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Thrill seeker: Why I Love Writing High-Octane Fiction by Emma Haughton

How to define a thriller? What makes one book a thriller, and another, well, not? The genre’s so diverse, especially in YA. Wikipedia lists action thrillers, comedy thrillers, conspiracy, horror and crime thrillers, legal, political and spy thrillers, supernatural and techno thrillers – even erotic thrillers (okay, maybe not so many of those in YA).

There’s even gives a helpful definition: ‘Thrillers are characterized and defined by the moods they elicit, giving viewers heightened feelings of suspense, excitement, surprise, anticipation and anxiety… Thrillers generally keep the audience on ‘the edge of their seats’ as the plot builds towards a climax.’

Can’t argue with that, though I’d define mine as contemporary YA psychological thrillers, which is a bit of a mouthful, so mostly I just call them books. Wikipedia describes a psychological thriller as one in which ‘the conflict between the main characters is mental and emotional, rather than physical. Characters, either by accident or their own curiousness, are dragged into a dangerous conflict or situation that they are not prepared to resolve.’


For me, the joy of a good thriller lies in exactly that conflict or situation. I’m a sucker for any story with   a high concept premise – basically an intriguing predicament. So in Now You See Me, a boy disappears, only to return three years later, very much changed, or in Better Left Buried, a girl realises she’s being followed, later discovering her stalker is connected to the mysterious death of her brother. In Cruel Heart Broken, out in July, a girl realises the boy she loves told a lie with terrible consequences.

For thrillers, that central concept is the lynchpin, the focal event for the whole story. For me it’s also the starting point, with characters evolving to best play out the inherent drama. Sometimes that situation is one you invent – Better Left Buried started with that image of a teenage girl being followed. Other times you stumble across real events that are so inherently intriguing you can’t leave them alone –my other two books are based on real life incidents.

All books have a central idea, of course, but thrillers usually revolve around a high-concept premise that immediately sparks questions. Why did Danny in Now You See Me disappear? Where did he go? What made him come back? Why is he so different now? How does his disappearance and sudden return affect his family? His friends? All leading to the meta question that hangs above all others: what happens next? How will all this play out?

This is the core of every thriller: the reader’s desire to know what’s really going on, and how it will all be resolved. It’s the driving force for the story, and what attracted me to the genre. I’m an addict. I can’t get enough of that delicious thrill you experience when reading a really gripping book or watching a suspenseful drama or film: that tug in the stomach, that fluttery, almost anxious feeling you get when you’re truly desperate to find out more.

I’m tempted to say thrillers ascend plot over character, although I’m not sure that’s true – at least for psychological thrillers. The books and dramas I love best are those where character is central – essentially, they make you care about the premise. Great characters bring a strong emotional element to the mix, making what happens actually matter, which in turn heightens the suspense.

Perhaps that’s why I stick to first person narration – I feel it draws you into the story more deeply, more intensely, building your sympathy for the person battling with what feels like an impossible situation, with things always going from bad to worse. I’m also a big fan of the present tense in thrillers – I love being there with the protagonist, in real-time, making discoveries at the same moment she does, sharing her dilemmas, her deliberations over decisions and consequences. I think we all read for the experience of being in someone else’s head, and first person present pulls you right in, up close and personal, from the moment you turn the title page.

In the end though, I probably write thrillers because I’m lazy. Though I enjoy reading lengthy, meandering books, I’d never attempt one. I’m too impatient, and I find writing long description laborious. I love that the pace of a thriller demands a more hit-and-run approach – you crash into the scene, up the stakes, then get out again. There’s no time to hang about smelling the flowers – or to describe their scent – you’re in too much of a hurry to solve that mystery or resolve that dilemma.

Maybe I have a short attention span, or perhaps I’m an adrenalin junkie. Who knows? But right now I’m happy telling stories that make your hair stand on end. At a recent school visit, one pupil came up and told me she found Better Left Buried really scary, and that made my day. If you’re scared, you’re definitely not bored, and that’s all a thriller writer could ever ask for.

Emma Haughton

Web large - Emma Haughton and Perkins - 2 - smallEmma was a journalist working for national newspapers and magazines before settling down to write young adult fiction. Her first book, YA thriller NOW YOU SEE ME, was published by Usborne in May 2014, followed by BETTER LEFT BURIED in 2015.  CRUEL HEART BROKEN comes out 1st July 2016.

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2 comments on “Thrill seeker: Why I Love Writing High-Octane Fiction by Emma Haughton

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This entry was posted on February 17, 2016 by .
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