Jeff Abbott Curls Suspense Like Magic in Bestselling Thrillers

November 29, 2011
Written by

Jeff Abbott Curls Suspense
Like Magic in Bestselling Thrillers An interview with the author of Adrenaline and other novels

By Paige Crutcher
December, 2011

Adrenaline cover
Adrenaline
by Jeff Abbott

Buy this Book
at Amazon.com

Jeff Abbott Portrait
Jeff Abbott

Jeff Abbott curls suspense in the palm of his hand and, like magic, unfurls it into the pages of his best-selling thrillers – where it forevermore stalks the reader. A unique talent, Abbott has a knack for making the extraordinary relatable, and bringing moments to life that elevate the heart rate and glue readers to the page. Abbott shares what stories inspire him, how important conflict is to a novel, and offers a glimpse into his writing process. The paperback for his must-read, Adrenaline, is currently available.

“I wanted to be a marine biologist or an astronomer, which is weird . . .”
—
ABBOTT

AUTHORLINK: As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?

ABBOTT: I wanted to be a marine biologist or an astronomer, which is weird, because I was never that good at science. I was more just curious about the world. When I was about ten I decided I wanted to be a writer and I never really wavered from that ambition, even if it was a secret one.

AUTHORLINK: What do you believe makes a great story? Is there an element that you believe must be present?

ABBOTT: Conflict. And it seems so obvious but I meet a fair number of aspiring writers who think conflict is unnecessary, or worse, somehow beneath them. There has to be powerful internal and external conflict facing your protagonist for readers to care about reading your story.

“It is not really a glamorous process. I think first of either an interesting situation or a character . . .”
—ABBOTT

 

 

AUTHORLINK: JT Ellison has called you “a writer’s writer.” Will you share a little about your writing process?

ABBOTT: It is not really a glamorous process. I think first of either an interesting situation or a character; either can come first. And then I start to wonder, what happens next? I'll scribble some notes, maybe write down some ideas for scenes. If I let the idea brew long enough, one of two things happen: I decide I don't want to write it, or I do. Then I will sketch out the major scenes of the book — the critical turning points, the biggest moments of choice for both the protagonist and the antagonist. With those as a framework I can start to write. Often towards the final part of the book I'll craft a careful outline to make sure I'm resolving everything in a way I like, giving the reader the emotional payoffs for the rest of the story.

AUTHORLINK: Characters are often the heart of a story, and in your novels suspense acts as its own character. How do you create such authentic anticipation?

ABBOTT: Well, I think you have to keep raising questions. There is the main dramatic question of the book (see the earlier note about conflict), that conflict is the engine for that question—what will happen next? Will the hero get what he wants? And you have to keep raising new questions, new challenges for the hero or heroine; nothing can come easily for them.

You’ve stated you like writing suspense because you like putting your characters through hell. Do you ever put people through hell, in your stories – not real life, don’t need to know about that if it’s true (no visible chinks in the armor, please). But have you ever pulled from real life, villainizing someone you don’t particularly have warm fuzzies for?

No, people who irritate me in real life, I have no desire to spend months with a fictionalized version of them while I'm writing a book. And it's crucial to have sympathy and understanding for your villains, who believe they are the heroes of the story.

“I have gotten a bit upset while writing certain scenes; I think that is very natural.”
—ABBOTT

 

 

AUTHORLINK: Does writing such intense, and often chilling, material affect you outside of the pages? Do you ever scare yourself?

ABBOTT: I have gotten a bit upset while writing certain scenes; I think that is very natural. But you have to stay in control of the material. What may rivet you while you write it may not when you reread it. You have to find the way, the craftsmanship, to create effect while being a step back from the effect of fear or anger or hatred. But you should tap into that emotion while writing those first drafts. Let it free. Then shape it carefully with an editor's eye.

AUTHORLINK: What is it about To Kill A Mockingbird that makes the story one of your favorite books?

ABBOTT: The questions it raises: about justice, fairness, hatred, our darkest impulses and our noblest aspirations — those all still apply today. My wife had never read the book until just recently and she was utterly captivated by it. It is the kind of novel you can return to again and again, or after a long absence from it, and find something new and compelling.

AUTHORLINK: Will you share some of the ways Hitchcock has influenced your works? From scene setting to material ideas (if any).

ABBOTT: His interviews he did with Francois Truffaut are a master class in how to create suspense; I think the videos are available online. He was an incredibly artistic filmmaker; but he also entertained. He touched both brain and heart. When I'm feeling blocked or stuck I often will just watch a Hitchcock film and feel re-energized. It's hard to know why, but I think he was a master of creating subtle patterns in story that evoke suspense. And maybe I'm just reacting to that pattern, that structure, that is in all his work.

“. . . the world is full of people who want to tell you how to get there, but really the best advice is: do the work.”
—ABBOTT

 

 

AUTHORLINK: You’re an internationally-selling, award-winning author of awesome sauce. When you were starting out, did you ever imagine arriving at the point in the journey you’ve reached today? What sort of a role did perseverance play in your writing world?

ABBOTT: I imagined it, but I wasn't sure how to get there. And the world is full of people who want to tell you how to get there, but really the best advice is: do the work. Just sit and write every day. Everything else, all the other advice, is secondary to simply sitting and writing and creating a quiet space in your head where you can create without distraction and learning from your own mistakes and making yourself better. So many people now want to immediately publish before they've bothered to learn any of the craft, and I think that is a huge mistake. Write, rewrite, then write some more. Do the work.

AUTHORLINK: When you create a character, do you ever doubt the man or woman you’re breathing to life?

ABBOTT: They're not created whole; I don't know everything about the character when I start thinking about them or writing about them. I learn about them in the same way you get to know a new friend, I suppose. I want them to still be able to surprise me. If there's nothing to learn about them, they're not a very interesting character and they might get cut from the book. I'm God in the book; I can do that.

AUTHORLINK: Finally, if you weren’t a writer, what would you be?

ABBOTT: I used to be a creative director at an ad agency before I moved to writing full-time and I suppose I'd do that again; but I'm at the point in my life where writing is so tied to what I do, to how I live, I really cannot envision doing anything else.

About Jeff Abbott:

Jeff Abbott is the international-bestselling, award-winning author of thirteen mystery and suspense novels. Jeff’s novels have been called “exciting, shrewd, and beautifully crafted” (Chicago Tribune), “fresh, original… intricately woven” (Publishers Weekly), “nail-bitingly suspenseful and totally original” (Irish Independent) and “excellent” (South Florida Sun-Sentinel). He is published in many languages and has been a bestseller in the US, the UK, Ireland, France, Germany, Australia, Portugal, and other countries. Visit him at: http://jeffabbott.com/

About Regular Contributor
Paige Crutcher

Paige Crutcher is a wordie, writer, book addict, blogger, National Authors Examiner and columnist for authorlink.com. Visit her articles at: http://www.examiner.com/authors-in-national/paige-crutcher, her blog: http://paigesprose.blogspot.com/ or follow her on Twitter: @PCrutcher.

 

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This post was written by Editorial Staff