Mysterious and disturbed portrait of a young man in darkness

The Psyche of a Psychological Thriller

Angie Martin

We’ve all heard of Gone Girl, The Girl on the Train, and Shutter Island, among others. We open the front cover of those heart-pounding, nail-biting books with trepidation and shaking fingers as tension floods our veins. We know we’ll be up all night because we simply cannot bring ourselves to stop reading. Then come the twists and turns that niggle and wriggle in your brain, rooting around long after you’ve reached “The End.” The good ole psychological thriller. But what makes a thriller a psychological one? And how exactly does a writer conquer that world the way that the greats have before them?

To define what makes a great psychological thriller, one must first delve into the ins and outs of the thriller. That is, after all, the basis for the genre. Thrillers encompass compelling, likeable characters who are against high stakes and a ticking clock—typically with a world-class villain behind it all. Cliffhangers at the end of each chapter create that unputdownable effect, and the ending is usually epic.

Dive into Character Psyche

In psychological thrillers, the writer takes all those elements and adds on another one: psychology. This doesn’t mean you need to earn a new degree in psychology, but revisiting Psych 101 could be helpful to your quest. Diving deep into the psyche of each character is a must in this genre. Your reader then feels as if you’re in their head so that you can explore unique aspects of these types of tales, such as crawling around the nasty thoughts of a serial killer. According to Psychology Today, “Psychological thrillers explore their characters’ innermost thoughts and motivations, allowing us to examine how their decisions propel the plot forward into the extremes of human ethics and morality.” 

Reveal the Dark Corners

When you take that a step further and reveal the dark corners of your characters’ minds, readers will question so much about the world and even themselves.

When crafting the psychological thriller, don’t overthink it. Your characters don’t have to be jet-setting billionaires on wild adventures in foreign lands. In fact, that’s rare in this type of book. The more ordinary, everyday your character is, the more the reader can identify with them. In addition, put those characters in common settings, such as home or work, then have extraordinary events occur. This allows the reader to put themselves into the story as if they are the character. The more familiar the characters and environment seem, the more you pull the reader into the pages of your book.

Heighten the Tension

Finally, you’ll want to take the tension of a typical thriller and heighten it. You can do this with your structure with shorter sentences and chapters, ensuring your chapter is arranged in a way so the pace remains fast and melding your description into action sequences. ( But you can also accomplish this with the information you withhold. Psychological thrillers don’t need long bits of exposition or backstory. Hold the important parts of these aspects back from the reader and sprinkle them in as necessary, just enough to feed some answers to the reader while fueling additional questions. This is especially helpful when writing an unreliable narrator; those little tidbits can be the difference between a fairly obvious ending or a twist so big, readers will think of nothing else for days to come.

Writing a psychological thriller can seem intimidating at first, but it doesn’t have to be. Learning these elements can help you elevate your own novel to a new stratosphere. Above all else, read, read, read those who have successfully come before you. Those master authors might just provide all the education you require to start your own work of art.

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Angie Martin

Award-winning author Angie Martin has spent over a decade mentoring and helping new and experienced authors as they prepare to send their babies into the world. She relies on her criminal justice background and knack for researching the tiniest of details to assist others when crafting their own novels. She has given countless speeches in various aspects of writing, including creating characters, self-publishing, and writing supernatural and paranormal. She also assisted in leading a popular California writers’ group, which organized several book signings for local authors. In addition to having experience in film, she created the first interactive murder mystery on Clubhouse and writes and directs each episode. Angie now resides in rural Tennessee, where she continues to help authors around the world in every stage of publication while writing her own thriller and horror books, as well as branching out into new genres.

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