Writing A Psychological Thriller
If you want to write a psychological thriller, you’ve come to the right place! I’ve written a stack of these types of book, such as:
- The Other Twin – This psychological thriller is about a young woman who believes her sister was murdered. This is because the dead girl left behind a blog that throws suspicion on pretty much everyone they know, including the protagonist’s ex-boyfriend and even their own parents.
- Do No Harm – In this book, a couple get married … but her ex-husband and the father of her son stalks them in order to get his family back. Pretty soon their lives are ruined and even in danger.
- Never Have I Ever – This book is about a writer who moves back to her hometown in Devon … only for mysterious and threatening notes to start arriving, referencing a dark secret from her past. (No, it’s not an autobiography! Arf).
- Toxic – This YA novel I released in 2018 has an element of psychological thriller to it. It’s about a young teen who has to take on some ‘Mean Girls’ that summer … and ends up waaaaaay over her head, even breaking the law.
- Kill For It – In this serial killer thriller, there’s a real battle of wits between a veteran journalist and her protege. The latter decides to break the glass ceiling by killing people so she can be first on the scene to report on the murders!
- The Good Mother – This dark, gory satire on parenthood asks the reader: what would YOU do if you discovered your teenage son was a serial killer? What the protagonist does next is shocking!
- My new one! This one will be out in summer 2024. So, watch this space 😉
So if you want to write a psychological thriller too, here’s some of my top tips to help … Ready? Let’s go!
1) Start with an intriguing premise
Your story should start with a bang! Draw your readers in with an enticing and mysterious premise. Ask yourself what dark secrets your characters are hiding, or what could drive someone to commit a crime.
In my psychological thriller Never Have I Ever, it starts with my protagonist receiving an anonymous note. It reads: ‘Never have I ever … been punished for what I have done.’ But what could THAT be about?? Eeek!
2) Create believable characters
Psychological thrillers centre around characters who are often flawed and damaged, which can make them difficult to create. Pay attention to their backstories, motivations, and needs in order to make them fully fleshed-out individuals.
It’s important to ensure that your characters feel real and relatable, even if they’re not always likeable. (Remember, female characters are often accused of being ‘unlikeable’ anyway, no matter what they do! I call this the ‘female burden’).
3) A Compelling Protagonist
A compelling protagonist is particularly important in this genre. It’s important to choose someone readers can empathise with and root for throughout the novel. Create a detailed character sketch of your main character, including their motivation for solving the mystery at hand.
4) Intriguing Secondary Characters
In addition to a well-developed protagonist, your story will also need believable and interesting secondary characters. These characters should contribute to the plot in a meaningful way, without taking away from the mystery itself.
Since secondary characters should HELP or HINDER the protagonist, I always recommend putting your secondary characters on ‘team protag’ or ‘team antag’. This way, you can be sure secondaries are pulling their weight in the story.
3) Build suspense slowly
A successful psychological thriller takes its time in ramping up the suspense and tension. Keep your readers guessing by slowly revealing information about your characters and their pasts, while also raising the stakes as the story progresses.
Avoid rushing things … a slow burn really is key in this genre! Make sure you study visual representations of structure and plotting archetypes so you can make the most of tension and suspense.
4) A Richly Described Setting
The setting of your story is just as important as the characters populating it. Choose a location that is rich in history and detail, then use vivid descriptions to bring it to life for readers.
In my books, I frequently write about seaside towns out of season. This is because my characters are often outsiders, cut off from others. If you’ve ever been in such a place in winter, you will know seaside towns are often shut down and cut off during the winter months. This is an example of the storyworld reflecting the characters’ lives and dilemmas.
5) Choose your VERY ending carefully
The ending of a psychological thriller is especially important—it should be both climactic and satisfying without being too predictable or pat. Twist endings can be particularly effective in this genre, so long as they make sense within the context of the story as a whole.
Never, ever, ever fly in an ending out of the ‘left field’. Sometimes it can help to start with your ending and plot backwards to ‘find’ the beginning when it comes to twists.
Editing, Polishing and Setting Your Story Free
Editing, polishing and setting your story free are all important aspects of writing a psychological thriller. It is important to keep your readers engaged by making sure your story is well-written and edited.
There are many ways to edit your story, but it is important to take your time and do it right. Here are some tips for editing, polishing and setting your story free:
1) Take your time!
Don’t rush through the editing process. Once you have written your first draft, put it away for a few days or weeks before you start editing. This will give you some distance from the material and allow you to come back with fresh eyes.
2) Be ruthless
When you are editing, be ruthless in cutting out anything that doesn’t move the story forward or add anything new. Get rid of any unnecessary details or scenes that drag on too long.
3) Make sure everything makes sense
As you are editing, make sure that everything in the story makes sense. Check for any plot holes or inconsistencies and fix them before moving on.
4) Pay attention to dialogue
Dialogue is an important part of any story, but it is especially important in a psychological thriller. Make sure that each character’s dialogue sounds natural and believable. Listen for any awkward phrases or stiffness in the dialogue and revise accordingly.
5) Let others read it
I know it’s scary, but you need others’ opinions and suggestions on your work. I always recommend going as far as you can with peer review, or writers’ group critiques BEFORE you pay for notes or feedback though. Why not join the B2W Secret Facebook Group – we have a dedicated peer review chat thread!