Hey there, aspiring writers! Have you ever noticed that in some of your favorite books, authors are able to lay traps and build to peak tension just through some expertly chosen descriptions? It’s all about making the reader feel what the characters are feeling, and THE MEMORY TREES is a prime example of this! The editor of this chilling book is here to help!
Editor’s Pick is an ongoing series where we ask editors to break down the mechanics of what makes the writing in some of our favorite books so amazing and give tips on how you can apply it to your own work
How to Build Tension Through Atmosphere In YA Fiction
By Alex Arnold
Hi! I’m Alex Arnold, editor at Katherine Tegen Books, an imprint of HarperCollins Children’s Books. October is my favorite month; I’m all about sweater weather, changing leaves, and curling up to read with a hot drink. Now I have one more reason to add to the list:THE MEMORY TREES, Kali Wallace’s second stunning YA novel, is out in the world!
In THE MEMORY TREES, 16-year-old Sorrow Lovegood is returning to her childhood home after years away. When she was 8 years old, her family suffered a terrible loss on their apple orchard in Vermont—and after her mother’s breakdown, Sorrow is sent to live with her father in Florida. THE MEMORY TREES is about a lot of things: grief, mental illness, the power of stories, and a long line of badass women who have made their home on the orchard. It’s also a beautiful, wrenching mystery—and one way Kali Wallace builds tension for that mystery is through her atmosphere.
Of course, you know that tension is essential for a good story; you can’t create an engaging plot without conflict and road blocks for your characters. Atmosphere is one of those elements of craft that’s harder to fit into a box, because to create atmosphere that communicates something essential to the reader, a writer must play with several aspects of the story. Setting, language, and pacing are all part of building atmosphere. Atmosphere is also an effective way to follow the adage “show, don’t tell.” You don’t need to tell us a character is uncomfortable if we can feel it through sensory details!
Beyond the window the morning was bright and glittering, the sky a breathless blue, and the hotels on Miami Beach jutted like broken teeth across the water, but all Sorrow could see was the orchard. There were trees whispering behind the walls of the office, and she almost believed if she turned—if she was quick—she would glimpse their sturdy thick trunks and rustling dead leaves from the corner of her eye.
“Your father is very worried about you,” Dr. Silva said.
Sorrow rubbed her arms and looked away from the window. That cool breeze touching the back of her neck, that was only the air conditioner.
We open the novel with some dramatic irony: this sunny, beautiful day does not reflect how Sorrow feels in her therapist’s office. The juxtaposition here, between the visceral details of Sorrow’s present and her memories, gives the reader immediate insight into the primary tension of the book: her life in Florida, and her past on the apple orchard in Vermont. Sorrow is caught between two worlds that are drastically different in both physical and emotional landscape. At 16, she lives in a land of eternal summer—but she still feels darkness creeping up on her, darkness that compels her to travel back to Vermont to reckon with what happened there eight years ago. Can’t you hear the whispering of the trees, the tickle of the breeze?
This next passage takes place in the past, when Sorrow is eight years old and lives on the orchard with her sister, mother and grandmother:
She started walking again. Sorrow sniffled, wiped her nose on her coat sleeve, and went after her. The snow was deep on the north-facing slope. Sorrow followed in her sister’s footsteps, stretching her legs to reach each punched-through hole, until the ground leveled, the trees opened, and a whirl of wind bit at her face. They had reached the black oak. The clearing around the oak was slick with hardened patches of ice, but the ground above Silence Lovegood’s grave was bare and muddy. Patience picked her way over the ice, choosing each step carefully, but Sorrow ran past her and threw herself into the trunk of the oak. She climbed up onto the fat, knobby roots that curled from the ground like monstrous snakes and hopped her way around the tree, keeping one hand on the trunk for balance. “Is this where she killed them?” Sorrow asked.
There is a sense of innocence and play here; Sorrow is carefree and adventurous. In contrast, her older sister Patience is careful and slow. We get the sense that Patience has the right approach, because as the scene unfolds, there are plenty of treacherous images: the ice is slick and hardened, the snow is deep, and the roots are like “monstrous snakes.” Through Kali’s choice of images and language, we understand that danger is afoot, despite our protagonist’s breathless enthusiasm. We’re on edge, anticipating what might come next for these sisters.
Finally, I leave you with this passage, taken from one of the vignettes about a Lovegood matriarch from many years ago.
She patted the trunk of the magnificent oak and felt its warmth beneath her fingers, its welcoming strength. She had acres to tend, and the sun was rising. The smoke of the neighbors’ fire was as delicate as spider silk against the brilliant dawn. The man would be waking with avarice in his heart and deception in his eyes. As the summer bloomed he would try to clear her along with the shrubs and stones and snags, as though a woman were no more than another obstacle on the landscape. But she had shed tears and blood to make this land a part of herself. She was not so easily frightened away.
While the image of a rising sun is usually a peaceful one, the tension here is palpable. This scene plants the seed for a centuries-long feud: the unsettling image of spider silk, the reference to fire, her deeply disturbing prediction that this man would try to “clear her along with the shrubs and stones and snags.” I love that these details are paired with the fierce, resolute strength of this woman tending to the earth, solid as an oak. There may be violence in the future, but this woman is ready to fight.
Now it’s time to practice building tension through atmosphere in your own writing. Try these exercises below—and then read THE MEMORY TREES to learn from a master!
Now It’s Your Turn!
Try your hand at building tension with some of these exercises!
1. Write a scene with atmospheric details that convey a character’s anger. Rewrite the scene, in the same setting, with details that convey sadness.
2. Write a scene in which two characters are engaged in a conflict: Perhaps it’s a fight between best friends, or two people breaking up, or a teen who has been disappointed by her father. How can the setting inform the mood of the scene?
3. Write a scene in which the setting contrasts heavily with the emotional beats of the moment. How can you use this juxtaposition to create an unsettling atmosphere?
About The Memory Trees
For the first eight years of her life, an unusual apple orchard in Vermont is Sorrow Lovegood’s whole world. The land has been passed down through generations of brave, resilient women, and while their offbeat habits may be ridiculed by other townspeople—especially their neighbors, the Abrams family—Sorrow and her family take pride in its odd history.
Then one winter night, an unthinkable tragedy changes everything. In the aftermath, Sorrow is sent to Miami to live with her father, away from the only home she’s ever known.
Now sixteen, Sorrow’s memories of her life in Vermont are maddeningly hazy. She returns to the orchard for the summer, determined to learn more about her troubled childhood and the family she left eight years ago. But it soon becomes clear that some of her questions have difficult—even dangerous—answers. And there may be a price to pay for asking.
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