I’m so excited to welcome S.R. Johannes to the blog to talk about writing thrillers. I put her in the hot seat with the following questions.
1. Do you write mainly thrillers? Will you continue to?
Yes and yes. J
When I was growing up, I used to sneak my mom’s books and read them – anything from Steven King, to James Patterson, to Iris Johannsen to James Hall (just to name a few) and I loved how they would keep me up at night reading.
I’ve always wanted to create that for teens. And I’ve been shocked at how few thrillers there are that DO NOT have some type of paranormal or fantasy twist.
So I do contemporary thrillers. Tough girls in the real world.
I’d like to say I’d write other stuff. But I will never be able to write something that does not have some level of suspense. I don’t know why but I’ve tried and it doesn’t work – for me.
2. What are you top tips or must-follow instructions for writing thrillers?
Thrillers are all about creating some kind of tension. If it isn’t in action, it needs to be in a relationship or in emotions. Something that makes you hold your breath and then release when it’s settled.
I have studied James Patterson’s writing and his writing process for years. He once talked about how he writes to an inverted conflict curve. This means he starts a chapter with tension, resolves it in the middle, and then begins more rising action and ends a chapter on a tense moment. This is what makes his books page turners in my opinion. Because we – as readers – look for those natural places to stop – usually when a chapter/scene resolves in some way or in a quiet moment before the storm.
After I write my books, I recut my book to that inverted model so the tension is at the end of a chapter.
3. What are the biggest pitfalls to avoid when writing a thriller?
I think the big pitfalls are losing tension and being predictable. If you are predictable – it is not thriller b/c you lose the tension in your story. You never want your reader to sit back and go “ah this is resolved.” You want them going. ”What!? How!” The best compliment I get on Untraceable is when someone says, “I did not see that coming.” Good because that is what I felt when I wrote it.
In a thriller – you have to be willing to go places you don’t really want to go. Don’t write the neatly tied up ending. Don’t go the way most people will go or want to go. Don’t go the way you want to go. Go the way that gets to you the most. The way that is the hardest to write. This book doesn’t end the way I wanted. It is not the original ending. And that was hard for me to swallow but necessary for the story to touch people. You would not believe how many emails I have already gotten about the ending. And I agree with them. But it was unexpected.
4. How do you feel is the best way to add heart to a thriller without taking away from the “thrill”?
Well I try to keep some humor in my books so my characters are all not gloom and doom and woe is me. That gets old. Even when I’ve been down and out – there are those times and places – those awkward moments where you crack a joke or laugh – when you probably shouldn’t. And for just a minute, things feel okay again. Grace is like that and I find that endearing that in the midst of everything – she can kid Wyn or jab at Mo.
Part of the tension with Grace is her emotions. She is completely unpredictable and sometimes even annoyingly reckless. This keeps tension b/c you never know what she is going to do. She also doesn’t cry at the things most of us would. I think she holds back her emotions for 2/3s of the book until everything comes crashing down around her.
That process of holding back causes some tension because once she breaks, the reader is left thinking, “Oh crap – now she is in trouble.” At least – I hope.
5. What are some of your favorite YA thrillers?
Gosh I hate to say this but I cannot think of one contemporary thriller in YA – one that does not have a paranormal or fantasy element. I have racked my brain on this for years. Maybe I have missed it somewhere. Ally Carter is the only person that pops into my mind.
But books that have great tension – to me – are Carrie Ryan’s Forest of Hands and Teeth series. Seriously, I think I held my breath for ½ that book.
Also Kimberly Derting’s Body Finder series – there is one scene in the first book where Violet is running through the woods and I was on the edge of my seat. I still get chills when I am in the woods, thinking about that.
My favorite thriller writer of all time is James Patterson’s Alex Cross series. I still love those.
Hope that’s not too much! Good luck with this journey!