Guest Post: Allan Stratton on Writing for Young Adults & Writing Thrillers

By Allan Stratton

Borderline (HarperTeen, 2010) is my first thriller/mystery/suspense. As with my other recent fiction, it has a teen lead — in this case a funny, gutsy Muslim-American named Sami Sabiri, whose dad is charged with being part of an international terrorist cell based in Canada.

I approach writing for young adults the same I approach writing any of my books. To me, there’s no difference. Adults are just teenagers with experience. Or, put another way, civilization is one big high school.

I like writing teen characters because they’re vulnerable to the newness of things; and vulnerability makes emotional responses raw, vital and unguarded. Lacking a context of consequences, choices are riskier and stakes higher. Life is lived without a safety net. As an author and reader, I find that a mighty charge to drama.

I started my career as an actor, so I suppose it’s always been natural for me to imagine myself as other people. I bring that theater background to my work. Just as I’d have to imagine my life as a medieval Danish prince if I was playing Hamlet, so I imagine myself as teens or adults depending on the character I’m assuming at the moment.

It’s like I’m doing a one-person improv. At the top of each scene, for each character, I ask myself: What’s my situation? What do I want? What am I going to do to get it?

Because the thing of it is, as I wrote in the Extras edition of Chandra’s Wars (HarperTeen, 2009), under the skin we’re all the same. No matter our age, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or whatever else, we’ve all felt love, hate, joy, despair, the works. Our common humanity is how we’re able to understand and communicate with each other across our differences. It’s how we connect to stories and characters no matter when they were written or where they came from.

I always ask friends from the communities I write about to read my work to correct any details I’ve got wrong: cultural accuracy is important to me. But the human bond — our shared emotional vocabulary — gives me the confidence and comfort to know that if I’m brutally honest about how I’d feel and act as a particular character in a fictional situation, the heartbeat of my stories will be rooted in truth.

To me, that’s one of fiction’s main benefits — letting us imagine ourselves in someone else’s shoes. More important than their development of verbal literacy, novels increase our emotional literacy.

The interesting thing to me about writing a thriller is the close connection it has to the kind of realistic novels for which I’m best known. This may come as a surprise, because thrillers require intricate plotting, and most people discuss plot and character as if they’re elements from separate galaxies. I.E. “Is title X plot-driven or character-driven?”

For my money, plot and character are two sides of the same coin. In real life, we judge people’s characters based on what they do. In novels, what people do is called the plot. Interesting people make interesting choices, ergo interesting plots. That’s why thin characters make for bad plots, because no matter extreme the hijinks, the stories are inevitably cardboard. Similarly, weak plots have ultimately empty characters because people who do nothing are boring.

So I guess my approach to writing Borderline is my approach to writing anything. I try to write fascinating characters in a fascinating story as honestly and truthfully as I can.

About Allan

Allan Stratton is the internationally acclaimed author of Chadra’s Secrets (Annick, 2004), winner of the American Library Association’s Michael L. Printz Honor Book, the Children’s Africana Book Award, and ALA Booklist’s Editor’s Choice among others.

Allan’s career took off with “Nurse Jane Goes to Hawaii” (1980), one of the most produced plays in Canadian theatre history. His other award-winning plays include “Rexy!,” “Papers,” and “Bag Babies.”

Allan’s last novel, Chandra’s Wars, a Junior Library Guild selection, won the Canadian Library Association’s Young Adult Canadian Book Award, 2009, and is on the CCBC (both Canada and USA) Best Books Lists. His novel Leslie’s Journal (Annick, 2008) is an ALA Best Book for Young Adults.

He is published in the USA, France, Germany, Korea, China, Japan, Vietnam, the Netherlands, Great Britain, Canada, Australia and Slovenia.

He loves travel, cats and dogs, ice cream, working out, doing readings and workshops — and, oh yes, and meeting readers!

Praise for Borderline

“A compelling coming-of age-novel about acceptance, The Other, and fear, wrapped in a fascinating adventure/thriller/mystery. All these elements are shaken mightily in Allan’s Stratton’s latest– as are we.” –Gary Schmidt, New York Times bestselling and Printz and Newbery Honor Author

“Allan Stratton spins these otherwise ordinary lives on a dime and a secret. Borderline is as astonishing as it is all quite possible.” –Rita Williams-Garcia, National Book Award finalist

“Smart, meticulously plotted, and thrilling. The scariest thing about Borderline is how utterly believable it is.” –Tim Wynne-Jones, author of The Uninvited (Candlewick)

“A powerful story and excellent resource for teaching tolerance, with a message that extends well beyond the timely subject matter.” -Publishers Weekly (starred)

“A tautly paced thriller with well-crafted characters and realistic dialogue. It is the plausibility of the plotline that makes it, ultimately, so disturbing… A great fast-paced read… also notable for its characterization of a strong male Muslim who is true to his faith and struggles to do the right thing throughout.” -School Library Journal (starred)

“Tense and compelling… Stratton’s grasp of daily Muslim life breaths life into this story… A fast, exciting read with weighty underpinnings.” -Booklist

Cynsational Notes

In the video below, Allan talks about Chandra’s Secrets.