How to Write a Psychological Thriller – 15 Important Factors

How To Write A Psychological Thriller

Wondering how to write a psychological thriller? It can actually be a lot more challenging than many may think. You’re going to have to really dedicate yourself to learn about this process. The silver lining here is that if you’re looking to pursue writing psychological thrillers, there’s a lot of information to help you with.

The genre is really popular and has produced many popular stories. Famous authors in this genre include Mary Higgins Clark, Gillian Flynn, and even Stephen King. Their work has also set the standard for how psychological thrillers should be written.

Luckily, there’s no hard and fast rule here but, knowing how to write a psychological thriller hinges on the following 15 important factors.

1. Understand the Thriller Type

When it comes to thrillers, you will see that it has many different types. On average, thrillers consist of the following genres:

Mystery Thrillers

These are focused on themes relating to solving a mystery such as murder, theft or suicide. These are also generally fast paced and have an intense environment. This genre was made popular by Mary Higgins Clark. Her work is a testament to what good mystery thrillers are.

Spy Thrillers

These thrillers are focused on themes that involve espionage, spies and political secrets. From kidnapping to assassination and even elimination, this genre has it all. Just try to stay clear of any allusions to James Bond.

Military Thrillers

These are based on wars, whether real or fictional and can tie in with spy thrillers at some point. Themes like hacking, war secrets, nuclear wars and more are quite common and add the thrill in the story.

Science Fiction Thrillers

This genre uses a lot of themes rooted in science fiction but it adds an element of mystery to it. From alien abductions to mutations from experiments gone wrong and hostile zombies, this genre gives an interesting spin to thrillers.

Psychological Thrillers

This thriller genre focuses on the psychological motivations behind the characters in the story. Main characters are usually mentally disturbed or are in situations where their mental capacities are taxed, usually negatively.

Defining each genre in this manner gives more clarity and removes any ambiguity you might face in writing your psychological thriller. As you can see, it has a completely different meaning behind it than what you might have previously assumed.

In this manner, you won’t have any confusion in your content which in turn means that your readers will enjoy the story more as well!

2. Do Some Preliminary Reading

Before you start writing, it is a good idea to acquaint yourself further with the psychological thriller genre by reading some more books about it.  Some good titles that you should try reading for psychological thrillers are:

  • Gone Girl – Gillian Flynn
  • The Silence of the Lambs – Thomas Harris
  • The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo – Stieg Larsson
  • The Girl on the Train – Paula Hawkins
  • Black Eyed Susan – Julia Heaberlin
  • Shutter Island – Dennis Lehane

This might seem like a waste of time to you but it actually allows you to understand major components of the story. Plus, you can see just how different writers bring their own style to life in their writing. As an exercise, you should try to identify certain similarities in writing.

  • How are they presenting their story?
  • Does the scene carry the plot?
  • Are there any cliffhangers?
  • Are the characters relatable?

Once you have the answer to these questions, you will find that you understand how to write psychological thrillers a bit better. It will also make your task of writing easier.

3. Brainstorm for Good Ideas

Now that you understand what psychological thrillers are, it’s time to put your mind to work here. You will need to start brainstorming for ideas. Try to be as original as possible but, given the popularity of the genre, this might prove to be a more difficult task than you might have assumed.

Good thrillers are also rooted in strong story ideas. They’re also usually built around one protagonist who has either fallen victim to someone or must fight against another character. It’s a good idea to make a mind map of possible ideas and remove all the weak ones.

In this case, you want to avoid clichés or ideas that have been used too much. The only time it is okay to use clichés is if you are positive that you can write them in a different manner and add a touch of authenticity to it. Readers can tell when you aren’t being authentic and will usually abandon a story if they feel it is similar to another one.

Keep this in mind when you are about to pick a story idea to work one. As a general rule, try to look up stories that share similar themes to the ones you have. If there are too many, move on to the next idea. Take your time here and don’t rush the process. It’s better to write slowly but extensively on an original idea than to rush things.  

The more you research your work, the better you will be able to write about it in your story

4. Research Every Single Thing

Before you start writing, try to contemplate just how much you understand about the psychological side of human nature. Your imagination will only take you so far. Remember that it’s hard to write about something that you don’t know.

To prevent this confusion, always do your research about the kind of things you are discussing. If you want to write about a police arrest, you have to look at different aspects like forensic reports, police procedures, holding cell conditions, limitations and more.

Similarly, if you’re writing about a psychiatric hospital, you will have to do some research into this area before you choose to write about it.

Now, the major issue is that nowadays, people rely on Google for research. While Google is a good start, it is not the only tool for you to use. If you only depend on Google, you cannot write an in-depth story. Instead, you need to use different sources so that you are able to give a different view point or insight into the story.

