Do you love reading about the dark depths of the human soul?
Do you want to create characters who are drawn into worlds of evil serial killers?
Do stories where the human mind is put to the test entice you?
Then you might be a fan of psychological thrillers!
This guide will explain just what a psychological thriller is, equip you with some top tips for writing your own, and give you some fantastic recommendations from the genre.
What Is A Psychological Thriller?
So what is a psychological thriller? Well, while the wider thriller genre is characterised by suspense, action and darkness, psychological thrillers focus on the element of darkness. Action adventure thrillers are often pacy and events progress with a breakneck speed, while many psychological thrillers are likely to be ‘quieter’ and more focused on the inner life of their protagonist(s).
It is likely in a psychological thriller that external events will prompt an inner crisis, where perhaps a protagonist investigating a crime finds themselves with a dissolving sense of reality due to the investigation’s impact on them. A suspicion about a loved one might prompt our main character to spiral, questioning what they truly know about others around them – and themselves.
Psychological thrillers have obvious associations with the crime genre, but a less well-known aspect is how strongly they are related to the gothic genre. The tension between appearance and reality, a preoccupation with altered or disturbed mental states, and isolation of their protagonists are all common features of both the gothic and psychological thrillers.
Types Of Psychological Thriller
There are a number of types of psychological thrillers, which all share the key element of a preoccupation with darkness and the inner life of their protagonist(s).
These stories will often have ordinary characters living mundane lives that are disrupted by an inciting incident. This incident prompts a crisis for the main character, who becomes more isolated as they struggle with an external mystery and an internal conflict.
Supernatural psychological thrillers often incorporate elements of the paranormal and occult, which intertwine with the protagonist’s perception of reality and may be a factor in the balance of their mind becoming disturbed.
In these types of stories, protagonists are driven by vengeance. Perhaps they are the one who is wronged, or someone important to them was. Either way, the desire for revenge at all costs takes a toll on their life, relationships, and ultimately their sanity.
The workplace is a perfect setting for a psychological thriller – the possibilities for stressful situations, life-defining events, and toxic relationships are endless. Workplace psychological thrillers will centre around a sudden change in someone’s working life with ever-increasing fallout, threatening the protagonist’s career, relationships, and perhaps even their sense of identity.
Cuckoos lay their eggs in other birds’ nests, to be raised as their own. The fear of an interloper stealing your very identity – while no one else seems to even notice anything is amiss – is a key feature of the gothic genre with the archetypical doppelgänger: a chilling and unnatural double. Psychological thrillers featuring the fear of replacement play on this trope, and can cross over with the ‘domestic’ subgenre – someone being replaced in a relationship – or ‘workplace’ – being usurped in their career.
The Key Elements Of A Psychological Thriller
From the types outlined above, it is clear to see that a psychological thriller will likely feature a protagonist who experiences an inner crisis due to external events.
That crisis will often cause the protagonist to question their understanding of reality and truth, especially if they experience an altered state of mind. This also links to one of the most enjoyable elements of a psychological thriller – the unreliable narrator.
The reliability of other characters around your protagonist is also brought into question. Who is telling the truth? Who thinks they are telling the truth, but actually is not? Who can be trusted?
All of these aspects of a psychological thriller play out in the genre’s exploration of the darkness in humanity – the capacity for evil in an individual or societal group. The more familiar the settings, individuals, or groups, the more chilling the exploration of the potential for evil can be.
Familiarity provides excellent opportunities for twists – play with your reader’s expectations of families, colleagues and social groups so that you can pull the rug out for them at the opportune moment.
Ultimately, the best psychological thrillers live and die on the authenticity of their protagonists. Providing a backstory that explains who your character is and why they act in the way they do is a key element in creating an authentic and compelling character – but you may want to hold elements of that context back, so that the character’s history forms part of the twists and turns of your plot.
Examples Of Psychological Thrillers
The Last House On Needless Street By Catriona Ward
Catriona Ward’s gripping psychological thriller fits well within the ‘revenge’ subgenre, as one of the main protagonists, Dee, is engaged on a years-long crusade to find out what happened to her sister. Convinced that the reclusive Ted is the prime suspect in her kidnapping, Dee sets up in the house opposite his to watch him and wait for her chance to prove his guilt. However, nothing in this story is quite what it seems – including the characters themselves. Ward’s gradual revelation of her characters’ backstories is a masterclass in building a compelling and shocking plot that keeps readers engaged until the last page.
The Talented Mr Ripley By Patricia Highsmith
A classic of the genre, Highsmith’s Ripley stories show him inveigling his way into the lives of others – making it an excellent example of the ‘cuckoo’ subgenre. The tension in the plot is driven largely by Ripley striving to replace others in his quest for acceptance and affection, and the lengths that he is willing to go to in order to achieve this. As a result of his subterfuge, even the most innocuous scenes and events are dripping with tension.
OldBoy By Park Chan-wook
Another classic in the ‘revenge’ subgenre, Park’s stylish and disturbing film follows Dae-su, a businessman who is inexplicably kept prisoner in an apartment for years. Swearing revenge on his mysterious captors, Dae-su embarks on a mission to discover who they are once he is released, and to take his revenge. Twists and turns follow, including who is actually taking revenge on whom.
