As a thriller writer of 3 novels, I’ve learned a thing or two about suspense writing and how to keep the reader engaged. If you’re an aspiring or veteran author who writes or wants to write thrillers, check out this FAQ post for writers about writing psychological thrillers and understanding the elements of a psychological thriller.

What is a psychological thriller book?

The definition of a psychological thriller is one largely driven by the mental disposition of one or more characters. In contrast to other sub-genres, including crime, medical and political thrillers, the twists and turns in these suspense stories often are driven more by character development than events. A good psychological thriller builds the sense of impending threat as the reader discovers just what the characters may be capable of.

An example of suspense in a story can be seen in my psychological thriller Suffer Little Children, Gloria – the mother of a terminally ill boy – is fixated on getting him admitted to a particular research program, for which he’s ineligible. Robin, a nurse who administers the program, becomes the target of her unremitting and increasingly threatening campaign. While Gloria’s obsession propels the suspense story, Robin’s own personal baggage further complicates the situation. 

Why do you write psychological thriller novels?

I love reading a suspenseful story. Why I write psychological thrillers means returning the favor to the reader in the sense that she can keep turning the pages.  Psychological thriller books with a twist catch both the reader and author off-guard.  As a psychologist, I embrace the challenge of using my experience to create believable characters. Their flaws, needs, and desires drive the story – often in directions, I didn’t anticipate. My surprises become my readers’.

How do you get ideas for a booknamely new thriller novels?

I’d never violate a patient’s confidentiality, but their situations help with the ongoing question, how to be inspired to write. Small details from one or two personal stories create a suspense story idea and my imagination already takes over and gives me the confidence to transport my characters and plots to places only faintly resembling their origins.

How do you outline a chapter for a book?

I develop a master outline for the three acts of the novel. It’s a scaffold, even though I expect the story to change as I write. Writing the first draft of a novel means maintaining a “Next Directions” worksheet, with a brief synopsis of the upcoming two or three chapters. Writing a new chapter for a new psychological thriller like Suffer Little Children involves expanding the synopsis, often by creating some of the dialogue. That usually gives me the momentum to continue. The elements of a psychological thriller begin with the scene, setting, an opening, action, dialogue, and an ending that leaves the reader eager to learn what happens next. I don’t always nail down all those elements in my first draft, but I fill them in the next time around – or the third, fourth, or fifth time. 

How do you revise a thriller novel? Are there certain considerations that make the revision process different than other genres?

Revising a novel means I typically go through at least five revisions. Since unanticipated character quirks and sometimes the best plot twists emerge in the first draft, I go back and make sure I’ve set them up convincingly, maybe by adding backstory for the characters, dropping a hint about what’s in store, or otherwise tweaking the story to align with the climax and ending I’ve come up with. These are the qualities that make a story suspenseful. I suspect these unexpected plot developments may be typical in the writing process for thriller authors.  Beyond that, it takes a tremendous amount of polishing and editing to make the finished novel flow as though the story were effortless to tell. It helps to have great content and line editors to point out my blind spots!  

It’s often been noted that writing a psychological thriller can often put you in a dark place in your head. How do you deal with these emotions?

I spent years as a psychotherapist listening to and empathizing with real-life stories of people’s dark places. I learned to stay inside my own skin so I could be an effective helper. Plotting and writing suspense fiction never puts me in a dark place. The more disturbing my stories become, the more I anticipate enthralling my readers. Like everyone else, I’ve awoken from nightmares that left me shaken. Writing doesn’t affect me that way. I’m too busy concentrating.

How scary is it to write psychological thrillers? Have you ever experienced certain triggers as you go?

I’ve never been frightened or triggered by my own stories. The only time writing makes me uncomfortable is when I feel stuck. But even that has become less distressing as I’ve gained experience with the process.

What about authors who write thrillers? Is there a certain kind of “qualification” or internal psychology they need to toughen the writing game?

Writing a thriller book is not for the faint at heart. The suspense author can’t be squeamish. She must rough up her protagonist and take her to the brink of ruin. The reader needs to wonder if and how the character can survive dire threats – to her safety, her integrity, to all she holds dear.

What are some techniques for writing thrillers?

I’ll bet James Patterson could nail the answer to that question! Personally, I don’t like to think in terms of “technique.” Each novel is a search for a particular story and demands patience and persistence. But I do apply the structure Shawn Coyne delineated in his book The Story Grid. In terms of thriller novel structure, he recommends experienced and new thriller writers plot out the three acts of their novels – the Opening Hook, the Middle Build, and the Ending Payoff – and further breaks down these three parts into their essential elements. It’s a useful formula for writing a thriller.

Finally, any advice for beginning writers who want to learn how to write psychological thrillers? Where do you suggest they start?

Read the thriller book genre – as much as you can. Ask yourself – what does my character want?  Why does s/he want that? What will be the consequences? Keep inching forward. The only way to fail is to give up.

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