Industry Insider: Writing crime thrillers for adults and teens

Industry Insider: Writing crime thrillers for adults and teens

Industry Insider: writing crime thrillers for adults and teens | allisontait.comTwo of the best things about Twitter are the people you get to know on the platform and the things you get to learn on the platform.

Those two things came together for me perfectly recently when the fabulous Australian YA author Ellie Marney put together a Twitter thread about writing crime thrillers for teens.

You might remember Ellie from this post [6 top #LoveOzYA authors talk about writing], where I flagged the excellent podcast interview we did together, or this post [How to tell when your writing is good enough], where she shared her thoughts on this subject.

Or you might remember this review from Book Boy of the first book in her award-winning ‘Every’ series.

Anyway, the thread on Twitter was so fabulous that I reached out and asked Ellie to put it together into a blog post.

Take it away, Ellie Marney!

How to write crime thrillers for adults and teens

Crime thrillers are a lot of fun to write, but you have to know how to piece them together. It’s easy to get lost amongst the plot twists, dark alleyways and red herrings – so here are some tips to keep you on the straight and narrow…

•Before you get started, check out some of the key elements of the thriller. Make sure you read books in the genre – focus on books you’ve enjoyed, or that you think are good examples. And read this great article by Hunter Emkay.

•Begin with the threat in the story (the crime) from your very first chapter – or introduce your protagonist with some dark foreshadowing – to grab your reader from the start.

•In a thriller, your villain drives the story. Your protagonist is always chasing one step behind…until the moment they catch up in the finale.

•Different sub-genres have different types of conflict:
–In an action thriller, there’s always a physical battle, and your protagonist should be in physical danger.
–In a psychological thriller, there might still be action, but the main conflict is the mental clash between protagonist and villain. The danger is to the protagonist’s mind or intrinsic identity and your protagonist needs to outwit the villain.

A thriller isn’t like a procedural: motives and intentions can be more important than the technical aspects of the crime. Think long and hard about why your villain is so villainous.

•Always complicate things emotionally and mentally for your protagonist. Your supporting cast, for instance, should all carry some personal baggage that increases conflict.

A great way to maintain momentum is to include scenes when decisions and plans have to be made by your hero and their allies in the middle of a crisis, or while in transit.

Conflict should continually escalate (like in any good novel) and the ticking-clock element is vital.

•The story engine for a crime thriller isn’t quite like a conventional Hero’s Journey arc – you have to factor in twist endings, for instance. A great primer on crime thriller story engines comes from Matt Rees in this post.

Keep these important differences between a suspense story and a thriller in mind:
–In a Suspense Story – your reader knows something your protagonist doesn’t, and tension builds;
–In a Thriller – your reader doesn’t see the threat coming (cue jump scare!)
–In a Suspense-thriller (combination) – the reader is waiting for something to happen. Your protagonist’s job is to stop it from happening. The reader identifies with the protagonist and becomes are participant in the race against time.

Extra tips for YA thriller authors

•Remember to give your teen protagonist agency. Don’t let adults drive the narrative action!

•The best way to give teen protagonists narrative agency is to give them a connection to the crime (as a witness, suspect, trainee investigator, high school journalist…Veronica Mars, anyone?). Alternatively they could have a connection to the victim of the crime, or to the villain.

•Creating that connection is doubly important because when an adult protagonist investigates, it’s usually their job – they have external motivation, regardless of their internal motivation. But when a teen investigates, they need a major internal push to keep going when things get dangerous. And you want things to get dangerous.

Externally, teen protagonists will have adults telling them to stay out of it, parents who are worried for their safety etc. Not all teens can drive, or have a car. Juveniles don’t usually have credit cards or ready cash. They’re supposed to be in school, and keeping up with their friends and homework. They have a lot of external restrictions and pressures. You can use all that to create additional conflict.

Three additional top tips

1.Whether you’re writing for teens or adults, make sure your villain is an equal match with your protagonist. They should be as intelligent and driven and multi-dimensional as your hero. Don’t let your story down with a weak antagonist. Is your protagonist the villain themselves? Bonus points!

2.Ask yourself, ‘what would the reader expect to happen?‘ – then discard those ideas. You want to write the unexpected.

3.Above all remember what a crime story is – it’s a story of the human puzzle, the primal conflict between the good and evil in peoples’ hearts. What makes a normal person do evil things? Crime narratives are a form of morality play, in which the reader is made aware of a lesson to be learned about human nature. So think carefully: What is the reader learning in your story?

And happy writing!

Ellie Marney is an Australian teacher and author of nine YA crime titles, including the Every series, White Night and the Circus Hearts series. She is the winner of a Sisters in Crime Scarlet Stiletto Award and a Davitt Award, and been shortlisted for the ACWA Ned Kelly Award. Find out more at Ellie’s website.


Are you new here? Welcome to my blog! You can find out more about me here, and more about The Mapmaker Chronicles and the Ateban Cipher, my epic adventure series for middle-grade readers here. Thanks for visiting!

