events · psychological thriller · writing

Writing a Psychological Thriller

I did a workshop a couple of weeks ago at the lovely Chiswick Book Festival (which if you’ve never been I’d really recommend, it happens every September I think and there’s a huge range of brilliant talks – everything from cookery demonstrations to author panels and discussions) – anyway, my workshop was on how to write a psychological thriller and I thought I would share some of my tips on here as I had quite a lot of people asking me about it who couldn’t be there on the day.

1. Have a simple, clear concept. Some of the biggest bestsellers of the last couple of years can be distilled down to relatively basic, but still very engaging one-liners. For example:

The Girl on the Train: woman sees inciting incident through a train window
The Couple Next Door: couple leave their baby at home, with disastrous consequences
Friend Request: woman receives a Facebook message from someone she thinks is dead
Behind Closed Doors: abusive marriage takes place behind closed doors

Obviously, all of these books go on to have other plot twists, detailed narratives and complications, but the important thing here is the top-line principle. A reader can grasp what each of those books are about in a second – and so can an agent, editor, and bookseller. Readers can imagine themselves in those situations, they are essentially situations which could happen to anyone, and that makes them accessible and intriguing. When you are writing, try to think first about what the very essence of your novel is, how you can sum it up in one line like that, taking away the extra frills which will give your book depth.

2. A killer first line. In the workshop we looked at some first lines from recent commercial bestsellers, and in all of them, you immediately get a sense of unease, positioning the books clearly in their genres, and you also get a sense of what the book is about. So, for example:

The Girl on the Train: ‘There is a pile of clothing on the train tracks.’
Friend Request: ‘The email arrives in my inbox like an unexploded bomb: Maria Weston wants to be friends on Facebook.’
Then She Was Gone: ‘Those months, the months before she disappeared, were the best months.’
The Woman in the Window: ‘Her husband’s almost home. He’ll catch her this time.’
Before I Go to Sleep: ‘The bedroom is strange. Unfamiliar.’

In all of those, you know there is something wrong – why would there be clothing on the train tracks? That hints at an accident or something similar. An email arriving like a bomb immediately shows you that it’s not just ASOS with a new deal on. A disappearance, a husband ready to catch someone out, an unfamiliar bedroom – all of those things are not the norm and at once raise suspicion and tension within the reader’s mind. And that’s just in the first sentence! If you can create a really strong, impactful first line, you force your reader to move on to the second sentence, and then the third, and the aim of the book should really be to keep the levels of tension high throughout so that your reader has no choice but to carry on turning the pages.

3. Think about your pacing. Ideally, a commercial psychological thriller should be relatively fast-paced throughout, keeping the reader on the edge of their seat. After you’ve done your first draft, you can always go back and look again at the pacing of your novel and try to employ techniques to speed it up and slow it down at key moments. Some tips below.

Speeding up
Use short words, sentences, paragraphs, events, scenes and chapters
Describe sections of action
Delay an outcome
Use dialogue

Slowing down
Add descriptive passages
Explain an outcome
Describe thoughts
Use long words, sentences, paragraphs, events, scenes and chapters

This is obviously simplified, but useful to keep in mind while you are working. The key when writing suspense is to keep your reader feeling worried – worried about your characters and the situation you’ve put them in, and worried about what’s going to happen next.

4. Characterization

Some tips from my presentation are below:

– Use the ‘zoom in’ technique – imagine a lens up to your character, and focus on the little things – then choose a couple to sprinkle into your text.
– Know your characters’ backstories, even if they don’t make it into the final book.
– Understand your characters’ motivations, even if you don’t necessarily show the reader
– Work out if you want your reader to like your characters – they don’t have to, but having at least one person a reader can empathise with and connect to often helps.
– Don’t have too many characters! You’ll confuse your reader and dilute the storyline.

I hope the above is helpful, it is just a snippet of what we covered during the workshop that I thought might be useful to share.

I hope to run more workshops in the future, and you can see what people said about the Chiswick event below:

‘I really enjoyed your class and thought you taught a big, complex subject very well. I am inspired now!’

‘Superb psychological thriller workshop this morning!’

‘Really fabulous – lots to think about. Got some brilliant tools to put in my writing box.’

‘Thank you for your brilliant, inspiring workshop today. You packed so much in -delivered in such an engaging way – and all the info was really useful. Best of all for me was that out of the writing exercises came the germ of an idea that I shall pursue further.’

‘I really enjoyed this morning’s session – you were a great presenter and thank you for sharing your expertise.’

‘A very enjoyable event, a good investment for the future.’

‘A terrifically interesting talk.’

‘A very informative workshop – I thoroughly enjoyed it.’

You can read my own psychological thriller here!

9 thoughts on “Writing a Psychological Thriller

  1. Great information and I found this very useful. I generally needed to be in the realm of amusement. I simply love the possibility of a crowd of people being content with what I am doing. Writing is a stage for modest individuals. That is the means by which I see it. Thanks for the tips!


  2. Your tips are just amazing ! as a writer what I do is Establish the basis for a psychological thriller an. Generally, a protagonist (or antagonist) tells their side of the story in psychological thrillers, but how can we be certain that the protagonist isn’t criminally crazy and lying to avoid punishment? Even though the majority of directors will opt to keep them very well concealed, the fun in these movies lives in seeking for hints or signposts.


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