A psychological thriller is a genre of fiction that aims to psychologically disturb or unnerve its readers by including elements of suspense, mystery, and psychological horror. It places the reader inside the minds of its often troubled characters and slowly builds suspense and tension as secrets are revealed and dangers known and unknown pursue the protagonists.
This article will provide a step-by-step guide on how to write an effective psychological thriller, from complex characters to atmospheric settings to gripping plot twists. Each key step will be examined in great detail with examples from acclaimed works. Let’s begin by focusing on character creation, the foundation of any thriller.
Create Characters with Secrets and Hidden Motivations
One of the most important elements in writing a psychological thriller is flawed and complex characters that keep secrets from even those closest to them. These secrets form the core of the suspense and mystery as readers try to uncover what the characters are hiding and how it will impact the unfolding events.
When developing your characters, reflect on formative life events. What trauma or private shame still haunts them? How do they repress painful truths, even from themselves? Nuanced backstories keep readers invested in unravelling deepest riddles. Think about what secrets and hidden motivations they may have in their past that continue to shape who they are.
Some possibilities include:
- Mental illness such as depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, etc.
- Criminal past such as involvement in a crime, drug addiction, etc.
- Traumatic event such as abuse, assault, murder of a loved one they blamed themselves for.
- Secret relationship such as an affair, secret family, romance with a student/employee, etc.
- Financial troubles such as debt, embezzlement, fraud.
- Secret feelings such as jealousy, obsession, anger issues kept well-hidden.
For example, in Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, Amy Dunne appears to be the perfect wife but secretly harbours deep resentment and rage toward her husband Nick that slowly comes to light. Her many secrets and hidden motivations are revealed throughout the thriller in shocking ways. Only through revelation do we learn of her broken childhood seeking fairy tale romance, and capacity for cunning manipulation. Her complexity kept me guessing throughout.
In The Silent Patient by Alex Michaelides, artist Alicia Berenson is equally enigmatic. After allegedly murdering her husband, she refuses to speak, leaving her guilt ambiguous. Flashbacks unravel her troubled past and mental health struggles, bringing nuance to her actions and culpability.
Unreliable narrators foster intrigue, like the protagonist in I’m Thinking of Ending Things by Iain Reid. Constant doubts emerge regarding his perception of reality and mental state and how much can be trusted.
Minor characters also harbour mysteries. In Behind Her Eyes by Sarah Pinborough, Louise and David appear an ordinary couple yet hide disturbing past behaviours gradually exposed.
Build Suspense Through Foreshadowing and Callbacks
Once you have intriguing characters with secrets, you need to slowly build suspense throughout the novel by strategically placing clues, red herrings, and callbacks that hint at greater dangers and mysteries to come. Strategic foreshadowing and callbacks are crucial. From onset, seed vague yet ominous hints about looming dangers or revelations. Key ways to do this include:
- Mysterious events the characters can’t explain that hint at larger forces at work
- Dreams, flashbacks or reflections that relate to past secrets or trauma
- Brief mentioned details that seem unimportant but take on new meaning later
- Letters, photos or objects discovered that raise unanswered questions
- Recurring images, phrases or symbols seen or heard in stressful moments
In Gone Girl, Flynn cleverly foreshadows the central mystery and plot twists through Amy’s diary entries scattered throughout the novel. Small clues and callbacks are also placed to hint at her deceit and manipulation of those around her.
In Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier, the second Mrs. de Winter receives mysterious letters claiming insider knowledge of Maxim’s late wife Rebecca, dismissed but eerily predictive of emerging mysteries. Another example rests with The 7 1/2 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton. The protagonist relives a murder mystery endlessly but flashbacks hint his plight relates to a wider conspiracy and secrets from his past life. Intrigue builds regarding connections between distinct plot threads.
Effective callbacks occur when seemingly insignificant details resurface with haunting significance later. For example, in The Silent Patient by Alex Michaelides, a news article about an artist and husband initially discarded eventually proves pivotal to understanding the central crime.
Judicious placement of clues continues engaging readers in piecing together the overarching puzzle. Maintain an ominous undertone where the narrator brushes off peculiar occurrences without comprehending implications yet. This gradual construction of misdirection and allusion ratchets anticipation.
