What’s in a thriller? S.R. Johannes gives us her best tips.

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!

Check out Shelli’s book UNTRACEABLE. And her website Market My Words where she has blogged about her self publishing experiences.

, , , , , ,

24 Responses to What’s in a thriller? S.R. Johannes gives us her best tips.

  1. Meredith December 7, 2011 at 11:27 am #

    Fantastic interview! Thanks, Shelli, for the great tips about writing thrillers. I learned the “have an arc in every chapter” thing at a conference last year, and you are so right about that being one of the best ways to build tension. I started following that format myself (for the most part) and it’s made a world of difference.

  2. Natalie Aguirre December 7, 2011 at 12:20 pm #

    Great tips Shelli. I love your advice from James Patterson. Great advice for all action oriented stories. And yes I could not see things coming in your story.

    So excited for your debut!

  3. Lindsay December 7, 2011 at 12:37 pm #

    Fantastic interview and Untraceable sounds awesome! I, too snuck in Stephen King when I was young (and probably far away from actually being mature enough to read it LOL) and loved the chills it gave me. Looking forward to seeing more YA thrillers hit the shelves, that’s for sure!

  4. Laura Marcella December 7, 2011 at 12:37 pm #

    Great interview, Laura and Shelli! I like what Shelli says about being willing to go places you don’t want to go and avoiding where most people, and yourself, would expect the story to go. I think that’s true for all genres. When an idea comes to me too easily, I stop myself and think about it more. Is it too expected? Did I think of this because it’s what I’d guess would happen if I was the reader? You’re so right, Shelli, that it’s good to go the way that’s hardest to write!

  5. Stina Lindenblatt December 7, 2011 at 1:07 pm #

    Great interview! I, too, have been frustrated with the lack of YA thrillers. I’m glad that’s what editors are now looking for. 😀

    • Laura December 7, 2011 at 1:14 pm #

      Thanks everyone. I look forward to more thrillers in the shelves. Considering that is high on the agents’ wish lists, I assume we’ll see lots more of them in the next few years!

  6. Matthew MacNish December 7, 2011 at 1:18 pm #

    I just want to point out that James Patterson is not a human being. He is a multi-national corporate conglomerate who runs novel writing sweatshops in Myanmar.

    Just saying.

    Otherwise, great stuff!

  7. Heather Sunseri December 7, 2011 at 1:34 pm #

    Great tips, Shellyi. I downloaded Untraceable the other day and am looking forward to reading it.

  8. Katie Ganshert December 7, 2011 at 1:41 pm #

    I might be one of the very few people out there whose never read a James Patterson book! Is that horrible?

    Great tips!

  9. Susan R. Mills December 7, 2011 at 2:27 pm #

    Thanks for the interview, ladies!

  10. Susan Sipal December 7, 2011 at 3:12 pm #

    What an awesome interview! So much meaty, useful information here. I especially loved this bit – “you have to be willing to go places you don’t really want to go.” Actually, I think that applies to all writing, not just thrillers.

    Thanks so much Shelli and Laura!

  11. Elle Strauss December 7, 2011 at 9:34 pm #

    Great tips! Thanks Shelli and Laura!

  12. Margo Berendsen December 7, 2011 at 10:51 pm #

    This really struck me: ‘The way that is the hardest to write.’ – we have to write sometimes what we are most afraid to. Excellent interview, good tips from Patterson as well. Definitely a surprising lack in contemp. YA thrillers – will be reading this one for sure.

  13. shelli December 7, 2011 at 11:06 pm #

    Hey guys 🙂 thanks for stopping by to see Laura and join in the blog tour fun 🙂

    Matthew – when i stared reading James Patterson – he was not a conglomerate at all. he was a one man show -that has changed and so has his writing but the early book – Kiss the girls – are amazing.

    I know agents say they want thrillers but Ive not seen that on the publishing house side unless it had some twist of paranormal or dystopic – I hope that changes.

  14. Carolina Valdez Miller December 7, 2011 at 11:55 pm #

    Excellent advice on writing thrillers. It really is all about maintaining that tension (with well-controlled pacing). If you can do that, your reader will whip through the book. Gotta end it with a bang, too. Looking forward to reading Shelli’s book!

    • Laura December 8, 2011 at 2:49 am #

      Thanks everyone! And I think we can take a lot of this advice to all different genres of writing! I just got the first Alex Cross book out from my library. We’ll see. Def. a thriller. 🙂

  15. Lydia K December 8, 2011 at 4:18 am #

    I know nothing about thrillers so this was an interesting post for me. The inverted tension thing is fascinating. I’ll have to try that! Thanks Laura and S.R.!

  16. Traci Kenworth December 8, 2011 at 12:05 pm #

    Great interview!! Suspense is something I wish I could write but personally, I’m better at horror and the journey my characters go through. I adore the suspense genre though, and often find myself reading Linda Howard, Mary Higgins Clark, and Barbara Michaels among others. You’re right! It IS hard to find a contemporary ya thriller among the bunch. I agree Forest is absolutely edge of your chair, nail-biting terror. Can’t wait to pull Dark & Hollow places from my tbr pile. Good luck with Untraceable!!

  17. Marcia December 8, 2011 at 2:28 pm #

    Great interview! I totally agree with the inverted conflict structure.

    I also love that she writes contemporary thrillers without the paranormal element. You know — when it’s paranormal, that takes away from the thriller aspect, because there’s always part of you that knows this can’t really happen. But if the paranormal aspect is gone, things are free to get even scarier.

    “I did not see that coming” is also important, and is a large part of my argument for not doing a lot of outlining before the first draft. Detailed outline = suppressing surprise.

  18. Leigh Moore December 8, 2011 at 5:33 pm #

    Yay! Untraceable again! I really like the idea of having Grace’s behavior being so unpredictable. That really does up the tension for me when I’m reading. But I think, based on reading this post, unpredictability is the key. Thanks, guys! 🙂 <3

  19. Kelly Polark December 8, 2011 at 9:42 pm #

    I totally agree with Shelli about the Forest of Hands and Teeth series. It was unpredictable and you were wondering what was going to happen next! Shelli did a wonderful job creating twists and turns in her YA as well!

  20. Lisa Green December 8, 2011 at 10:34 pm #

    Wow. A lot of great stuff in there! Thank you for the interview.

  21. Jemi Fraser December 9, 2011 at 12:12 am #

    Great interview ladies! The tension Shelli creates in Untraceable is fabulous – I stayed up way too late one night to finish it! 🙂

  22. becca puglisi December 10, 2011 at 12:33 am #

    So interesting, about the inverted curve, and re-defining the story’s structure around that after it’s written. Thanks for posting, Shelli. And thanks for hosting, Laura!

    Becca @ The Bookshelf Muse

Leave a Reply