Guest Post: Kat Bender Talks about the SCBWI Winter Conference & Tension in YA Fiction

First of all, I am delighted to be doing a guest blog for Kourtney! We met during the Writers’ Roundtable at the SCBWI conference two weeks ago. I highly recommend the critique sessions. Sharing your work is a great way to meet fellow writers, as well as receive professional feedback.

The 2012 SCBWI Winter Conference was my first writers’ conference. The panels were packed with useful advice from experts in the industry. One of the highlights was Cassandra Clare’s keynote speech about Love Triangles and Forbidden Love.

Ms. Clare writes bestselling books for young adults, books which inspire intense enthusiasm from her readers. As a YA writer, I was eager to hear her advice on how to appeal to a teen audience. While Clare did offer excellent advice on that subject, I would like to discuss a more general theme of her keynote, one which applies to all kinds of stories.

Throughout her speech, Clare emphasized a key aspect of storytelling. That aspect is tension. The topic of forbidden love is a familiar one, especially to those of us who read Young Adult fiction on a regular basis. But not all forbidden love is created equal. Clare said that to write an effective romance, you must create obstacles for your characters, to prevent them from getting what they want too easily. The resulting tension will keep readers intrigued. Ideally, these obstacles should be complex and difficult to overcome, or what writers call “high stakes.”

This is true of all types of stories, and romance is no exception. But sometimes I forget that, in Clare’s words, “the kind of love story that is fun to live is not fun to read about.” When she said that, I realized why plot devices like love triangles are so popular in YA fiction. They build tension, and hold reader interest. They keep us turning page after page, anxious to find out what the characters do next—and isn’t that what telling a good story is all about?

Clare said some writers don’t go far enough when creating romantic tension. For love to feel truly forbidden, the obstacles must be daunting, not half-hearted attempts at drama. Otherwise, the solution to the problem is too obvious. The reader won’t question the outcome, and the tension will disappear.

While Clare’s keynote focused on a particular type of storyline (the romance), her insight reminded me of the importance of tension in all genres of fiction. It can be difficult to create problems for your characters. As a writer, I become very attached to my characters, and that attachment deepens with every draft. I work hard to develop each of them, and I want them to achieve their goals by the story’s end. But as a storyteller, I know I have to avoid making my characters’ lives easy. I must continue to put obstacles in their path. Otherwise I risk losing a reader’s interest.

To tell you the truth, it can be a lot of fun to push your characters into scary situations, to see what happens when you jeopardize the things which matter most to them. Readers love that kind of suspense. They may worry for your characters, but if you keep the tension high, they will read your stories with bated breath. What we all want in fiction is tension, and lots of it—no matter if that tension comes from government conspiracies, ancient curses, or love triangles.


Katrina Bender is a writer of Young Adult fiction. She enjoys drinking tea, doodling pictures, and wearing preposterous hats. When she isn’t hard at work on her latest project, she can be found buried in a pile of books. She is active on Twitter under the name @KatBender, and you can find her blog at Her current manuscript is a Victorian fantasy about knights and astrological magic.

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22 Responses to Guest Post: Kat Bender Talks about the SCBWI Winter Conference & Tension in YA Fiction

  1. Cat Forsley says:

    Wow – 🙂 Kourtney ———- Great morning Read …..
    ! “How To Create Tension ” ……… I have not written any YA stories – only only tiny poetry book so far – and is now – off the proverbial market-
    Thx For this post – Inspiring and a Good Kick in me to maybe finally Finish a kids story and publish – even if just for me 🙂 lol – Going to look Into Ms. Clare 🙂
    Have a wonderful day 🙂
    Cat xx

    • Thanks! I’m so thrilled to have met Kat Bender at the SCBWI Winter Conference. She’s got a terrific YA novel she’s revising too.
      A book of poetry is very impressive Cat! It’s fun to explore other mediums of expression–kick around ideas for a novel. Maybe try it as a short story and then expand?

      I picked up Ms. Clare’s books at the conference. The are crowding up my to-read bookcase. 🙂

      Have an awesome day.


    • Thank you, Cat! 😀 I’m glad you enjoyed the post, and that it inspired you to try writing kids’ stories. I hope you have fun exploring a new medium. (Also, you write poetry? How cool! I’ve heard that poets make great prose writers, because they know the importance of picking just the right word and making it flow with the words around it.)

      Cassandra Clare’s books are very addicting. My favorites are the prequels set in Victorian London (they’re called The Infernal Devices), but most people start with City of Bones. She really knows how to write characters that appeal to teens. It’s fun to watch her answer questions on Twitter; her fans pay attention to the tiniest details!

      Best of luck with your future stories. 🙂

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  3. themadgayman says:

    Great post! I am trying to think if I have any tension in my novel. I wanted to stay away from the love triangle because it’s so overwhelmingly overdone. However, I figured that the two characters falling for each other wouldn’t ever actually commit to one another due to unfortunate series of events I have planned. Being a YA series, I didn’t want the protagonist to be with this guy forever. In fact, I wanted the two to break up to show that sometimes love comes and love goes. The point, in life, isn’t to find your soul mate. It’s to enjoy the good times you had with the people you loved. If you’re lucky, you’ll find the “one.” But I hope I can express this well in my novels.

