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7 Tips for Writing Psychological Thrillers


7 tips for writing psychological thrillers by Kristin Noland speculative fiction and crime fiction editor on a purple sky with lightning


There’s no more room in the basement for the bodies. Just kidding.


But psychological thrillers are some of my favorite novels.


Delving deep into the human psyche to reveal some of our darkest thoughts or eccentric minds, takes a lot of guts.


Psychological thrillers fall under the crime fiction genre designation, but they are so much more.

It’s more than creating a captivating and suspenseful fictional story, you have to do a lot of research, planning, and plotting!


You may have multiple timelines or perspectives. You have to hold back on revealing certain information from your reader, so the plot twists happen at the best times. You want to plant some red herrings in the story as well, and knowing what those should be and where they should go for the maximum effect is difficult.


With these 7 tips you can write a psychological thriller that readers will love!


1. Psychology Research and Authentic Representation


Conducting thorough research to ensure the accuracy and authenticity of the psychological elements of the story is incredibly important. You may find yourself reading text books!


Whether it’s psychological conditions, investigative techniques, or legal procedures, strive to portray them realistically.


Details enhance the believability of the story and strengthen its impact.


I can’t stress enough how much research needs to be done for this genre to create authenticity.


You will need to dig deep into yourself and your psyche as well as ‘hit the books.’


2. Thorough Planning of Your Psychological Thriller Novel

Psychological thriller storytellers invest a lot of time planning their stories.


You will outline your main plot points, key twists, and character arcs. Although thrillers emphasize the crime more than the characters, they still need arcs.


You will also lay the groundwork for your characters by delving into the psychological elements of the story, mapping out their motivations, fears, and secrets. Everyone loves a secret!


Through planning, you will have a clear direction as you write.


3. Deep Character Development


While the character arcs are less stressed in the genre, it does need complex and multi-dimensional characters.


You will spend a lot of time developing characters’ backgrounds, personalities, and motivations.


As in other types of fiction, you will explore their strengths, weaknesses, and hidden desires, but you must examine their psychological states, which may differ from what many would consider within the ‘normal’ range.


The more layered and realistic your characters are, the more readers can connect with them on an emotional level.


I love connecting with characters who have a psychological condition. It sounds strange, but when this happens, I know the author wrote them as believable, and through motivations, emotions, or situations, I’ve bonded with them, even if they are quite a bit different than me.


4. Creating Suspense and Using Mind Games


Suspense is a key element of thriller novels.


You carefully craft your narratives to gradually build tension, heighten the stakes, and increase the conflicts.


Foreshadowing, strategic reveals, and the manipulation of reader expectations keep readers engaged and immersed in the story.


Yes, I said manipulation.


Psychological thrillers use a higher level of manipulation to mess with readers. All authors play mind games with their readers, but with this fiction genre you take them to the next level!


5. Intricate Plotting Before You Write


Plotting is crucial for psychological thrillers.


Intricate and well-paced plots keep readers guessing and eager to uncover the truth.


Unexpected twists and red herrings keep your readers fascinated and guessing until the very end. They want to be smarter than the characters but also be surprised, especially when they didn’t expect a detail to be so important!


A fast pace and strong cliffhangers also keep them turning the page. Just ask Dan Brown!


I love the term red herring. Herring was used to leave a sent trail for hunting dogs to chase. The term wasn’t used to describe a false lead until much later. By the way, any herring will do, but cooking one turns it red!


6. Writing Style for Psychological Thrillers


As in all writing, developing a writing style that is evocative and immersive is crucial as is using vivid descriptions and sensory details.


But careful word choice can create not only an engrossing experience but can guide the readers to a false conclusion in psychological thrillers.


Your aim is to transport readers into the minds of your characters, heighten the psychological tension, and lead them to false deductions!


Think about Gone Girl and the language and misinformation Gillian Flynn uses to make her readers assume guilt and innocence.


7. Revising and Refining Fiction


Writing any fiction novel authors revise their work diligently. Often taking many rounds of editing.


You will focus on tightening the plot, enhancing the pacing, and refining the character arcs, but you will pay close attention to what you keep hidden from their readers, the when and how clues and red herrings are revealed, and the effectiveness of suspenseful moments and cliffhangers.


Even the greats didn’t write a perfect first draft. Or second. Or third.



Writing is a continual learning process. You may have written a procedural crime novel or cozy mystery, but writing a psychological thriller is different.


Doing your research, planning your fictional story, and creating your characters are the first steps. Playing with pacing, adding red herrings, and timing to build suspense and trick your readers comes next.


Refining your writing style and selecting the best words to lead your readers in the wrong direction comes last.


It’s important you find your unique voice, while experimenting with different techniques and genres, but stay committed to honing your craft.


Embrace the joy of storytelling, and don’t be afraid to take risks and push the boundaries of your creativity.


I hope you enjoyed this article.


Happy writing and revising!


Kristin Noland - Speculative Fiction and Crime Fiction Editor and Ghostwriter



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