My top 10 posts for writers (2018 edition)

My top 10 posts for writers (2018 edition)

top 10 posts for writers (2018) | allisontait.comI can’t believe it’s that time of the year again! I’m taking a break from the online world for a few weeks at the end of this week, so I thought I’d start sharing some of my ‘new year’ posts early, starting with this one.

I’m always fascinated to see which of my ‘writing’ posts resonate the most each year, and this year is no different. So here they are, in descending order from 10-1, the 10 most popular posts about writing on this site in 2018. (Click the title to see the full post)

The one superpower that all published writers have

Industry Insider: How do you know when a story is finished?

Ask the writer: How to build your author platform

Starting Out #3: Do you need to do a course to be a writer?

6 skills you need to make it as a copywriter

Writing for kids: How to create remarkable characters

Writing for kids: 10 top writing tips from bestselling author Jacqueline Harvey

My top 3 tips from nine years of author blogging

Industry Insider: How to tell when your writing is ‘good enough’

10 things I’ve learnt from writing my debut novel 

Want more? You’ll find all of my posts about writing here.

Are you new here? Welcome to my blog! I’m the author of two epic adventure series for kids 9+, and you can find out more about me here. Click the images below to discover more about my books.

The Ateban Cipher adventure series for kids 9-12 is out now!

And now, some straight talking about writing…

And now, some straight talking about writing…

I seem to write about writing a lot (you’ll find my hundreds of blog posts about writing here). And if you listen to So You Want To Be A Writer, the podcast I co-host with Valerie Khoo, you’ll know that I also talk about writing, and ask other authors about their writing, a lot.

But I don’t often talk about my own writing. I’m usually asking the questions, not answering them.

That all changed when Kel Butler from Writes4Women podcast interviewed me about all things writing. The first part of the interview came out a few weeks ago as a ‘minisode’, focussing on book promotion and building your author platform. You can listen to it here on the web or here on iTunes (Ep 18).

The main interview was released a few days ago and, as Kel says, you’ll need a cup of tea for this one. The interview covers a lot of territory, including:

•finding your writing voice

•writing while parenting

•dealing with rejection

•writing without a plan (aka how I learnt to outline)

•making time to write


•raising readers, and lots more.

You can listen to the interview via the web here or on iTunes here (Ep 20).

I hope you enjoy!

Are you new here? Welcome! You can find out more about me here and all about my books here: The Mapmaker Chronicles and The Ateban Cipher.

Stop talking, start writing… #writeabookwithal (Feb 2018)

Stop talking, start writing… #writeabookwithal (Feb 2018)

Stop Talking, Start Writing with #writeabookwithal Feb 2018As threatened, it’s here. Day one of #writeabookwithal (Feb 2018).

If you’ve done this before, you know how it goes. Lots of people TALK about writing a book. Now it’s time to actually write it.

Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to … write. As many words as you can, as many days as you can, alongside me as I work on my new manuscript.

If you’re new here, you’ll find a basic rundown of how it all works here. You might also like to find out a bit more about me here, to see what you’re getting yourself into…

One tip: follow my Facebook page and mark it as ‘see first’ to make sure you don’t miss the word count posts. This is where most of the discussion (and cheerleading!) takes place.

Some other posts that might help:

How to get the words written: 10 tips for writers

Six reasons you should start writing your novel now

Some books are harder to write than others: 7 tips for getting to The End

3 ways to make yourself write when you really don’t want to (but absolutely have to)

Don’t forget I also have really useful courses for you:

Make Time To Write

Creative Writing 30-Day Bootcamp

Ready, set… write!

10 things I’ve learnt from writing my debut novel

10 things I’ve learnt from writing my debut novel

10 things I've learnt from writing my debut novel | allisontait.comThere’s nothing quite like the experience of having your first novel appear on bookshop shelves. And nothing quite like the learning curve involved in getting the book there in the first place. 

Today, I’m pleased to welcome debut author Louise Allan to my blog, to share the process behind getting her first book The Sisters’ Song (Allen & Unwin) from idea to published novel – and all the things she learnt along the way. 

Take it away Louise…

10 things I’ve learnt from writing my debut novel

Sometimes I look at my book and can’t believe I’ve written one! I didn’t start my working life as a writer but came to it much later than most. But being older didn’t excuse me from doing my writing apprenticeship—I still had to learn the craft and it wasn’t at all easy. There were hair-tearing moments, disappointments, times I needed to take a break, and times I needed to talk myself into returning to my keyboard.

Here are some of the things I’ve learnt along the way. This list is by no means exhaustive, but includes tips about the craft of writing as well as organising your time.

1. Get your bum on the chair

Don’t make excuses, just do it! Yes, it might be easier once the kids are all in high school, or once Christmas is over, or once you have a dedicated writing space, but if you keep putting it off, you’ll find you’ll be forever waiting because the perfect time will never come. You’ll never get a clear diary. Your kids will always have something on. Your writing space will never be perfectly set up. But it doesn’t matter—start anyway. Even 30 minutes a day. Don’t put it off. Just start. Get those fingers on the keyboard and start typing. It’s the only way to write a book.