    • Thanks! I’m so glad Kat could join us today. 🙂

      Tension and conflict are absolutely key to keep the reader reading. One of the points Ms. Clare raised is that many love triangles are badly done. She pointed to the tv show Felicity as a bad example. Felicity just waffled between two guys switching from season to season. That killed the tension in the love story. She pointed to The Vampire Diaries as a good example. Outside forces, situations constantly keep the triangle going between Elena/Damon/Stephan. It hooks the reader because it’s not simply a matter of choice.

      I think there is so much potential tension in your story if characters fall for each other but won’t be together. Especially if there are a series of almost moments. I think you’ve got a realistic concept of love there. Especially if you dig deep and torture your characters. 🙂

    • I’m glad you enjoyed the post. 🙂 It sounds to me like you have lots of potential tension in your novel. Anything that keeps a couple apart is a source of tension, so if you emphasize those obstacles, you’ll definitely keep readers interested. Plus, I enjoy seeing love stories in YA that go a more unconventional route, like when the couple breaks up.

      You make a good point about the love triangle. It’s a classic idea, but it’s becoming so expected in YA that readers can get bored with it. (Especially when it’s done just like all the other love triangles out there. Same types of characters, same dilemmas, etc.)

      Best of luck with your novels!

  4. Hi Kat. Thanks so much for an insightful guest post! Do you have romantic tension in your YA novel? Mine’s more of a mystery with less of a love story, though my main characters definitely have a spark that I plan to work on in the series.

    • Thank you, Kourtney! 😀 I had fun writing it. Cassandra Clare’s speech was one of my favorites at the conference. She totally speaks my language when it comes to stories and characters. (The inner geek in me was thrilled when she mentioned Star Trek and X-Men!)

      I do have romantic tension in my novel. 🙂 Like yours, mine is more a fantasy than a love story, but the romance turned out to be central to the novel’s theme. One of the challenges has been how to balance that romantic tension with everything else that’s going on in the plot. I also plan to expand on the romance throughout the series, like you said. I enjoy romance the most when it’s part of the story, not the main focus.

      That said, I’ve had a great time writing the primary couple in the first book. They have some rather… unusual obstacles to their happiness. I think it definitely qualifies as forbidden love!

      • Kat, you’re welcome. 🙂 Cassandra did an amazing job and she actually made me reconsider the romantic entanglements of my book. BTW, if you go in my basement there is a collection of X-Men comics dating back to the 1960s.

        You’re book sounds super intriguing. I can’t wait to swap a few chapters. 🙂 I had to keep reminding myself what the main plot was because my subplots, though interesting, started taking over my story. I’m currently trimming them back and trying to manage the amount of space dedicated to them vs. the main plot. I totally agree. Unless I pick up a romance, I really want the love story to be secondary to the main story. 🙂

        Unusual obstacles sounds tantalizing. Forbidden love is so fun. My curiosity is all stirred up and I’m dying to learn more.

  5. Excellent points about tension. Love the concept of “pushing characters” into tough situations. Thanks for sharing Kat with us, Kourtney!

  6. crubin says:

    Although I don’t write YA books, the above advice applies to all genres. Conflict and tension are key but sometimes can be difficult to sustain, especially when you care so much about your characters as Kat points out!

    Thanks for another great post.

    • Very true Carrie. Conflict and tension have to be in every book. It’s very hard to torture the characters you’ve come to know and love. My story had that problem in the beginning. I didn’t want them to be in constant conflict. But like Cassandra said what makes for a horrible love in real life is something readers clamor for on the page. 🙂

      Glad you enjoyed the post! Thanks again to Kat for putting together a terrific guest post!

    • Thank you for commenting! I’m glad you enjoyed it. 🙂 One of the things that surprised me about Ms. Clare’s speech was that it really could be applied to all kinds of stories. Tension is such a key element that I wish it was emphasized a bit more in writing classes.

  7. It's the little things that make life great.berry says:


    What a very detailed blog. Very informative. You sound delightful. Thanks Kourtney for having her as a guest. Loved it.

  8. 4amWriter says:

    Great post, great info. I never really considered that “choice” doesn’t create enough tension. But after reading this, I am now thinking about it differently.

    My first problem is that I think the obstacles I choose are daunting–because these are my characters and anything close to bad happening to them is daunting to me!

    I have to remind myself to step out of my role as author, and become a reader instead. What would I think about these characters if they aren’t mine? Would I keep reading? Is it too predictable?

    The other problem I face is what if I put my characters through a terrible event, but I can’t figure out how to get them through it to a point of recovery? They might belong together, but if they act unforgiveably then how can they come back to each other?

    Here again, I think I am using “choice” as my catalyst. Maybe I need to work on the outside forces more.

    Thanks for a very helpful and thought-provoking post!

    • It’s awesome how a conference workshop can spark so much rethinking. 🙂

      I liked how Cassandra used The Vampire Diaries as an example. (I prefer to think of the show not the book) Elena loves one brother. She can’t betray him by noticing the other brother or having feelings for him. There is no choice. She can only be with one of them at a particular time because of the relationships they all share.

      And that was another point Cassadra made–don’t make it a “V” triangle where the two guys are linked to the girl but share no link to each other. You need a bond between the guys whether it be brothers, best friends, etc. Something that is at stake between them in the triangle. That kicks up the tension.

      There always has to be a good reason for how they act. Cassandra pointed to one of her books where the girl tells one of the guys she doesn’t love him. It’s not necessarily true, but she already committed to the first guy so she is trying to do the right thing for all of them and set the second guy free. Lying about not caring could be pretty unforgivable, but she finds a way to make it noble and the only thing the heroine can do in that situation.

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