How to Write a Psychological Thriller: Definition, Tips, and How to Publish

The psychological thriller genre has been popular for many years, and it's not likely to go anywhere in the foreseeable future. Readers tend to devour these page-turners, making this a great genre to get into if you're looking for a hungry audience. But in order to hook readers, you'll need to brush up on how to write a psychological thriller. 

In this article, you will learn:
  1. Common psychological thriller tropes.
  2. What to do before you start writing.
  3. Tips for writing an enthralling psychological thriller. 

What is a Psychological Thriller?

A psychological thriller is one that really gets inside the head of the characters, often with surprising and disturbing revelations. At least one character is often mentally unstable or is being manipulated to this effect, and this fact is a major part of the plot. Crucially, the reader isn't always sure at first which character is mentally unstable, making the unreliable narrator a major staple of the genre. 

These books (sometimes called psychological suspense novels) are fast-paced, feature cliffhanger chapters, and keep the reader guessing all the way through. They also have some sort of twist that's revealed during the climax, which helps to bring the entire narrative together in a way that the reader didn't see coming. 

Whereas thrillers by authors like Tom Clancy or Robert Ludlum often feature somewhat larger-than-life characters, like spies, detectives, or special forces operators, psychological thrillers are a little closer to home. The protagonist is often an “average” person who is flawed and otherwise leads a normal life until the inciting incident happens

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The Domestic Thriller: A Psychological Subgenre

While there are several psychological suspense subgenres, domestic thrillers seem to be populating the charts more and more lately. So I thought it important that I mention them here. 

A domestic thriller is one that focuses on the relationships of those closest to the protagonist. The main character is often a woman who is dealing with some sort of deceit from a husband, wife, parent, sibling, or friend (or multiple people). The primary tension comes from the protagonist realizing that the biggest threat may be coming from those people she is closest with. 

Depending on the type of story, the terms psychological thriller and domestic thriller may be used interchangeably. As you can probably guess from the name, domestic thrillers take place mainly in the home. 

Common Psychological Thriller Tropes

Before we get into the tropes, it's important to note that they're neither good nor bad. Some tropes, when overused, can turn into cliches. At this point, they're probably best left behind. But other tropes appear repeatedly for a reason: they're what the readers are looking for. 

This is not to say that you should include every trope listed below in your psychological thriller. Knowing which ones to include is only something you can decide for yourself after reading extensively in the genre.

  • The protagonist has an inner conflict exacerbated by an external event (inciting incident). 
  • Some sort of mental health issue plays a major role in the story (doesn't have to be the main character). This could be a diagnosed or undiagnosed mental health issue, paranoia, deep distrust, rampant fear, suspicion, or a slow slipping away of sanity.
  • Reality comes into question as the story progresses. 
  • The protagonist finds it hard to decide who to trust.
  • There's a major plot twist at the climax. (There may be multiple plot twists.)
  • The characters are flawed, complex, and relatable
  • The settings are common (home, office, child's school, church, etc.)
  • The stakes may not be life or death (although they can be), but they should be sanity or insanity, or well-being or a ruined life. 

These are just some of the major overarching tropes in the psychological thriller genre. There are many other, more specific tropes, such as the missing child, the stranger who knows too much, the family member who committed a crime, and dozens of others. You can decide on the more specific tropes as you begin to write your story. 

But before you start writing your psychological thriller or short story, you must first get to know the genre.

Psychological Thrillers to Read or Watch

Here are just a few good psychological thriller stories to help you get to know the genre. As you read or watch them, note how they maintain suspense, what you like about the characters, and what they all have in common. 