2. Protect your writing time

Protecting your writing time is an active thing, and don’t let anything encroach upon it. Put off making the beds or vacuuming. Don’t cook a couple of nights a week, or keep meals simple. Decline coffee shop invitations. Don’t volunteer on the P&C or for canteen duty. Turn off the wi-fi. If you write best in the mornings, tell the repairman he can’t come until the afternoon. Book appointments for when you’re free and only when you’re free. Shut your door and stick up a sign that tells the kids not to interrupt you:

I found saying No the hardest thing of all. I felt guilty, as if I was letting people down. I kept telling myself that this was my time and I was entitled to it, and eventually, people stopped asking me to meet them or volunteer, which caused more guilt. I reminded myself that mums who work outside of the home can’t do these things either, and that my writing was now my job.   

3. Mix with other writers

They’re your tribe. They’ll understand you more than anyone. They’ll be genuinely interested in the book your writing and they get your need to write it. Being around them will keep you motivated, just by reminding you why you started it in the first place. After you’ve been rejected, they’ll tell you about theirs. They’re very helpful  people, great sources of advice, support and comfort. And when your book comes out, they’ll be your biggest supporters.

4. Get online early

Everyone tells you this and you might think it will take away from your actual novel-writing time. It’s also rather daunting, especially at first, and you’ll feel a bit vulnerable. You also feel as if you’re putting your work out there and no one’s listening.

I started a blog and Facebook page in early 2013 when I’d was about to finish the first draft of my novel. I had 39 Facebook followers for quite a few months, but I kept going, posting consistently and trying to be myself. I made a lot of mistakes, but only those 39 Facebook followers know about those!

Over time, I’ve relaxed and got better at it, and slowly built up a loyal following. Because we’ve been together for nearly five years, my followers and I know each other well, and since the release of my book, they’ve been amazing, jumping on board and championing it.

So, start a blog and Facebook page early even if you feel as if no one is listening. Be yourself and post consistently. Don’t worry if you make a mistake—just hit the Delete button! Give people time to come, and when your book’s published, you’ll have a group of followers who are more than willing to support you because they’ve been with you all the way.

5. Try things out and experiment

Writing’s meant to be fun, too, so explore. Go off on tangents. Be adventurous. Be free. There are no restrictions, not when you’re drafting. Write your deepest fears, your most embarrassing moments, even things that might seem really wacky and over the top. Overwrite a scene, you can always pare it back later. Or delete it.

I don’t believe any writing is ever wasted, even if it doesn’t make it into the final version. I have 190,000 words sitting in my ‘Outtakes’ folder, and every single one of them was necessary to making the final version of my novel what it is. 

6. Accept feedback

I can’t stress this one strongly enough, especially when you’re starting out. Actively seek feedback whenever you can. Join a writing group and share writing with each other. If there’s a writer-in-residence at your local writers’ centre, they’ll often look over a couple of chapters, and give you pointers which you can then use to go through the rest of your manuscript. Before sending your work out to agents and publishers, consider getting a formal manuscript appraisal. Work with a mentor even.

Separate yourself from your writing while you’re getting the feedback. Talk about it as if it’s an object and not part of you. Look at it as critically as you can. Tell yourself that it will make it better, because that’s the aim, after all. Don’t defend it and don’t get upset. If you’re not sure of what the critique means, just ask the reader to elaborate. Even if you disagree, listen anyway and think about it.

In my personal experience, I’ve never encountered anyone with an ulterior motive. Every single person has been trying to help when giving me feedback.

Besides, if your book is ever picked up by a publisher, believe me, they won’t go easy on you during the editing. If you want to be a published author, at some stage you’ll have to get used to hearing feedback.

7. Be prepared to rewrite

Following on from the previous point, no first draft is ever ready for publishing. Nor a second or third. It’s tedious and hard, but you just have to sit at the computer and go over your words time and again. I’ve lost count of my redrafts and rewrites, but each time, it’s improved it. Believe me.

8. Writing a novel takes a long time

It takes a long time to write 90,000 good words from your imagination onto the page, structured in such a way as to take the reader on a enjoyable ride. There are no corners you can cut, and if it’s your first novel, there are no ways you can avoid making at least some rookie mistakes. Then there are family, paid work and general living that also get in the way. Sometimes, the words just won’t come, and you’ll need to take a break.

It took me six years to write my novel, which sounds like a long time but doesn’t actually feel that long because I was busy all those years. Now that it’s published, I’m glad it took as long as it did—the story has benefitted from the extra incubation time.

9. Don’t give up

Never, ever give up. Remember the Ira Glass quote. Aim for that ideal vision of your book that you have in your head, but go easy on yourself as you head towards it. Allow yourself to be a learner and make mistakes.

10Write for yourself

Write the novel you want to read. Chances are, others will want to read it, too.

The Sisters Song by Louise AllanLouise Allan’s first novel, The Sisters’ Song, is out now with Allen & Unwin. The manuscript has previously been shortlisted for the 2014 City of Fremantle—TAG Hungerford Award and awarded a Varuna Residential Fellowship. Find out more about Louise and her wonderful book here.




Interested in writing your own debut novel? You might find these links helpful.

Six reasons you should start writing your novel now

Writing is all about trust

An inconvenient truth about mothers and writing

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