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Ten years have passed since Francine lost her daughter, Autumn. There have been no real answers—only a decade of mystery, stress, and tension. Finally, out of the blue, Francine receives an anonymous note:

I know where she is.

If that grips you, then you know there’s nothing quite like a good psychological thriller to jump-start the heart rate. 

The above is the inciting incident from S.B. Caves’ debut novel, I Know Where She Is. But it might as well serve as an example of what all psychological thrillers can do to us. They intrigue us, they make our palms sweat, and they have us sitting on the edge of our seats. But how can you do it as effectively as the best psychological thriller book authors out there?

What Is a Psychological Thriller?

In the easiest terms possible, a psychological thriller is a suspenseful novel that messes with our minds. 

The thriller element is easy to understand: Situations like we find in I Know Where She Is are perfect thriller premises. But an author has to step their game up to add a psychological element that goes beyond the basic suspense beats.

Psychological thrillers make their mark with exciting twists we never saw coming—if only because the psychology of the characters is so different from our own. 

In Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, for example, Hitchcock cleverly sets our expectations against us. For the first half of the movie, we follow Marion Crane as she tries to get away with a crime. It’s only when she ends up at the Bates Motel that we discover what the true drama of the story will be. 

This helps us establish one key element of the psychological thriller. It’s not just the protagonist who experiences the twists and turns. It’s also the audience.

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How to Write a Psychological Thriller

Writing a book in any genre can be a challenge. But to best understand a psychological thriller, you have to understand an onion. Yep, an onion. 

An onion has layers that don’t taste too good if you were to take a bite out of them all at once, like taking a bite out of an apple. Peel that onion one layer at a time, though, and you’ll start to see how a psychological thriller can be so hard to put down.

Any good psychological thriller starts with a central mystery or point of tension. In I Know Where She Is, it’s the mysterious note that makes such a bold promise. But if the author were to give everything away at that point, the psychological thriller would lose all of its flavor. It’s in the slow unwinding of the mystery—the reveal of twists and turns along the way—that thrillers best grab us.

Using Tropes in Psychological Thrillers

There’s a reason tropes exist in psychological thrillers, or any genre for that matter: they tend to work. However, you should never lean on tropes to such a point that they become recycled cliches. 

You can’t psychologically thrill your audience if they know what’s behind every surprise. You can, however, use your knowledge of psychological thriller tropes to riff on old patterns. 

Here are some common tropes to keep in mind:

  • The missing: A missing child is common, as is the case for I Know Where She Is. This trope works because it gives the protagonist a reason to take action. It also introduces a central mystery that gives the reader a reason to keep turning the page.
  • The return: A sudden returning, like a figure from the protagonist’s past, can have just as much of a dramatic effect as the opposite: someone going missing. This is especially true if someone turns up fundamentally altered in some way. It makes us ask the question: What happened while they were gone?
  • The stalker: A common theme of psychological thrillers is someone who seems to have an unhealthy obsession with someone else. Knowing a stalker is around not only lends tension to the story, but introduces potential red herrings for the central mystery.

How to Structure a Psychological Thriller

Now that we’ve gotten the “onion” metaphor out of the way, we have a head start on structuring our psychological thriller. But what is it aside from traditional three-act structure that separates psychological thriller structures from other genres?

Although your story will probably do better if it adheres to a three act structure, a psychological thriller has the unique element of unveiling its twists. You can drop these twists at just about any point you want. 

Want a twist halfway through the book? You can do that. Want to wait until after the third-act climax to reveal that the hero really was a villain after all, or vice versa? Go ahead.

Part of what makes a psychological thriller so unique is its twists and turns. An author who knows exactly when to drop these little twists along the way can keep you guessing when it comes to the big events of the main three-act structure.

In Then She Was Gone by Lisa Jewell, the book takes place in five parts, often from different POVs. About halfway through the book, we learn who one of the main villains really was—and suddenly Jewell drops us in her point-of-view. 

The revelations that take place from this point of view reverberate throughout the rest of the story. It’s not something out of the How to Write a Psychological Thriller Novel manual, but it works because it deepens and intensifies the mystery during the second act.

Creating Characters in Psychological Thrillers

The key here is to blur the lines a little bit. It won’t be much of a psychological thriller if we feel we know everything about the protagonists and antagonists—who’s good and bad. In Gone Girl, the protagonist Nick Dunne is such an unreliable character that the reader is forced to suspect him in the case of his missing wife, no matter how sympathetic he may otherwise be. 

In Joseph Finder’s High Crimes, Finder has us convinced that the well-to-do husband of the protagonist must be innocent…until a final reveal shows us we had him all wrong.

In short, good psychological thriller characters should be ambiguous enough to deepen the central mystery. It’s certainly possible to create a good-hearted figure at the center of the plot. But the characters around them should make it difficult for the reader to put their finger on exactly what’s wrong. 

Understanding Your Readers’ Mindset

Readers are part of the psychological game in any given thriller novel, which sometimes opens opportunities for minor fourth-wall-breaking. 

In Then She Was Gone, the true killer emerges halfway through the book and confesses in journal-entry fashion, using the second person to speak directly to another one of the characters. This creates an intimate, immediate effect that might be too intense in other genres. Yet it fits the mystery of Then She Was Gone perfectly.

A good psychological thriller keeps the readers’ knowledge in mind as it unwraps the various layers of its “onion.” As long as you have a central mystery to unveil, you can keep readers on their toes by only giving them a little bit of the mystery as the story goes on.

Putting the Thrill in Psychological Thriller

A psychological thriller novel works best when it stays just one step ahead of its readers. You don’t want to get too far down the mystery rabbit hole without giving readers enough to go on. That will just confuse and frustrate them. But you don’t want to make the twists too obvious, either; that’s too predictable.

Study thrillers like Then She Was Gone to get a sense of how expert authors develop their plots without giving too much or too little away. Once you get that down, it will show up in your own stories—and your ability to keep your readers on their toes.

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