  • The Silent Patient by Alex Michaelides
  • The Housemaid by Freida McFadden
  • Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn (Also a movie directed by David Fincher)
  • Don't Let Her Stay by Nicola Sanders
  • Strangers on a Train by Patricia Highsmith (Also a movie directed by Alfred Hitchcock)
  • The Surgeon by Leslie Wolfe
  • The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins (Also a movie directed by Tate Taylor)
  • Keep It in the Family by John Marrs
  • Dolores Claiborne by Stephen King (Also a movie directed by Taylor Hackford)
  • Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty (Also a series from HBO)

Research Your Subgenre

If you want to succeed as an indie author, it's important to think about your book as a product that you'll need to market when you're done writing it. While every person's definition of “success” is different, most people want to get their book in as many readers' hands as possible. And if that's what you want, it's a good idea to research your subgenre first. 

It used to be that you could choose up to ten categories for your book on Amazon. Today, you can only choose three. And if you're not already a known quantity with a reader base, you'll need to be careful about where you put your books. 

Choosing Your Categories

Luckily psychological thriller books can fit into multiple Amazon subgenres. Finding which ones have the right amount of competition and hungry readers is the hard part – unless you use Publisher Rocket. 

With this tool I designed specifically for indie authors, you can do your genre research in less than an hour instead of spending three or more hours combing Amazon and trying to collect all the relevant data. 

Maybe your protagonist is a lawyer and your thriller could fit into the legal thriller genre as well as the psychological fiction genre. Maybe the story revolves around a crime committed in a normally safe, sleepy neighborhood. In this case, it might be a crime novel as well as a psychological suspense novel. 

Choosing your three categories wisely is an important part of positioning your book for success. And this tool can help. Check out Publisher Rocket here

I also have an article on how to do your category research without Publisher Rocket. It takes significantly longer, but you can check it out here to see how it's done!

How to Write a Psychological Thriller: Tips and Tricks

Psychological thriller authors walk a storytelling tightrope. They must provide the reader with enough information to keep them interested, but not so much that they give away the big plot twist. With the tips below, you can learn to craft a story that teeters on that tightrope to create a nail-biting read. 

Decide on Your POV and Tense

There are two main points of view in most creative writing: first person and third person. There are different types of third-person narrators (limited and omniscient) and only one type of first-person narrator. Most psychological thrillers feature a first-person narrator. Some feature both a first-person narrator for the protagonist and a third-person narrator for other point-of-view characters. 

It's up to you which you choose. First-person allows you to give the reader a more intimate connection with the protagonist and allows for the unreliable narrator trope. But it also becomes harder to keep important information from the reader without making it seem like you're “cheating.” 

Both types of narrators have their pros and cons, so this is where the books you've read in the genre come in handy. Look to your favorite books to gain insight into how great authors use first or third-person point of view to their advantage. 

Likewise, you’ll need to decide whether you want to write your story in the present or the past tense. Most stories are written in the past tense, but the present tense is becoming more common. However, it’s generally harder to write a full novel in the present tense given the limitations associated with that tense. 

Start With a Hook

The best psychological thrillers start with a strong hook to catch the reader's interest. Sometimes, this is a flash forward to show the reader what will happen before showing them the character's “ordinary world” or everyday life. Other times, the opening scene is a crime or a strange occurrence that turns the protagonist's life upside down. 

In The Silent Patient, the novel starts with a terrible crime: a woman brutally murders her husband. But before we get this information, the first thing we read is a journal entry from the woman, in which she describes how much she loves her husband. The actual murder happens “off-page,” making us wonder why a woman who loved her husband would do such a thing – and why she refuses to say a single word to anyone after. 

The key to a good hook is giving enough information about the protagonist to get the reader invested. But resist the urge to spend a lot of time sharing mundane details about the protagonist. You can drip-feed much of this information to the reader after you've hooked them.  

Focus on Your Characters

Character development is crucial in psychological thrillers. While thrillers are traditionally plot-driven, psychological thrillers are a bit of an outlier. The plot and the characters are both equally important. 

Since these thrillers focus on the psychological aspects of a person or people, the characters need to be believable, and recognizable. Having flat characters in major roles is a good way to lose your reader's interest. 