My Sister The Serial Killer By Oyinkan Braithwaite
Korede has a quiet and ordered life – except for when it comes to clearing up her sister Ayoola’s messes. Braithwaite’s examination of Korede’s relationship with her sister, how it developed and what it implicates her in, is the backbone of this darkly hilarious domestic psychological thriller. The juxtaposition of the mundanity of Korede’s life and the brutality of the murders Ayoola blithely commits provides a gradually escalating conflict – especially when Ayoola sets her sights on the man Korede is secretly in love with.
#Fashion Victim By Amina Akhtar
Akhtar’s darkly comedic take on the – literally – cutthroat fashion industry has elements of the ‘workplace’ and ‘cuckoo’ psychological thriller subgenres. Anya St. Clair has fought her way up the fashion world totem pole, and her main rival is also the woman she most desires a friendship with – the beautiful and privileged Sarah Taft. An entertainingly unreliable narrator, the increasingly unhinged Anya will do anything to get to where she wants to be, providing much of the dark humour of this novel.
How To Write A Psychological Thriller
Include An Unreliable Narrator
A psychological thriller features a protagonist whose perspective is or becomes compromised in some way – perhaps they are gaslit, or deceived, or suspect they are. They may be under the influence of mind-altering substances, or in the grip of an addition or condition that affects the balance of their mind.
Whatever the reason is, your protagonist’s reliability being in question will provide much of the tension inherent in a psychological thriller’s plot. Playing with your readers’ expectations of who can be trusted makes for an enjoyably twisty plot as you gradually reveal what is really going on, and what the truth really is.
Steadily Build Tension
In all thrillers, steadily increasing tension is a must. Lacking the sudden ‘jump scares’ notable to the wider thriller genre, the best psychological thrillers will gradually ramp up the tension to make an unputdownable read. But how to do this? Incorporating the key elements outlined above, such as twists, unreliable narrators, the exploration of darkness, and drip-feeding the reader key backstory information can all be utilised to increase tension.
Also consider continually raising the stakes – what begins as a small, seemingly innocuous change in the protagonist’s life should snowball, widening the impact out to all corners of their life.
Give Your Characters Limitations
Psychological thrillers often have a mystery at their centre, which is not resolved until the end. This mystery might be a large, external one – ‘who was responsible for my loved one’s death?’ – or it might be internal and personal – ‘am I going mad?’
In order to effectively build tension, introduce limitations to your character’s quest for the truth. Perhaps key evidence is missing, or other characters act as obstacles. Increasing the limitations (is their freedom restricted? Have all their friends/family/colleagues turned against them?) will work to increase the stakes as well, as solving the (murder) mystery becomes intertwined with vindicating themselves as well.
Create Plot Twists
In Aristotle’s ‘Poetics’, he wrote: “tragedy represents not only a complete action but also incidents that cause fear and pity, and this happens most of all when the incidents are unexpected and yet one is a consequence of the other.” This is often paraphrased as the advice that plot twists should be ‘surprising yet inevitable’. Basically, you should not ‘cheat’ at plot twists by introducing something so out of left field that the reader could not possibly have seen it coming.
Although a twist should be a shock, it should also retrospectively make complete sense. Developing such a twist is where your editing and revising skills come in – adding details in subsequent drafts once you’ve come up with your big twist enables you to lay a trail that, though hidden when first travelled, is obvious when your reader looks back.
This step comes in handy with other elements of writing a psychological thriller, such as having unreliable narrators, twists, and backstories. Holding back key information allows you to misdirect your reader, leading them to believe – or suspect – one thing is true, while in fact something else entirely is. Key information might include details about a character’s history, but might also take the form of what really happened during significant events, which is revealed as the plot progresses and the protagonist’s investigation takes them further towards the truth.
Frequently Asked Questions
Is A Psychological Thriller A Horror?
While a psychological thriller contains some aspects of horror, it is distinct in key ways. Horror stories have supernatural or occult elements, which are integral aspects of the genre, while not all psychological thrillers do. A horror is also more likely to have sudden, shocking events – also known as ‘jump scares’. Due to the focus on an internal conflict in psychological thrillers, jump scares are not often key features of the genre.
Some horror stories do have a strong psychological element to them, while other horror stories do not. The psychological horror genre consists of stories which contain elements of both the psychological thriller genre and the horror genre.
Why Are Psychological Thrillers So Popular?
There are a number of theories as to why psychological thrillers are so popular. Some psychologists suggest that people are drawn to stories which examine the awful things humans are capable of as a kind of preventative action – raising their awareness of these things so that they can recognise and avoid them in real life. Others have theorised that stories where things are initially strange and inexplicable, but where the truth is ultimately revealed, are cathartic and satisfying to consume – no matter how disturbing that truth may be.
What Are The Main Elements Of A Psychological Thriller?
A psychological thriller will feature a protagonist who experiences an inner conflict prompted by external events. There will be a focus on the dark side of life, and gradually increasing tension. Often, protagonists will be unreliable – this can be due to having their perception affected by paranoia, substances, or obsession. The plot will feature twists; sometimes linked to the revelation of their characters’ backstories.
Writing Psychological Thrillers
Making psychological thrillers allows us to plunge into the depths of darkness that people are capable of, but also provides us with an opportunity to shine a light on how humanity can survive – and even emerge triumphant – in the face of such darkness. Stories which show us a mind creaking under strain can also show us how terrible events can be overcome.
For all their grim and grit, psychological thrillers can ultimately be hopeful and inspiring stories, showing how resilience is possible even when things seem hopeless.
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