Psychological thrillers are going through a boom—which means thriller writing is on the rise. The huge success of novels like The Girl on the Train, Gone Girl, and Before I Go To Sleep have made it the hottest genre of the moment, and publishers are actively seeking these books, which are sometimes called domestic noir or domestic suspense. I’ve published five psychological thrillers and am going to share some tips about how to craft a thriller novel that will grab readers by the throat and leave them desperate to tell all their friends about it.
In Thriller Writing, You Must:
1. Write what readers know
Writers are often told to write what they know, but the rise in domestic suspense has shown that booklovers want to read what they know. Psychological thrillers are set in familiar places— usually the home, but it could be the workplace (as in my latest, The Devil’s Work), at the school gates, or on the daily commute. The Girl on the Train was a bestseller because so many people have gazed from the window of a train wondering what’s going on behind the closed doors of the homes they pass.
The subjects are familiar too: marriage, family relationships, parenting, sibling rivalry, and love affairs. These are the issues that most interest readers. They want to picture themselves in the story—and imagine how they would act if they were thrown into a terrifying situation. The trick is to take an everyday situation and ask yourself this question: what’s the worst that could happen? I get countless messages from readers who tell me they like my books because they have had a similar experience (neighbors from hell, a jealous partner) and can picture themselves in the nightmare scenario I’ve created.
2. Make your characters real
It’s not just the setting that needs to be familiar. Your characters should be too. The heroines (the main characters are usually female) and heroes of psychological fiction are every-women and –men. They are not superheroes like Jack Reacher or brilliant like Kay Scarpetta. They are the people we are married to or live next door to. They are us. Your protagonist needs to be ordinary and believable.
3. Give your characters flaws
So your characters should be recognizable…but they also need to have a flaw. They could be insecure or jealous; they might have an alcohol problem or find it hard to tell the truth. Best of all, they could be harboring a dark secret, something in their past that will come back to bite them in the present day of your novel. Your characters need some grit in their oyster. An internal problem as well as an external one. They need to grow as the novel progresses and learn how to face their demons, which will enable them to overcome the external threat that powers the plot.
It’s important to get inside your characters’ heads. It is, after all, a psychological thriller. This doesn’t mean lots of long internal monologues. You need to show how they are feeling through their reactions and actions. But it’s vital to convey their emotions and the way they see the world.
While we’re on the subject of character, the unreliable narrator is a staple of this genre. Can we really trust what they are telling us? Can we believe what they are telling themselves? Perhaps they are being paranoid and imagining the dreadful things that are happening to them. If you make the reader wonder, they will be hooked as they try to figure it out.
4. Twist, twist, twist
The twist is a vital component of the psychological thriller. I spend a lot of time reading customer reviews on Amazon and it’s incredible how often the quality of the twist at the end of the book determines how highly the reader rates the book. And it doesn’t have to be at the end. One of the biggest selling debut novels in the UK in 2015 was Clare Mackintosh’s I Let You Go, which has an incredible twist halfway through. It was that twist—which made readers throw the book in the air, astonished—that made it a word of mouth sensation.
Writing a brilliant twist is hard. Sometimes you will come up with it immediately and base the whole book around it. Other times it will come to you at the end. But it’s something you should put a lot of effort into because a great twist will guarantee that readers will recommend your book to others—and come back for more.
5. Scare them (Don’t forget the goosebumps)
Finally, the most important element of the psychological thriller: It needs to be scary. One of the greatest compliments I’ve received was when a woman who’d read The Magpies told me she’d started taking a shotgun to bed with her after reading it.
You need your reader to feel almost sick with tension, desperate to know what will happen. Will the heroine escape the terrifying situation she’s in? Try to avoid the obvious: footsteps following your character through dark streets, phones ringing in the night with no one at the other end. Think about what scares you. Then think of another thing. Now it’s time to really make your characters suffer … and your readers squirm.