Complex characters, on the other hand, can help you keep the reader engaged. They should be thinking “What if this happened to me?” as they read. And it shouldn't be a stretch for them to think that. Most people aren't detectives or spies, which is why compelling characters are a must in psychological thrillers. 

If you're not sure how to create complex characters, check out this article on character development

Keep the Pace Fast and the Tension Up

I mentioned above that psychological thrillers are fast-paced, and this requires some explanation. Often, when people think of a fast-paced thriller, they think of car chases, explosions, and gunfights. This isn't the case with psychological thrillers. But that doesn't mean they are slow-paced. Quite the opposite. 

You can create a fast-paced psychological thriller by tightly controlling the flow of information to the reader. This way, you can keep the tension up by revealing small but important bits of information to the reader. And each new thing the reader learns should make things harder for the protagonist. If they take two steps forward, they should take one step back. 

If the protagonist is looking for her child who disappeared, she can find a piece of clothing or a favorite toy in a neighbor's yard, bringing the seemingly sweet neighbors into the fold and making both the reader and protagonist question what's happening. Perhaps, when confronted with the information, the neighbors start acting strange or say something cryptic to further increase the mystery. 

There don't have to be crazy things happening in every chapter, but the intrigue needs to grow in a quiet yet insidious manner. 

Mind the Antagonist

Not every psychological thriller has a clear antagonist. Sometimes, the big reveal at the end is that the antagonist is the last person the reader ever suspected. Other times, the antagonist was a figment of the protagonist’s imagination. 

In other words, the antagonist doesn't have to be a person at all. It can be a mental illness, an addiction, or a past trauma that the protagonist has to work hard to overcome. That's not to say that it can't be a person. Some dark psychological thrillers feature a serial killer or a manipulative family member as the antagonist. 

There should be some kind of external force working against the protagonist, but it doesn't have to be a single person who's clearly recognizable as the “baddy.” 

No Guaranteed Happy Ending

Psychological thriller readers don't automatically expect a happy ending. In fact, while the protagonist may overcome their major flaws and come through the other side, they're often changed forever by their experience—and not necessarily for the better. 

Maybe a person they love is not who they say they are. Maybe the secrets unearthed are too much to overcome. Maybe the story even ends with the death of someone once dear to the protagonist. Whatever the case, even the happy endings in psychological thrillers aren't necessarily all that happy. 

Likewise, some of these thrillers end without any glimmer of hope. Perhaps the main character is truly insane. Perhaps there is a happy ending, but it's only happy because it's completely in the character's mind and they've withdrawn from the outside world completely. 

The point is, you don't have to have any specific type of ending. But there should be a twist and a big reveal – that's what psychological thriller readers want. 

Set Manageable Goals 

Writing fiction takes sustained and consistent commitment. This is why it's important to set manageable goals that you can accomplish on a daily or weekly basis. Even if it's just 1,000 words a week, having a goal will help keep you on track so you can write your thriller novel. 

This is why my team and I added a writing goal tool to our all-in-one formatting and writing tool, Atticus. You can set your custom writing goal for whatever days of the week you want, and the tool will keep track of your progress. 

Plus, when all is said and done and you're getting ready to publish, Atticus will format your manuscript into professional-quality files for publishing in eBook and paperback. You can choose from premade options or customize your own templates. Either way, you can have a beautifully formatted book in under twenty minutes once your manuscript is done! Check out Atticus here to learn more. 

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How to Write a Psychological Thriller: Conclusion

Good thriller writing takes time, effort, and a knowledge of what the readers of the genre are looking for. But with a basic understanding of the psychological thriller genre, you can craft a story that's at once unique to you and perfect for the market

Your thriller book may also fit well into other subgenres, such as crime fiction or domestic thrillers. If so, it's important to ensure that you're signaling that's the case to potential readers. You do this in your cover, your blurb, and the first pages of your book. To make sure you're in line with your chosen categories, check out Publisher Rocket. It pulls information directly from Amazon to give you a behind-the-scenes look at specific categories your book may fit in. With this information, you can package your book for success on Amazon!

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