What High School Taught Me about Writing Thrillers by Samantha Downing


[Note from Frolic: We’re so excited to welcome author Samantha Downing to the site today. She’s sharing what she’s learned about writing from her time in high school. Take it away, Samantha!]

It’s rare I think about high school these days. When I do, I usually cringe, which is followed by the inevitable thought: If only I knew then what I know now…

When I decided to set my latest book, For Your Own Good, in a high school, it brought everything back. Only this time, I took a different approach. Instead of thinking about what I should’ve known back then, I thought about how high school prepared me to write thrillers. Not intentionally, of course, but it turns out high school wasn’t completely useless.

Daydreaming is Crucial 

All of my good ideas come from letting my mind wander and go where it wants to go. Wait, scratch that. All of my ideas, period, come from this. Good and bad. Back in high school, I spent a significant amount of class time on daydreaming instead of paying attention. Whatever I had going on in my head was infinitely more interesting than what was going on in class. In fact, I had to develop a system for how much I could daydream and still pull out a decent grade. 

Now I daydream about my characters, the plot, the twists…pretty much everything. And all of this is done away from the computer. Sometimes it helps me see the big picture, other times it makes me figure out a crucial point of the plot. One huge bonus: My couch is a lot more comfortable than a school desk.

One Way or Another, You Have to Deal with Authority Figures

It’s a problem in high school, largely because there are so many of them. Kids are surrounded by parents, teachers, administrators, coaches, and they all have different personalities, styles, and punishments. You have to learn how to deal with all of them, and it’s never a one-size-fits-all situation.

The same goes for my characters and, make no mistake, they are the authority figures. No two would act the same in any given situation and if I try to make them do something they wouldn’t…it doesn’t go well for me. More importantly, for the book. It’s not detention, but it’s definitely a punishment.

Peer Pressure Never Ends

Hands down, dealing with peer pressure is the worst part of high school. Kids can be cruel and no one wants to be on the receiving end of that. But you also want to be yourself. High school is where we’re forced to choose between what other people want and what we want. Ideally, we find a balance.

For me, writing thrillers is very similar. My natural inclination is to go too far—over the cliff, every time. That doesn’t work in a book, where you have to build into certain moments. You have to choose when to go over the cliff and when to step away. A lot of this is internal pressure on my part, because I have a tendency to go too far. In a book, there has to be a balance. Still working on this one…

Never Underestimate the Power of a Homecoming Dance

At my high school, the homecoming game and dance was a huge deal. So was the prom, but that was only for seniors. Homecoming was for everyone. Getting a date, deciding on a dress, collecting a group of a friends to go together and, finally, the dance itself…that was all part of the excitement. 

The same goes for thrillers, though it doesn’t have to be a dance. Many thrillers are built up around events—weddings, funerals, anniversaries. Big events give a book focus, something to work toward. Something to anticipate. And in a thriller, anticipation is half the fun.

Homework Sucks

It was horrible in high school because…homework. What’s good about that?

Homework hasn’t gotten any more fun, as far as I can tell. For me, it the mundane but necessary tasks that go into writing a book. Like checking continuity. That’s a big one for me, since I don’t outline and I don’t make character notes. Do I always describe a person the same way? Do they have the same job, same spouse, same…everything? I have to doublecheck it all. Then triple-check. Even then, I make mistakes. I’ve still never aced a manuscript on continuity.

Like a lot of writers, I also have a habit of using words like “just” and “only” too much, so I have go through and edit those out as well. It’s all boring, it all sucks, and it’s all necessary. My teachers might’ve been right about homework.

About the Author:

Samantha Downing is the author of the bestselling My Lovely Wife, nominated for Edgar, ITW, Macavity, and CWA awards. Amazon Studios and Nicole Kidman’s Blossom Films have partnered to produce a feature film based on the novel. Her second book, He Started It, was released in 2020 and became an instant international bestseller.

For Your Own Good will be released on July 20, 2021. It has been optioned by Robert Downey Jr. and Greg Berlanti for HBO Max.

For Your Own Good by Samantha Downing, out now!

Teddy Crutcher has won Teacher of the Year at the prestigious Belmont Academy, home to the best and brightest.

He says his wife couldn’t be more proud—though no one has seen her in a while.

Teddy really can’t be bothered with a few mysterious deaths on campus that’re looking more and more like murder or the student digging a little too deep into Teddy’s personal life. His main focus is pushing these kids to their full academic potential.  

All he wants is for his colleagues—and the endlessly meddlesome parents—to stay out of his way. If not, well, they’ll get what they deserve.

It’s really too bad that sometimes excellence can come at such a high cost.

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