August 8 – 14: “How do writers alter thrillers for appeal to a YA audience?”

thriller-roundtable-logo5This week we’re joined by ITW Members Catherine Finger, J. H. Bográn and Lissa Price as they discuss Young Adult thrillers. How do writers alter thrillers for appeal to a YA audience?




shatteredLike her heroine Police Chief Jo Oliver, Catherine Finger is committed to protect and to serve. But instead of handcuffs and handguns, she uses her wit and wisdom as a high school superintendent in Grayslake, IL. The award-winning Shattered By Death is book two in her Jo Oliver Thriller Series.




Firefall_Proof2J. H. Bográn, born and raised in Honduras, is the son of a journalist. He ironically prefers to write fiction rather than fact. José’s genre of choice is thrillers, but he likes to throw in a twist of romance into the mix. His works include novels and short stories in both English and Spanish. His debut novel TREASURE HUNT, which The Celebrity Café hails as an intriguing novel that provides interesting insight of architecture and the life of a fictional thief, has also been selected as the Top Ten in Preditors & Editor’s Reader Poll. FIREFALL, his second novel, was released in 2013 by Rebel ePublishers. Coffee Time Romance calls it “a taut, compelling mystery with a complex, well-drawn main character.” He’s a member of the Short Fiction Writers Guild, Crime Writer’s Association, and the International Thriller Writers. He lives in Honduras with his family and one “Lucky” dog.


Enders by Lissa PriceLissa Price is the award-winning author of STARTERS and the sequel ENDERS, published by Random House. The duology was an international bestseller published in over thirty countries.  Set in a future Los Angeles, the series asks the question: Would you rent out your body to the elderly so they could be young again temporarily? Lissa lives overlooking the Hollywood Hills.




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  1. How do writers alter thrillers for appeal to a YA audience?

    I’m in the same camp as C.S. Lewis on this topic: good writing is ageless. I believe that readers falling in love with a particular story at fifteen years of age should love it all the more at fifty-five. Young adult readers embrace a novel with all the dreamy creativity of adolescence—coupled with wisdom beyond their years.

    To be sure, creating colorful protagonists similar in age to the target audience helps promote a sense of connection between the reader and the story. YA readers might find a fifteen-year-old heroine more to their liking than a thirty five year old protagonist. Isn’t that true for any of us when we enter someone else’s story world? Doesn’t the fact that the protagonist reminds you of, well, yourself generate an almost instant affinity between you and the story? Why should it be different for the younger readers?

    The only thing I can think of that might be more of a must-do when writing for YA readers than for their parents, would be the inclusion of a salient sense of authenticity running through the veins of the story. Teens and young adults have keen B.S. detectors. And they set their phasers on kill—not stun—when confronted with a phony. Books can be inauthentic, and the YA author must strive to create interesting stories told at a breakneck pace with a strong bias for action, laced with a sense of authenticity.

    Fairness also matters to this audience. My experience as a high school teacher and administrator taught me that young adults tend to be truth seekers and truth tellers. Including themes of justice would be attractive to the YA set.

    Setting out to craft a story that would appeal uniquely to a YA audience dances with the possibility of inauthenticity. Determining to write a novel that speaks your truth, as you understand it at this moment in time, using relevant characters that appeal to a younger audience does not. I haven’t yet written intentionally to the YA audience, but I’ve been told by many teens that they’ve read and loved my books. Maybe the day I try to write to the YA audience will be the day I lose my muse!

    What are your thoughts on writing a YA thriller?


  2. My son, Christopher Kerns, has written a successful YA thriller, Crash Alive. I don’t read this genre, but since my son was the author naturally I had to take a look at it. After reading the first chapter of his debut novel what surprised me was that it differed little from mainstream thrillers. No, it didn’t have the overabundant sophomoric use of the F*** bomb. No, it had no graphic sex. No, it had only off-stage violence.
    Otherwise it was a well-written, interesting, story featuring a teen-age female protagonist who bravely overcomes many obstacles. It had action, suspense, good dialogue, interesting characters, and a satisfying ending. In other words, it was a good read.
    That’s why the statistics show YA literature is read not only by teens, but members of the older generation. Nothing beats a good yarn.

    1. Good Morning Arthur,

      Thank you for weighing in and congratulations on your son’s debut novel! I look forward to learning more about him.

      And you’ve described my favorite kind of story perfectly.

      A good thriller thrills us at any age!

      Happy Monday,


    2. Hi AJ,
      Thanks for dropping by.
      Thinking of your description of the YA with no curse words, no graphic sex, and no gore, it almost sounds like action films of the 60´s and 70’s where most violence was off camera, and sex was just implied.
      I guess the apple didn’t fall far from the tree, huh. I wonder if eventually you will become each other’s critique partner…

  3. A quick intro as my bio is not yet posted above — I’m Lissa Price and I write the YA Starters series published by Random House. If you were at Thrillerfest last month (and if not, you should have been), I moderated the YA panel in the ballroom with a stellar group of YA authors.

    To answer the question, I’m going to assume some ITW members reading this are currently writing for adults and considering crossing over into writing YA. There’s a few points to know about YA today. YA is a category, not a genre, that is defined by the age of the main character. So the narrow age range is 15-17, with a few at 18. We say teens like to “read up” which means if they’re fourteen, generally they’ll want to read about a character aged fifteen or sixteen – not thirteen. Of course there are exceptions, but then Harry Potter is always an exception.

    The teen main character cannot be bookended with his/her adult self looking back – that by definition is adult fiction. Additionally, teens want to read stories with mostly teens as characters, so while adult characters can be present, they shouldn’t take up too much space.