Establish External Conflicts and Internal Struggles
Beyond their personal secrets and motivations, flaws, and internal conflicts, psychological thriller characters must also face external threats, dilemmas and an escalating feeling that something is “off” or wrong with their situation and environment. Whether stalked, wrongly accused, embroiled in conspiracies, or battling mysteries illnesses, such conflicts exacerbate inner tensions. Some possibilities include:
- Being targeted or stalked by an unknown assailant
- Getting embroiled in a criminal investigation or prosecution
- Struggling with a serious illness or injury
- Relationship/marriage falling apart under mysterious new tensions
- Job or financial problems mounting with no clear solutions
- Feeling gaslit or that reality isn’t what it seems
In I’m Thinking of Ending Things by Iain Reid, the main character (unnamed girlfriend) accompanies her boyfriend Jake to meet his parents at their isolated farm. However, upon arriving, strange occurrences and realizations raise doubts about Jake and his family’s identities. The girlfriend finds herself in increasingly threatening situations she cannot explain.
In Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, separated from her seemingly perfect husband, Amy Dunne becomes the prime suspect in his disappearance, appealing to readers’ empathy as she fights mounting circumstantial evidence.
Additionally, isolation from help increases vulnerability. In The Winter People by Jennifer McMahon, estranged sisters return to their decaying family home in rural Vermont following a death, but disturbing dreams, hallucinations and the unshakeable sense of being watched plague them the longer they stay in the unsettling house isolated by nature.
Supernatural elements also cultivate intrigue. In The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson, after losing his wife, Dr. Montague brings a parapsychology group to the infamous Hill House but strange phenomena start terrorizing everyone, forcing questions if it’s maliciously sentient or if inner demons are instead to blame.
Ramp Up the Tension Through Twists and Revelations
As the story progresses, psychological thrillers employ plot twists, surprises, and revelations about the characters to continually ramp up the uncertainty, suspense and stakes. Regular reveals, misdirections and twists keep audiences clinging desperately for the next development. Some ideas include:
- Non-linear storytelling that jumps back and forth in time
- Dream/hallucination sequences that blur reality
- New potentially dangerous figures entering the story
- A major death or violent act that changes dynamics
- Revelations that prior events were misunderstood or misremembered
- Discoveries that previous clues pointed to darker interpretations
- Characters being more manipulative, unstable, or dangerous than believed
For example, in The Silent Patient by Alex Michaelides, graphic flashbacks slowly reveal the backstory of artist Alicia’s alleged murder of her fashion designer husband in increasingly disturbing ways. Coupled with the puzzle of her mutism in the present day, twists keep readers guessing in this thriller of lies and madness.
The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins layers unreliable narration after unreliable narration. As alcoholic divorcee Rachel pieces together a mystery surrounding her ex, twists expose how little she understands her own recollections and blank periods she’s blacked out. Doppelgangers intensify unease.
Twists don’t require solely plot turns either—character surprises pack equal punch. In Lisa Jewell’s Then She Was Gone, when beloved teacher Ellie vanishes, her desperate brother and ex search amid discoveries of secrets from old electronics and online profiles, with every chapter unveiling new deceptions in this intricately twist-filled work. Maintain elements of unpredictability throughout.
Use Setting and Atmosphere to Amplify Unease
Where and when the story unfolds should elicit a creeping sense of estrangement, isolation and something being “off.” Consider settings that:
- Are isolated with little help available like a remote town, farm, or wilderness area
- Have ambiguous identities like an unfamiliar town everyone just moved to
- Are ominous locations from the character’s past that re-emerge as threats
- Have an eerie or unsettling history of events like deaths, disappearances
- Feel confined or inescapable like a small apartment, car trip with no breaks
- Have ominous weather like storms, dense fog that heighten vulnerability
In The Woman in the Window by A J Finn, agoraphobic psychologist Anna spends her days obsessing over the picture perfect family across the street from her Manhattan brownstone. However, witnessing a disturbing act leads to suspicions, revelations, and dangers that intensify amid a thunderstorm. The setting amplifies the growing mystery and peril.
In Paul Tremblay’s The Cabin at the End of the World, a family retreat to their remote forest cabin transforms into a fight for survival against apocalyptic invaders, as the dense wilderness provides no escape with dangers closing in on all sides.
History imbues urban areas equal dread, like how Elsie moves to her late husband’s creepy old English manor crowded with disturbing heirlooms and portraits in The Silent Companions by Laura Purcell, with eerie incidents reflecting dark legends of the overlooked past.
Weather fuels atmosphere—storms isolate the two women searching for a decades missing child in Nicole Trope’s The Boy in the Photo, with blizzards severing outside contact as mysteries compound, nature intensifying their vulnerability.
Authentic sensory description fully submerges audiences in ominous settings, making each inch suggest looming perils. Atmosphere runs deep.
