The Maze Runner: Creating Tension & Suspense in YA Lit

SPOILER ALERT! Information contained in this post gives away important tidbits about this book and the series. (So off with you until you’ve read all three!)

There are multiple techniques for writing suspenseful prose and James Dashner seems to know them all. The Maze Runner, so far, is the one series that I found lived up to “the next The Hunger Games” hype. In the tradition of popular, action-packed, attractive characters, young adult novels, The Mazer Runner the Movie will be released in 2014. I’m looking forward to the movie, hoping that it will be as quick-paced, character-driven, and suspenseful as the prose on which it is based.

Although, Dashner’s writerly toolbox is heavier than a Snap-on Epiq chest, he obviously believes that simple is best. He keeps his writing clear, clean, and concise, as sharp and quick as a Griever’s blade. It is not only Dashner’s simple sentence structure which assists in creating suspense, he also withholds information and pays it off later in the book. Dashner creates pauses, through chapter, section and paragraph breaks, which heighten readers’ anticipation. His choices create an exciting style that keeps the reader interested. The first, second and third time reading Dashner’s book, I consistently wanted to find out what happens next. Finally, and almost most importantly, Dashner keeps the stakes of his novel high, and continually heightens those stakes at each available point. These three aspects of writing are some ways in which to create suspense.

Section I: Withholding

One way to create tension, and thus suspense, is withholding information. Dashner does this often, in various ways, throughout The Maze Runner. Our protagonist/narrator awakens without a memory, so immediately the reader has no background information, or rather, as little information as the narrator. The reader experiences the world at the same time as the narrator, thus creating emotional immediacy. Everything happens right now, because the reader views the world through the eyes of the protagonist. When a reader’s and narrator’s (and/or protagonist’s) informational timelines are synced, it binds them emotionally1. The narrator does not know more than the reader. The reader does not know more than the protagonist. In this case the withholder of information is the author. The reader and narrator constantly question their world, which causes tension. The desire to quell these questions, to find answers, is what creates suspense.

The author also withholds information through other characters:

Newt had barely finished his sentence when a sudden, piercing scream ripped through the air. High and shrill, the barely human shriek echoed across the stone courtyard; every kid in sight turned toward the source. Thomas felt his blood turn to icy slush as he realized that the horrible sound came from the wooden building.

Even Newt had jumped as if startled, his forehead creasing in concern. (pg 18, Nook App on iPad)

Here, we see our protagonist experience another character’s scream. The section goes on to show that no one will tell Thomas who is screaming or why, even though the author and other characters know. This example of withholding information is more common and yet more subtle than the protagonist having amnesia. Just about every character refuses to answer the protagonist’s questions. Without answers, the protagonist continues to search, and the reader follows willingly.

Section II: Pacing

Pacing is another way to create tension within a novel. However, there are very few tricks an author can use to temper a reader’s pace. Length of words and complexity of sentences are two ways, another is where the author builds in “pauses.” Sometimes this is accomplished by a chapter break. Maybe it has to do with that little bit of white space after a paragraph, or the bold typography of the capitalized “Chapter.” Any which way, a pause, a break of pacing, may happen between the end of one chapter and the beginning of the next .

It could be said that building tension is more important than sustaining tension. It is the notching up, the tightening of the belt, which keeps readers engaged. In order to continually build tension, the author must create the vicissitudes of tension – the ebb and flow. Chapter breaks are one way Dashner builds tension:

Another mechanical squeal screeched through the Maze, close now, followed by the surge of revved machinery. Thomas tried to imitate Alby’s lifeless body, hanging limp in the vines.

And then something rounded the corner up ahead, and came toward them.

Something he’d seen before, but through the safety of thick glass.

Something unspeakable.

A Griever.

-Chapter break-

Thomas stared in horror at the monstrous thing making its way down the long corridor of the Maze.

It looked like an experiment gone terribly wrong – something from a nightmare. Part animal, part machine, the Griever rolled and clicked along the stone pathway. (pg 120-121)

Dashner builds tension by introducing the scariest threat in the book. A threat that neither the reader nor the protagonist/narrator have ever seen clearly. Then STOPS before we know what we are looking at. He doesn’t write out a description of what the Griever looks like, instead he cuts to a chapter break, waylaying the moment, intensifying our fear. In an uncommon moment, the reader and the narrator/protagonist split. The protagonist/reader sees the Griever but in the narrator’s shocked state, he cannot describe the creature. As our interest peaks Dashner cuts the reader off, dropping to a lower level of action and tension just to build it back up. Dashner is a literary tease. And we fall for him every time:

Seconds passed. Minutes. The ropy plant dug into Thomas’s flesh — his chest felt numb. He wanted to scream at the monster below him: Kill me or back to your hiding hole!

Then, in a sudden burst of light and sound, the Griever came back to life, whirring and clicking.

And then it started to climb the wall.

-Chapter break-

The Griever’s spikes tore into the stone, throwing shredded ivy and rock chips in every direction. Its arms shifted about like the legs of the beetle blade, some with sharp picks that drove into the stone of the wall for support. A bright light on the end of one arm pointed directly at Thomas, only this time, the beam didn’t move away.

Thomas felt the last drop of hope drain from his body. (pg 119-121)

This chapter break is slightly different from the previous. It is a classic “cliff hanger” and another useful way to build and release tension.

Section III: Stake it

Tension is based on stakes. Stakes are the tectonic plates of a novel. The basis for action in a novel and all those wonderfully dramatic earthquakes. Without stakes, we have no drama, without drama, we have no action, and without action, we have no tension. The Maze Runner’s stakes are fairly obvious: solve the maze or die. Solve the maze or watch your friends die. Solve the maze and save humanity. But as all well plotted novels, the obvious problem to solve is never the real problem. Thomas may solve the maze, and save a majority of the Gladers, but he also triggers the experiment’s next stage and puts them in even greater danger.

There’s something to be said about the ability to write suspenseful prose. Honestly, it may be the one successful aspect of my own writing. Although there are definitive reasons of why some writing is wrought with tension and others are not, sometimes it just comes down to where a writer’s strengths lay. The above examples work. If the writing seems flabby or boring, then look at things like stakes, tension, action or character. Track the issue back to the source to cure it. The obvious answer may not be the correct one. It may not even be the right question.

  1. Simply meaning that the reader experiences the fictional world as the narrator/protagonist does, feeling how and when he feels. 

13 thoughts on “The Maze Runner: Creating Tension & Suspense in YA Lit

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