With psychological thrillers, you need to understand the inner workings of the mind. It’s no surprise then that Thomas Harris drew inspiration from real-life murderers for his book. Similarly, research deeply and use your research wisely. Readers today are actually pretty knowledgeable and can sense a false or made-up fact with ease. If they think you’re just making up stuff, they will not want to read your work again.

5. Characterization is Key

Apart from the research, you need to focus on another area that is extremely important; characterization. When you’re trying to figure out how to write psychological thrillers in a compelling manner, do not forget that your readers need a protagonist to connect with.

They’re supposed to be strong, ordinary people with flaws yet also have exceptional qualities that allow them to stand out from the rest. Good thrillers have characters that are engaging to the readers. However, to develop such characters, you want to make sure that you are characterizing them by bringing them to life.

In this case, you should try to make a character sheet that contains a brief description of the characters qualities, personality, flaws and their positives. This makes the character believable, more relatable and allows you to bring them life in a positive manner.

For example: The Silence of the Lambs contains different characters, such as Clarice M. Starling. Clarice is a young student at the FBI academy. Her training makes it obvious that she has tenacity, is resilient and highly intelligent with a double major in criminology and psychology. Not only is Clarice a great character in the story but in its movie adaptation, she also ranked as the sixth greatest protagonist in film history.

6. Make the Readers Care

Another thing that you want to do with your readers is to make them care for what’s going on in the plot. You want them to connect with the character and root for them. In fact, many readers do become attached to the characters and can understand or relate to what these characters are feeling in one way or another.

This can often tie the readers in with the moral dilemma of the story. In the novel, Gone Girl, we’re seeing that a loving husband is being accused of the murder of his wife. Despite his declarations of love, it is shown that he’s a flawed individual with anger issues.

It not only makes him more human but also compels the audience to think of him as a possible murderer! However, as the story unfolds, it’s revealed to us that everything the wife does was planned because the husband was cheating on her and she had planned to frame him for her murder.

By the time, the story is ending it becomes difficult to sympathize with the wife or the husband. In fact, despite the fact that both characters were highly flawed, the readers really liked the ending. It’s no surprise then that Gone Girl was made into a movie and performed very well.

7. Plot the Novel Carefully

Once you have your research and source material, character sheets and other details ready you need to start giving your novel a plot outline. Good psychological thrillers are fast-paced, have scenes that continue the story forward and are also easy to read.

They’re meant to give the readers a thrill, a twist and a scare. So, how do you deliver on this expectation? By plotting the novel properly right from the start. It’s a good idea to use a plot diagram that lets you understand just where to place the exposition, rising action, falling action, climax or the resolution.

Freytag’s Pyramid allows you to understand how a scene is built

Freytag’s Pyramid

If you’re facing confusion, try to apply Freytag’s Pyramid here. The pyramid breaks down a scene into 6 different areas, as seen on the pyramid or triangle shape. Based on this, you have to do the following:


This is where you’re presenting the characters including the antagonists, the setting such as the time or the place and also outlining the major conflict. This is the first arc which showcases or sets the mood for your readers. This is your first scene or Act 1.

Rising Action

This relates to when the major conflict shown in the exposition starts to rise. The reader will also begin to feel the tension that is associated with the conflict faced. At this point, the conflict will be explored further to understand just what is at stake here. In short, this is the calm before the storm.


This is the point where events come to a head or reach a crescendo. It is also when things start to either worsen or start to make sense to the protagonist of your story. In most stories, this is when everything has come crashing down and the antagonists seem to have the upper hand.

Falling Action

This point is when it is okay to start adding a reversal of events. There can now be seen a method in all the madness and that all hope is not lost for the protagonist. Incidents occur unexpectedly that start to turn the tide in the favor of the protagonist. The antagonist or the readers might be unaware of this happening.


Now, the story is coming to a conclusion and everything has been brought to light. The protagonist and antagonists are faced with either a choice or the cards are now out in the open and everyone can see a natural conclusion. You can enter a twist here but it must be done skillfully to prevent ruining the conclusion or to set the stage for the next scene.

This pyramid is applied on a minor scale for scenes in stories or for the whole story in the book. Plotting how your story outline will be along these lines is a good way to ensure story continuity.

8. Make it Gripping Right from the Start

When you’re writing a psychological thriller, you want to make it gripping right from the start. Your readers are expecting to be thrilled so, the first chapter really needs to pack a punch here. In thrillers, you will be happy to know that you can start right from the action.

You don’t need to include any back story or fine details at this point. These can be added later into the story too. You want to make sure that you’re gripping their attention and making them want to read more. A good way to start with a bang is to jumble up your story outline.

Think of it much like free writing where you write with minimal guidelines. Instead of having a neat little opening, you’re throwing the reader right into the middle of the story. Then you have to make sure to tie in the ending and the other aspects of the story.

