Tuesday, 8 May 2018

How to Write a Psychological Thriller

Latest thriller - published Today! (May 8)
When people eagerly greet me with the words 'I've got a great idea for a novel', the first response that flashes into my mind is: 'Okay, so now you need about fifty more and you might be on to something.'

It's true! One sparky idea might give you a great hook for the opening of a novel, but in a psych thriller, you need a lot more. In my humble opinion what follows is my pared-down recipe to writing one.

What makes a Psychological Thriller?
In a nut-shell, most thrillers need some kind of dramatic incident at the start that sets off a chain of events, so that the reader is immediately gripped and intrigued. After this shock, the story needs to unfold with a search for something or someone, a chase or race against time, plus inner and outer turmoil for the main characters. It needs 'themes' to give the story continuity and meaning, 'threads' to link disparate parts of the plot together and 'layers' to show how the past relates to the present. The plot needs conflict and dilemmas, twists and turns, with set-backs and unexpected consequences following the characters' actions. And, of course, at the end it needs a super mind-blowing twist!

The hook to grab the reader at the outset
In Don't you Dare, there's a murder right at the outset and we know who did it and we think we know why. It's even on the jacket sleeve. What's the drama in that, you might ask? A-ha...it's what happens next that is key. Rachel has just attacked a stranger because she thought her daughter was in danger - and now he's dead. Beth wants to call the police. That's what anyone would do, surely? It was an accident. A misunderstanding. But Rachel absolutely refuses to involve the law. She puts her foot down and won't hear of it. She insists they keep what's happened a secret. Why is she so adamant?
My desk on a tidy day...
Structure and Characters
I usually use a three-act structure for my story arc and make sure I have distinct character arcs, too. Protagonists must make their own emotional journeys through the book and be different at the end from how they were at the beginning. Whilst the characters don't always need to be 'likeable', they do need to be fascinating or compelling in some way, so that the reader has a vested interest in what happens to them. They need to have colourful backstories to give them motives for having taken certain steps in the past, or for reacting how they do in the present. Psych thrillers usually contain a great deal of interior dialogue to show the inner worlds of the protagonists, so they need to have distinct personalities. Each one needs a well-defined 'voice'. Drawing on my experience as a psychotherapist, my characters often have psychological issues we can all relate to; hidden fears, grief, loneliness, addictions, jealousy or certain disorders, such as trauma-induced memory loss (see Lost in the Lake).

Before I start a new story, I like to have an overall concept for the book, to generate the 'feel' of the narrative. In the case of Don't you Dare, it was the question: 'What happens when your daughter becomes your enemy?' This allowed me to explore this complex and precarious dynamic. I also ask myself the following three questions:

1.Whose Story is it? 
Who is the narrator? Who is best placed to give the most dramatic account of what happens? Sometimes, it creates more drama to have two or more narrators, telling aspects of the story from their separate viewpoints in individual chapters. In Don't you Dare, we see the unfolding of events from both Rachel's (mother) and Beth's (daughter) points of view. This allows the reader to know details that the other character hasn't seen, to have 'insider' he's behind you-type knowledge! Furthermore, some secrets are also withheld from the reader. Neither Beth, nor the reader knows, for instance, why Rachel is so obsessed with covering up the crime at the beginning of the story. This allows me, as the author, to revel in lies, secrets and hidden motives! I love that sense of dissonance in a story - a sinister undercurrent where everything is not as it seems.

2.What big questions will the book explore?
In Don't you Dare, I was gripped by another question: What's it like to try to get away with a terrible crime? How will mother and daughter manage their dreadful secret? Will one of them break under pressure?  What happens to their relationship when they start blaming each other? Will they go ahead with the planned wedding in a matter of weeks? (it's good to have a 'race against time' element). Conflict, tension, mystery, manslaughter, lies and cover ups are all present in the opening chapters of this novel and the story spirals on from there. 

3.What other Themes are in the book?
At the outset, I identified the other areas I wanted to explore:
  • The problem with secrets when more than one person is involved
  • Rivalry between mother and daughter who are close in age - the dark side of female bonding
  • How grief and rage can lead people to go completely off the rails and commit rash acts
  • What people are capable of under duress
Rachel and Beth's home in Don't you Dare
Then there are settings, atmosphere and weather to consider. In my novel No Longer Safe, the snow plays a big part in the story. In The Evil Beneath, the River Thames is at the heart of the plot. In Don't you Dare, the 'rundown' terraced house in Winchester where Rachel and Beth live is a real place my husband and I viewed when we were house-hunting. I've made it more ramshackle in the story than it really was, but the layout of the first floor is the same as in this diagram, which shows the 'Jack and Jill' bathroom (one that's accessible from both bedrooms). This particular layout plays a part in the story...

Tattered back patio that features in Don't you Dare


Although I originally plotted the end of the book, when I came to write it, it completely changed. This seems to be common for writers. As the story progresses and the characters show who they really are, new possibilities come out of the woodwork.

After considering the structure, the story arc, the hook, the themes, the characters - after all that, you write the book. Simple...! 😉

DON'T YOU DARE is published by Bloodhound Books and available from Amazon
(for Amazon US click HERE)

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AJ Waines is a No 1 International Bestelling Author
All books can be read in any order 
(including Inside the Whispers (Bk 1) and Lost in the Lake (Bk 2) which are also in a series)
  •  Over 450,000 books sold worldwide
  • Girl on a Train  #1 Bestseller on Kindle in UK and Australia (2015 & 2016) 
  • No Longer Safe  #1 in 'Crime Noir' [30,000 sold in the first month]
Awarded Kindle KDP Top 10 'most-read Author' in UK 2016 & 2017