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Five Tips for Writing a Psychological Thriller

August 3rd, 2018

Psychological thrillers are riding high at the moment and vying with romance to be the most popular fiction genre with readers. Think of all those books with ‘Girl’ in the title and the never-ending stream of ‘noir’ novels and TV series, especially from Scandinavia. This fashion of readers liking to be scared shows no signs of letting up. If you fancy creating a dark read of your own, here are five top tips for writing a psychological thriller:

  1. Make the protagonists multi-layered i.e. not all bad or all good. The villain should have an understandable reason for behaving menacingly. This could be ill-treatment in childhood, revenge for a perceived wrong or a desperate need to remove people from his path to success. But aside from that he might also raise money for charity or be kind to old ladies. Similarly, the victim shouldn’t be all good, she could be hiding a terrible secret, be unfaithful to her husband or steal money from her workplace. Be prepared to alternate point of view between villain and victim so the reader can fully understand each character.
  2. Include shocks in the narrative to jolt the reader when he is least expecting it. The well-known advice from American author, Raymond Chandler, to ‘send in man with a gun’ is useful in combatting a ‘saggy middle’ in a psychological thriller. It doesn’t have to literally be a man with a gun but it should be an incident that adds an unexpected twist or racks up the excitement level. Use shocking cliff-hangers at the end of chapters to keep the reader turning the pages.
  3. Make use of setting. It’s no coincidence that much dark fiction is set in bleak locations such as lonely countryside or rundown industrial areas or in the grey coldness of winter. An inhospitable setting enhances the anxiety and fear of both the characters and the reader. Think abandoned cottage in a remote wooded area with a chase on foot between the trees as the mist comes down.
  4. Have a gripping opening. Psychological thriller fans have a raft of novels from which to choose. They will buy the one with the most enticing first page. Open the story with an immediate inciting incident i.e. something that upsets the life of the protagonist and starts the flow of evil.
  5. Make the reader feel and understand the characters’ emotions. To do this the writer must be like an actor, stepping into the shoes of each character in turn. Imagine the terror of the victim. The villain might be afraid as well but his fear might change to the enjoyment of power when he has the victim in sight. Getting inside the characters’ heads is particularly important in a psychological thriller because much of the conflict and suspense will come from the mind games that the characters are playing. Action and/or violence plays only a small part in the plot.

In addition to the above points, also remember the general advice given to all novelists; read widely in your chosen genre, note what makes each book work, and get the whole of your story down on paper from beginning to end before editing and refining your words.


Sally Jenkins’ second psychological thriller, The Promise, was published in 2018. Find out more about Sally and her work at https://sally-jenkins.com .


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