Utilize Psychological Elements and Disturbing Themes
What truly defines a psychological thriller is its ability to disturb and unsettle readers on a deeper psychological level. Consider employing:
- Gaslighting, doubts about reality, unreliable narrators
- Obsessions, mental instability, mental illness
- Manipulation and deception in relationships
- Dark human urges like violence, revenge, sexuality
- Isolation, paranoia, lack of trust in others
- Subtle references to trauma, abuse, toxicity in families/society
The Silent Patient is a masterclass in creeping readers out. Subtle clues hint that artist Alicia’s mutism and supposed murder of her husband are symptomatic of far deeper psychological disturbances, secrets, trauma and obsession. Readers are left guessing what truly occurred and what darkness lurks within Alicia.
Rachel’s unreliable narration in The Girl on the Train blurs fantasies from realities as alcoholism consumes her grip on stability. Readers wrestle deciphering sanity from madness in this harrowing examination.
In Alexis Henderson’s Year of the Witching, isolation within a repressive Puritan community breeds severe paranoia and hysteria regarding so-called “witches” haunting outskirts. Exploring challenging topics poignantly yet contextually can unsettle on innovative psychological planes.
End With a Satisfying Yet Unsettling Twist
The climax carries it all home. Leaving audiences satisfied with major enigmas solved yet restless due to implications and inquiries left hanging thickens the unsettled aftertaste. Ambiguous, shocking or bittersweet conclusions linger longest. Your psychological thriller should build to a climax that ties together many of the mysteries, reveals deeper truths about the characters and their secrets, answers long-standing questions – but also leaves readers somewhat unsettled. Consider endings that:
- Reveal one character’s incredible manipulation of others
- Include plot twists that change perception of prior events
- Raise as many questions as they answer, leaving ambiguity
- Leave ominous implications about threats still at large
- Hint at deeper psychological/supernatural forces at work
- Contain unexpected violent or disturbing acts
- Allow room for potential future stories in a franchise
In Gone Girl, the final climactic confrontation between Nick and Amy and explosive revelations leave just as many lingering psychological questions as answers. Readers are left chilled by the darkness within seemingly normal people and relationships they thought they understood.
The Silence of the Girls subverts legends with an explosive showdown implicitly condemning patriarchal systems through blood, as siege mentalities crumble surrendering pagans, ending with unease about violence inherent in all societal structures.
In The Woman in the Window, dual climaxes of Anna’s obscured mental state paired with home invasion leave validity in neither protagonist nor antagonist clear, audiences departing unsure what was reality versus delusion in this potent dismantling of unreliable narration’s permanence.
The most poignant finales hint how impacts echo, so a brief epilogue of rippling consequences felt months later can implant that lingering feeling of unrest. Tease potentials spinning off creates hype for deserved franchising too.
Develop Your Craft Through Drafting and Editing
With a carefully plotted outline in place, the real work is drafting full chapters, allowing the story and prose to evolve. Be prepared to:
- Write many drafts, taking time between to distil improvements
- Slowly build suspense and intrigue over numerous chapters before payoffs
- Find opportunities to seed clues, callbacks and foreshadowing early on
- Layer in authentic character nuance, flaws and depth over the longform
- Polish the language, description and pacing to keep readers engaged
- Cut extraneous scenes, refine plot complications in editing
Thrillers require precision hence multiple rounds of editing are key. Consider feedback from beta readers; hire an editor for their expertise. The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker underwent extensive development over years to deliver a tightly executed climax.
Once polished, focus on the perfect title, cover design and elevator pitch to grab new readers’ attention within the thriller genre. Some ideas are:
- Target marketing your book to psychological thriller fans via your website, social media
- Leverage ARCs (advance reader copies) to psych thrillers review blogs, podcasts, reviewers you admire
- Contact psychological thriller book clubs and discussion groups for reviews
- Send copies to thriller publications for interviews, spotlights
- Promote at mystery/thriller conferences and signings
- Design complementary assets like playlists, reading guides
Gillian Flynn became a sensation through strategic co-signs in the thriller world coupled with her talent. Use similar grassroots networks to expose readers to your mind-bending new release.
Like any genre, psychological thrillers have evolved over time. Contemporary authors expand the scope through dynamics of social media, technology distortions of reality. Regardless, character-driven mysteries, authentic psychology and masterful storytelling remain core. With patience and revision, anyone can write an unforgettable psychological thriller that disturbs and compels readers in all the right ways. Now get started on drafting that first chapter!