Breakout session one: Putting the thumbscrews on your thriller – JJ Cooper

JJ Cooper has written two action thrillers

– 17 years in Australian army
– 2 tours in East Timor, 1 tour in middle east
– was an army interrogator

General tips:

– write and edit until you are sick of reading your own writing
– people read for escapism, but we also write for escapism
– with suspense, keep it short on a lot of details, let the reader use their imagination to fill in the blanks
– too much technical detail will drop people out of the moment, stopping the story

Credible plotlines

  • foundation that holds the story together
  • who, what, where, when, how, why – the interrogatives
  • start with conflict
  • cause and effect
  • use experiences, imagination for the rest
  • what makes your book different, standout to a reader or an editor
  • if there is a twist, hints can be there but put the reader on the wrong track – so it makes sense
  • JJ Cooper puts his hero into situations that he does not have an escape from.  He then sits for hours (days) working out a credible way for his hero to get out.


Experience and Imagination

  • Authenticity
    • how do you create an authentic character?
  • Life and work experience
  • transferring imagination into your writing
  • writing non-fiction as fiction
  • no antagonist thinks he is a bad guy
  • his interrogation scenes are from experience – all interrogators MUST experience being interrogated (by their own team) so they know exactly what it is like and what they are doing
  • if you are making something up, no harming in indicating that your character is bluffing (to the reader at least)


Body language in writing

  • Verbal – 7%  (words only – what you say)
  • Vocal – 38% (tone, inflection – how you say it)
  • Non-verbal – 55%

You cannot NOT communicate


In an interrogation:

  • the biggest loudest bloke will always crack the first
  • some women will never crack (however over time everyone will)
  • new study has indicated that women will tend (to young) and befriend (the strongest)  as opposed to fight and flight

No way of immediately telling someone is a liar. Need to build up trust over time and experience them.  Baseline of personality to establish truth.

Questions to establish a baseline

  • build rapport
    • ask a question you know interests them
    • ask questions you know the answer to to gauge responses
  • ask what interests them
  • once the baseline is established, then move onto harder questions
  • when you finish an interrogation you should feel physically sick. To get the information you need to save lives, you need to be what you want them to be – afterwards you will feel a sense of revulsion about what you have discussed.  Anyone who does not will not pass the training (in the Australian army)

Positive body language

  • lean slightly towards the questioner
  • maintain a relaxed but attentive posture
  • hands and feet in unobtrusive positions
  • keep hand gestures unobtrusive and smooth
  • make facial expressions match your feelings or the questioner’s
  • mirroring
  • if you want to get an idea across, nod as you say it – the other party will also nod


Know thy self

  • what are your personal biases?
  • how would you describe your normal speech and behavioural patterns?
  • what happens to you when you are:
    •  nervous?
    •  frustrated?
  • examine your own reaction – hands, voice, actions, body language etc – and include for your own characters


An interview Sequence:
– names, hello etc
– key to successful interrogation, can take time to build
Purpose of the interview
Interviewee’s story
Cross questioning
– throw in something different to try to catch them out
– honest people will correct you, continue to give details and build on the story
Final recapitulation
Follow-up action

Types of questions:

  • Open
  • Closed
  • Probe
  • Leading

Unfortunately some session attendees spent so much time asking him personal questions he completely skipped over the types of questions and examples, which I was particularly interested in. However I did sign up to receive the notes via email and hopefully these information will be included.  I’ll do a follow up post with the types of questions then if I get more information.
Questioning Techniques

  • hostile
  • sympathetic
  • nonchalant
  • check questions
  • confrontation
  • making statements without asking a question

Questioning ploys

  • show of knowledge
  • good guy / bad guy
  • blaming others involved
  • silence
  • conversation
  • intimidation
  • reasons for cooperating

Hostage situation

  • establish rapport
  • open questions
  • probing questions
  • interrogator fatigue – 1 hour at a time is usually the absolute maximum before swapping interrogators


  • high turn over
  • discharged due to post traumatic stress disorder
  • mature aged soldiers (no 19 / 20 year olds)
  • not gender specific (unlike SAS)
  • only Army has interrogators (not Navy or Airforce)
  • might have up to 20 trained up at any given time


Summary:  this was a very interesting session.  It would have been more interesting if he had been able to stick to his presentation and kept questions from the floor to the end.  The questions being asked were basically the same personal experience things over and over, which while interesting took  up too much time.  We didn’t touch on actual questioning at all due to this which I was very disappointed about – the most we got was body language and the 4 broad categories of questions.

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