Gone Girl is a very good example of a gripping book that throws readers into the middle of the action. We start out with the husband being arrested by the police and it really seems like there’s no way he’s going to be able to clear his name. Things look pretty bad for him. However, as the story progresses, we see that the truth is much deeper and the ending is definitely something that you wouldn’t have expected.

9. Add Some Drama with the Right Plot Twists

We’ve already discussed how each scene is different from a chapter and is meant to enhance and drive the story forward. On this basis, you want to make sure that you have scenes that do this as well. Freytag’s Pyramid can be added here to enhance how you make your scenes.

Additionally, each scene has to make sure that the chapter keeps moving forward. You should make sure that you’re carrying the plot forward, highlighting different areas and also providing the details needed to help your readers understand the mystery.

Good plot twists should also be the ones that add more to a story and also maintain the pace for the reader. Remember that not each scene needs to have a plot twist. This can be tiring for the reader as well because it can be too overwhelming. To make things easier, try to keep one plot twist for two scenes.

However, you are free to change this up as needed too so there are no hard and fast rules to stick by.

Random plot points can end up annoying the reader and make them very disappointed with the story

10. Don’t Create Random Plot Points

One thing that readers hate is when the book is coming to an end and suddenly, there’s an unrelated character or object that comes in handy and saves the day. This can make the writing appear very shoddy and make the reader lose interest.

Sure, we all like to see that the protagonist wins the day but not with a random plot twist. It’s akin to cheating and can be very annoying. If you do want to add a plot twist, carefully evaluate how it will contribute to or detract from the story.

Make changes as needed to make the plot point fit in with the story. You don’t want to make your readers see that there was an obvious missing blank that you just filled in as best as possible. Your aim should be to keep the story as tight, neat and relevant as possible.

Plus, if it looks like the protagonist might not make it then it is okay. Not all psychological thrillers have a happy ending to them.

11. No Dreams, Flashbacks or Memories

If this is your first time writing a psychological thriller, stay clear of any dreams, flashbacks or memories. It is very easy to cause confusion in the story with these and if you don’t know how to use them, then don’t try to use them.

As a rule, these are tools used to denote an event which happened in the person’s past but usually, writers face issues in continuity, story plot and also break the reader’s attention too. When used skillfully, it can be very valuable for pushing the story forward.

Shutter Island and Sidney Sheldon’s Tell Me Your Dreams are both psychological thrillers that make use of flashbacks and repressed memories for their protagonist. However, as you’ll see when you read both, they are very complexly written psychological thrillers.

When you’re just learning how to write a psychological thriller, it is a good idea to keep things easy for yourself. Plus, your readers will like your work more if you take the time to write it out properly.

12. Pacing Has to Be Faster

This is true for all thrillers and you have to apply it to yours too. The pacing for them has to be faster than other story types. This means that you will have to make sure that you’re telling your story in a manner that allows your readers to finish it in a day or two.

This means that you have to pay attention to chapter distribution and story structure. Faster pacing means that you improve readability but don’t cut your story short on this account. Plus, if you feel that your story can’t be told within 150 to 300 pages, how about breaking it down into a series?

It is better for your readers and you’ll be able to garner more interest in your work. It’s definitely a win-win for you to consider.

13. Leave the Reader Wanting More

This relates to your work as a writer. You want your readers to feel like, “Wow, I want to read more.” Reading can be addictive and if you provide the right fix, your readers will be stuck to your work and wait in anticipation of the next book and the next one.

It’s great for you to build a following in this manner and you can also make sure that if you release any series, you have the readers ready and waiting for it. Leaving them wanting more can be accomplished if you play the ending right. You want to make sure that all your work has an ending which is both neat, relevant and also taps into the curiosity.

Most of Sidney Sheldon’s work successfully leaves the reader wanting more. Although not all his stories are psychological thrillers, fans of his work can’t get enough of them. It’s the same for Stephen King and other similar authors too.

14. Read It All Aloud

Now, you’ve finished your first draft. Do you think it’s time to give your story to your editor? Not yet. You should read the story out loud to yourself. What does this accomplish? It helps you see which sentences are clumsy, where your story is faltering and how the reading experience actually is.

If you’re facing difficulty with reading aloud, your readers are also going to face issues in this area. So, read it out to yourself to check your work’s readability.

Make sure to edit your work in great detail before you consider your story to be finished

15. Edit Like Crazy

Always edit like crazy and don’t be afraid to cut out anything. This is why it is also better to work with an editor who has a more objective approach. You’re not going to be able to do this on your own because most writers feel like every little detail that they write is crucial to the plot.

With an editor, you will be able to fine tune your story and they will also be the first reader of your work. Their feedback will help you see your story’s shortcomings so remember to take it with a grain of salt. You don’t want to change the entire plot just because the editor thinks so but make relevant changes that improve the overall readability.

With the help of these 15 factors, you can easily learn how to write a psychological thriller!