Questions about writing: psychological thrillers

Today I’m posting more of my Q&A with students from ITW’s Online Thriller School. Here are a couple of questions about writing psychological thrillers. There’s a mild spoiler in my answer to the second question, if you want to avert your eyes.

“What would you say is the major difference between a suspense/thriller and a psychological thriller? So, for example, in a novel like Shutter Island, where the distinction between protagonist and antagonist blurs, what is the one major element that we need to keep in mind while creating a story in this genre?

Psychological thrillers focus on the psychology of the characters, of course — they deal with the mind, mind games, and mental and emotional competition between characters who are fighting to get what they want. They often feature unreliable narrators. If you’re writing a thriller that heavily features psychological aspects, the characters need to be deep and intelligent and full of wants, needs, and secrets.

Secondly, in Gone Girl the manner in which they introduced Amy’s character and virtually twisted the whole premise around came across as being highly manipulative. From that point on, the character motivations seemed totally inauthentic to me. Even though Shutter Island does the same thing, somehow the story was much more realistic and believable (at least to me). Do you think the difference lies in the way the stories were structured? And what is the one thing that as a writer I can do to make the story more believable to the reader/viewer?

Gone Girl is deliberately structured to reveal Amy’s manipulation halfway through. At that point, readers have to re-evaluate everything they’ve read so far, and wonder what in the world is going to happen next. Shutter Island holds back its key revelation until the very end. That’s neither better nor worse; it’s an authorial choice. I think one main difference between the two novels is that Shutter Island is told by a character who has empathy. That empathy suffuses the whole book.

To create believable stories, create believable characters and let them come to life on the page. Give them integrity. Understand who they are and why they make the choices they do. Never turn them into puppets who make choices because the plot demands it.

(If you’re interested in International Thriller Writers or next year’s ITW Online Thriller School, hit the link.)


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