    Now when it comes to the topic, typically adult books are not altered to create a YA version as the question implies. Like making a soufflé, you need to do it from scratch. However it suddenly becomes relevant when we see Dan Brown is making a YA version of The Da Vinci Code. This has a lot of YA authors and readers shaking their heads. Someone tweeted that perhaps this version will have “longer words and more complex characters.”

    Outside of the age range of the main character, anything goes in YA today. There are books with swearing, drugs, prostitution, gender fluidity, abuse etc. These are referred to as “upper YA,” labeled 14 and up. Many of my friends write in this arena, but I personally prefer to focus on high concept, and my books are considered “clean reads” for 12 and up. Still, half of my readers are adult. The point I want to make is that thrillers could be done either of these ways and be shelved under YA.

    I agree with Catherine 100% that authenticity is the key. You can’t talk down to the teen reader; they will know and will bristle as they slam the book shut. Voice is everything in YA – it must come from a real place inside you so it can resonate with the reader.

  4. Arthur, congratulations on your son’s debut. His blog is so interesting because he’s a tech analytics expert and he’s taking apart the steps of his self-publishing journey.

    1. Lissa, thank you for the kind words. Debut novelists can use all the encouragement. YA is a very interesting genre and as said I think the audience is larger then just a particular age group. Good stories and good stories. Missed Thrillerfest this year, hope to attend next year and catch your panel.

  5. Thank you for joining the conversation Lissa!

    I WAS at Thrillerfest last month–and it WAS fabulous! I am sorry to say I missed your panel and I look forward to reading more about you.

    Happy Monday,


  6. Hi Catherine. I agreed to be part of this roundtable just recently, and my bio should be up by now. I try to be all things YA for ITW as I’ve been to TF since the first one in Arizona. I owe my career to ITW and have been a patron ever since I became published. Can’t say enough good things about it. Sorry you missed that panel since you’re interested in YA – we had several # NYT bestsellers including the always amazing R.L. Stine.

    1. Hi Again Lissa!

      I don’t remember if my panel conflicted with yours–there is always so much going on at THRILLERFEST–and I know YA always catches my eye so I’m guessing that’s the only thing that could have kept me away!

      How wonderful that you’ve been involved since the very beginning of THRILLERFEST–you must be amazed at the organization’s growth over time. Authors like you inspire people like me to give this new adventure a try–thank you.

      I’ll be serving on a panel next week at KillerNashville and am looking forward to meeting more colleagues and fans of the genre. Have you ever attended KillerNashville?

      1. Hi Catherine and thank you for leading teens in your day job! They are fortunate to have you. I would think you’d bring a lot to writing YA as you’d be so in touch with their voice. But you’re in that sweet spot if you’re crossing over to both sides of readers.

        I wish I could see your panel next week but I’ve never attended KillerNashville. I’ll be at Bouchercon in Sept, that’s my last large conference for the year. You’ll be with a lot of great people there, I’m sure!

  7. I think the fastest way to adapt a thriller is to cast a Young Adult as the protagonist.

    Before the resurgence in popularity of YA, we had thrillers that dipped a toe, John Grisham’s The Client is one of my favorite examples in that regard. Nowadays, YA is on a category of their own. Yay!

    In recent years Harlan Coben made a YA spin-off of his successful Myron Bolitar series with a previously unknown nephew, appropriately named Mickey Bolitar. Hey, even the initials match. And if you read Live Wire, you´d know Mickey has more in common in Myron than meets the eye.

    As for myself, I gave it a shot. Why not? I wrote about a young man learning to ways of a pirate –Think Harry Potter but with Jolly Roger flags and swords instead of wands and magic. Not being a native English speaker I couldn´t face the challenge of writing it in this language, so I resorted to my native Spanish. The result, first in a planned trilogy, is: Noble Esclavo Pirata (Noble Slave Pirate) which kind of sums up the arc of my young character’s arc in this novel.

    Now my next question would be if you’d keep the same author name on the cover or if you’d use a pseudonym? I’ve met authors on both ends of the spectrum so I’m curious about the logic behind each sides.

    1. The question of different author names for different genres is a good one. One school of thought holds that these are different “brands,” thereby necessitating different bylines. On the other hand, there are many readers, like myself, who read a wide variety of genres. If I like an author, I’m likely to pick up another of her books, and yes, there have disappointments when the second book is not like the first, but the point is I DID pick up the second book (and many times, I may add, when the second books proves disappointing even when it IS like the first!). In the specific case of YA, since the readers will soon age out of that genre, my thought is that if you have adult books, they will then gravitate into those adult books because they already know the author.

  8. Jose, I’m reading Harlan’s SHELTER right now (his YA spinoff) because I’ll be on a YA panel with him next month at Bouchercon. Can’t wait to meet the author of one of the most gripping books ever – TELL NO ONE. And if you’re Harlan Coben, you keep your name on the title. 🙂

  9. Jose,

    I’m writing a non-fiction book on leadership and intend to use my ‘real’ name on that line as well. One day, I will write a YA book and/or series, and I will again use my ‘real’ name.

    I can’t imagine keeping up with social media with different personas in different languages!

    Which way are you leaning?


  10. Well, I use J. H. Bográn for everything (books, screenplays, The Big Thrill’s feature articles, and for a couple of years, movie reviews in a domestic newspaper)…so I’m leaning that way.

    For social media I alternate posts in Spanish and English depending on the subject, and sometimes I even include both within the same. Thankfully I’ve also served as a translator. 🙂

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