The Art of Yearning in YA Fiction

Clockwork Angel Image
Book 1 of The Infernal Devices

I recently completed Cassandra Clare’s Infernal Devices Trilogy (TID), and enjoyed it immensely. Oh yes, it is YA, and comes packaged with a world full of nephilim, demons, werewolves, vampires, plus a healthy dose of steampunk gadgets and clockwork adversaries.

It was the funnest romp. Action-packed plot aside, huge part of her story’s appeal was due to the intense romantic tension between the main characters. For me, this ability to capture the exquisite sense of wanting that almost every teenager feels, is what differentiates the good YA from the merely competent.

All teenagers yearn for something–to belong, to fall in love, to be free … And being young and filled with raging hormones, that sense of yearning often manifests as a raw, single-minded need that clouds everything they do and see. I can still remember the emotional upheavals I had over the most random things when I was much younger, the unseen explosions in my psyche that no one knew about but myself. While it made for some tumultuous times, it also made me feel vibrantly alive. But how to effectively communicate that raw emotion?

What follows is an examination of how this is achieved – using Cassandra Clare’s work in The Infernal Devices as an example.

  1. Likable characters whom you want to root for
    This sounds obvious. It is. Emotional investment is important when you wish to translate a feeling – and if you don’t have a character you can identify with – or whom you at least like, everything else is moot. In TID, Tessa, Will and Jem are all likable characters – each one with their own unique flaws and strengths, and who serve as perfect foils for each other. This makes them human, it makes them identifiable, and it makes the reader care about what what they care about. (ie – what they are yearning for)
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  2. Characters who develop as the plot advances
    You might have characters whom you care about, but things will get old if they start sounding like a broken record – yapping about what they want but never doing anything about it. Or always doing the same old thing – that fails to get them what they want, and never learning from that experience. Character development has to be in line with plot development – and the way they respond to their needs and wants. Tessa, Will and Jem discover more about themselves as the plot progresses, and this in turn changes the way they respond to each other and their own yearnings, which keeps things fresh.
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  3. Reader insight/involvement
    How this is achieved varies, but Cassandra Clare does it by providing multiple character POVs. Giving readers an idea of what each character is thinking and yearning for – while denying the characters themselves that luxury of knowledge,  helps to increase reader investment and escalates the tension. In TID, we know how strongly Tessa and Will feel for each other, but they don’t. This knowledge invests us in the welfare of the characters, and keeps us at the edge of our seats for the moment of revelation – where the characters can finally be honest with each other, and finally, finally get what they both want.
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  4. Throw a spanner into the works (or upping the stakes with an impossible situation)
    TID depicts an equilateral love triangle between the three main characters. Will, Jem and Tessa love each other equally, which puts all of them in an impossible situation. Will and Jem’s friendship is as strong as their love for Tessa, while Tessa’s love for both of them is equal. The cost of fulfilling their attraction on either side seems extremely high. This situation, together with the proximity of the characters to each other, puts them in a predicament where their romantic interest is “so close, yet so far”, allowing for countless moments of sizzling romantic tension, and a sense of yearning pulled taut and raw.
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  5. Resonance
    This last element is probably the result of all the previous four factors thrown together. It is also the most important part of what makes a great story. 
    Resonance refers to the characters and stories lingering with the reader, long after the tale is done. Some stories make you feel a sense of relief when you finish it, a sense of “Oh well. Now I that I know how it ends, it’s time to pick up something else.” Other times, you finish a tale with a sense of bittersweet regret – glad that the story is resolved, but wishing that it could continue, that you could stay in that world, and with the characters a little longer. These are the books where you have to stop and breathe and think after it ends, letting the events and characters percolate within your soul, not wanting to erase them so quickly by entering into a new tale and a new world. TID did that for me, not in the way that Lord of the Rings or The Magicians or even The Coldfire Trilogy did for me – each of the above resonated with me for a different reason, but in TID’s case, it was precisely the raw edge of yearning, that intensity of youthful longing, that did stayed with me most. 

Of course – I realise the subjectiveness of this post. What works for me might not necessarily work for another. As Stephen King once said, “writing is telepathy” – the ability for the writer’s and reader’s mind to meet on common ground. Each reader comes to the work with a different frame of reference, and each reader will have a different reading experience. But writing something, casting it out, and finding an audience that connects to it in his or her own individual way… that is precisely the magic of writing and reading, isn’t it?

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