Top tips for writing a gripping psychological thriller that will keep readers on the edge of their seat
Read Part 1 of this article here.
High stakes and a lot to lose
What happens to your character if they don’t achieve their goal? And what have they got to lose by pursuing it? If the answer is ‘not much’ then you’re in trouble. In The Guilty Couple Olivia has to prove her innocence within a certain time frame or her ex-husband will take their daughter to the other side of the world and she’ll never see her again. But if she gets caught trying to steal the evidence that proves her innocence she’ll be sent back to prison. She can’t do nothing. She has to act.
A ticking time clock
It’s not always possible to include a ticking time clock in a psychological thriller (and a lot of mine don’t include one) but if your story does lend itself to a ticking time clock then absolutely include one. If your character doesn’t achieve their goal in a certain number of days or hours then something terrible will happen. B.A. Paris used this device brilliantly in her international bestseller Behind Closed Doors.
Action, action, action (and change the setting)
One issue that psychological thrillers frequently suffer from is the main character thinking too much. I’ve lost count of the number of books I’ve read where the main character spends more time analysing a) what happened to her and b) all the steps she’s taken to try and solve the mystery than actually doing something.
Readers often binge-read psychological thrillers in a single day (or a sitting if you’ve really hooked them) and it’s frustrating if there’s a pause after every revelation so the main character to mull over what just happened. Keep the action moving, make the obstacles bigger and scarier and change up the setting if you can as it keeps things interesting. Do your characters need to have another conversation around the kitchen table or could you set it somewhere a bit different?
If the obstacles increase in scale then your plot shouldn’t sag in the middle and your reader should remain gripped. And if you feel that it is all becoming a bit slow then throw in a mid-point twist to turn everything on its head.
Pile on the mystery
You have your central question but what other mysteries can you include that can be poised, and gradually revealed, over the course of the book? Introducing additional mysteries keeps the reader interested and guessing. In The Guilty Couple I want readers to wonder who the mysterious texter is that Dominic can’t ignore, why Olivia’s lover ghosted her and what’s on the SIM cards that Dominic doesn’t want anyone to find.
A reader should be holding their breath when the main character does something risky but important, and there should be terrifying consequences if the character gets caught. Don’t make it too easy for your character to achieve anything. Have them fail repeatedly before they’re successful – it ups the tension.
If they’re being stalked have them desperately searching for their house key as they walk faster and faster, have them fumbling it into the lock, then dropping it and as the footsteps of the approaching villain get louder and louder.
If you can give your character a difficult decision to make you’ll also increase the tension, particularly if both options are equally awful. I may have whispered ‘There’s the difficult decision’ to my partner as we watched the new Top Gun film (yes, I am that annoying person).
Nail the ending
After all that nail-biting tension, high stakes, seemingly insurmountable obstacles and a character the reader is rooting for, you must deliver a knockout ending. The best advice I can give here is not to rush it. Your character shouldn’t defeat the villain or find the missing child too easily. Again, have them fail repeatedly before they are victorious. Make the reader think it’s all wrapped up and then throw one final obstacle at the main character. And of course, the ending is also the perfect place for a ‘What the hell?’ blow-your-socks-off twist.
(c) C.L. Taylor
Read Part 1 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.