Stakes Secrets

Secrets lie at the heart of many YA thrillers, driving tension and conflict as characters grapple with the consequences of their hidden truths. Whether it's a long-buried family secret or a dangerous conspiracy waiting to be uncovered, these high-stakes secrets propel the story forward and keep readers eagerly turning pages. In Holly Jackson’s A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder, an aspiring journalist reopens a closed murder case for her school project, uncovering shocking secrets that someone is desperate to keep hidden.


8. Conspiracies

Conspiracy theories offer a glimpses into hidden truths and dark agendas. From government cover-ups to secret experiments, these conspiracies add an extra layer of intrigue to the narrative, keeping readers guessing until the very end. In The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, a dystopian society ruled by a tyrannical government sparks a rebellion fueled by secrets and lies, leading to a thrilling showdown with the powers that be.


9. Betrayal

 

Betrayal is a recurring theme in many YA thrillers, adding depth and complexity to the relationships between characters as they navigate the twists and turns of the plot. Whether it's a friend turned foe or a trusted ally with hidden motives, betrayal leaves characters questioning their loyalty. Heartwood Box by Ann Aguirre follows Araceli Flores Harper as she moves to a small town with strange disappearances. As she investigates, she uncovers a legacy of betrayal that reaches back generations, threatening her new life.


10. Bonus: Small Circle of Suspects

 

One of the most deliciously suspenseful tropes employed in YA thrillers is the close circle of suspects. When a crime, disappearance, or other mysterious incident occurs, the list of potential culprits is immediately narrowed down to a tight-knit group. Such is the case in Nick Brooks's Promise Boys, about three teen boys of color who investigate the murder of their principal to clear their own names.



 

While hardly an exhaustive list, these ten tropes are among the most prevalent that tend to show up time and again in popular YA thriller books. By tapping into primal fears and sources of tension that deeply resonate with readers, authors in this genre have proven to be master storytellers capable of crafting edge-of-your-seat narratives that leave readers feverishly turning pages late into the night.



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