Top tips for writing a gripping psychological thriller that will keep readers on the edge of their seat
I would like to claim that I don’t read the reviews of my books. That would be a lie. The downside of continually picking at that particular scab over the last nine years – during which I’ve had nine psychological thrillers, and two young adult thrillers, published – is that I’m frequently miserable. The upside is that I feel well qualified to identifying what works, and what doesn’t, in a psychological thriller.
Here’s what readers don’t like: slow beginnings, two dimensional characters, too many characters, a confusing plot, a disappointing ending, lack of twists, a guessable twist, an overused twist, a familiar storyline, a predictable plot, annoying characters, unlikeable characters, a saggy middle, repetition, characters who make stupid decisions, over the top plots, boring plots and characters they don’t care about.
And those are just the ones that popped into my head.
Terrifying isn’t it? There are so many, many ways that you can disappoint a reader, but you can’t please everyone or tick all the boxes. What one reader may hate another may love.
That said, there are certain elements you should try to include if you want your psychological to keep readers on the edge of their seats:
A gripping opening
With the Internet, Netflix and waning attention spans, your book needs to grab a reader’s interest from the first line, and keep hold of it. You don’t need to start a book with an explosion or a grisly murder but if you can introduce the central question at the heart of your novel in that first chapter (and it’s a compelling one), you’ll ensure the reader keeps turning the pages.
In my new book The Guilty Couple the first chapter is set in a courtroom and the main character, Olivia, is on trial for conspiring to have her husband Dominic murdered. By the end of the chapter you realise Dominic set her up and that introduces the central question ‘Why would a husband frame his wife?’
In The Girls Who Disappeared by Claire Douglas the first chapter starts with the main character driving three of her friends home and ends with her crashing the car and coming to only to discover the other three girls have disappeared. ‘What happened to the girls?’ is the central question that drives the book.
I have experimented with including the inciting incident several chapters into a book but, in my experience, the sooner you introduce the central question the better. It’s probably what tempted the reader into picking up the book in the first place.
A character the reader will root for
In The Guilty Couple Olivia is relatable; she’s a mother, a wife, a business owner, someone who makes cupcakes for the PTA sale but who can’t complete Couch to 5k, but I’m not including relatability in my top tips. I’m including ‘a character the reader will root for’.
There are plenty of bestselling psychological thrillers where the main character isn’t relatable, or even particularly likeable – Gone Girl, The Girl on the Train and most Liz Nugent thrillers – and the reason why those books are so successful is because the main characters are fascinating. I may not have ‘liked’ Amy in Gone Girl but I admired her gumption and psychopathic drive. I wouldn’t have wanted to be friends with Rachel in The Girl on the Train but I felt sorry for her and sympathised with the way she’d been treated by her ex.
But tread carefully, if your reader doesn’t root for your unlikeable character, why should they carry on reading? You have to give them a reason to care.
It can help to give your character a goal or a desire that’s universal. Olivia sets out to clear her name and get revenge on her husband in The Guilty Couple and I think we can all relate to the burning desire for revenge when we’ve been wronged, even if we don’t act on it.
In Luca Veste’s new book You Never Said Goodbye the main character Sam Cooper receives a call from his father, who’s on his deathbed, revealing that Sam’s mother (who he’d thought was dead for twenty-five years) is actually alive. Wouldn’t we all search for the truth if we thought our life had been a lie?
(c) CL Taylor
Read Part 2 of this article here.
CL Taylor will be speaking at the Theakston Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival (21 – 24 July). Her new book The Guilty Couple is published by Avon.
About The Guilty Couple:
What would you do if your husband framed you for murder?
Five years ago, Olivia Sutherland was convicted of plotting to murder her husband.
Now she’s finally free, Olivia has three goals. Repair her relationship with her daughter. Clear her name. And bring down her husband – the man who framed her.
Just how far is she willing to go to get what she wants? And how far will her husband go to stop her?
Because his lies run deeper than Olivia could ever have imagined – and this time it’s not her freedom that’s in jeopardy, but her life…
Order your copy online here.