Features of a Psychological Suspense Story

hands clawing up a cliff

What makes a horror or thriller story ‘psychological’? Aren’t the entire suspense genre psychological, to some degree? I set out to investigate.

A label to say: This Is More Than Just Gore!

With a few notable exceptions, the label “psychological horror” is most often used to describe what something doesn’t have rather than what it does. A lack of exploding eyeballs or sloshing eviscerations must mean that the scare is psychological, right? Saying that a story is “psychological horror” seems like it should mean it gives the reader a true creeping sense of fear, but all too often it just means the [story] doesn’t feature violent organ failure.

Electric Literature

So, story makers will slap that label on if they want to signal hidden depths to their story. With that established, let’s get a bit deeper. How deep can we get?

Raison d’être of a Psychological Thriller

Psychological suspense stories encourage us to ask questions about our own lives.

  • Can you really trust your husband? (Gone Girl)
  • Can your partner’s good points outweigh their terrible points? (Big Little Lies)
  • Can you really trust your nanny? (Girl On The Train)
  • How far would you go to achieve your dream? (You Will Know Me by Megan Abbott)
  • We think we know people, but how much do we really know? (Most of them)
  • What is a perfect life? Does a life that looks perfect from the inside feel perfect from the inside? (The Couple Next Door, Big Little Lies)

A Brief History Of A Psychological Suspense Story

The origins of the modern psychological thriller stretch all the way back to 1938, when Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier was published and became popular. But the genre goes back further than that and can be found in fairytale — Rebecca happens to be based on the Bluebeard story. 

A common early trope of popular psychological suspense involved what is now called ‘the woman in peril’.

I write psychological thrillers. In this genre, the female experience has so often been portrayed as damaged—obsessive, delusional—that I fear readers have come to expect emotionally unstable women. In the psychological thriller genre, men are often antagonists, but rarely are they shown to be emotionally vulnerable. Given that I know as many men who can be ruled by their emotions as women, it’s curious that we don’t see more of them on the page. Surely it’s not doing either gender any favours to ignore the emotions of one and exaggerate the emotions of another?

The Silenced Woman and the Psychological Thriller by Araminta Hall

The ‘woman in peril’ has been replaced by something just as insidious: Film, book and tv shows rotate around darker and darker crimes committed against women. Sexy mad women fill our consciousness and stalk our air waves. The idea of the ‘crazy woman’ who either did it or deserved it has taken hold.’

We have yet to enter the age of suspense stories in which men are allowed the full range of emotions, and in which the emotional expression of women becomes part of their strength.

Common Features Of A Psychological Suspense Story

CHARACTER

  • The threat is still diabolical but more contained, even intimate—usually targeting the protagonist and/or his family. The hero is often a relatively “ordinary” man, woman or child.
  • Character is more important than pacing, but pacing can’t be neglected.

PLOT

  • The pacing is a bit more deliberate than in non-suspense genres, to reflect the ordinary person’s difficulty understanding the exact nature of the threat—and the enemy—and then struggling to respond. The third act, however, moves briskly.
  • Twists are key, with chapters routinely ending in one disturbing revelation after another.
  • Emphasis is on the eerie over the sensational.
  • The psychological subgenre of thriller demands an ability to reveal dread and panic without explosions or car chases. The psychological subgenre of horror demands an ability to reveal dread and panic without gore.
  • In fact, see my post on Thrillers. The psychological thriller is of course a subset of Thriller, so everything in that post applies. See also my post on Horror.

NARRATION

Alternating points of view are popular. Gone Girl and Girl On The Train both employ this technique.

In young adult fiction, Robert Cormier used alternating points of view a number of times, for example In The Middle Of The Night, After The First Death.

Everything You Want Me To Be by Mindy Mejia is another example.

Hattie Hoffman has spent her entire life up to this point playing different parts — the straight-A student, the dutiful daughter, the civically-minded teenager. So when she’s found stabbed to death on the opening night of her high school play, her small town is torn apart by the tragedy, as well as the idea that Hattie’s killer might be hidden in their midst. But things aren’t always as they seem, and as the local sheriff seeks out the murderer, he finds out that Hattie had some dark secrets, unseeable from the surface. Told from alternating perspectives — Hattie’s, the sheriff’s, and a high school english teacher who has secrets of his own — Everything You Want To Be is a chilling and mesmerizing look at the final year of a young woman’s life.

An unreliable narrator — or a potential unreliable narrator — is almost compulsory. Part of the reader’s fun work is picking out bullshit when we hear it. This is of course the same reason why multiple points of view are so popular. Of the storytellers presented to us, whose do we trust?

More Common Tropes In Psychological Suspense

MEMORY PROBLEMS 

  • Before I Go To Sleep by S.J. Watson — After a car crash, Chrissie develops a form of amnesia in which her short-term memory is wiped every morning upon waking. She’s unable to form new memories. And so, every morning, she must relearn who the man sleeping next to her is — her husband, Ben. One day, she finds a notebook that she’d been hiding. Within, she finds a foreboding message: “Do not trust Ben.” And it’s written in her own handwriting.
  • The Girl On The Train — the protagonist has memory black outs because of her heavy drinking.
  • Dark Matter by Blake Crouch — “Are you happy with your life?” Those are the last words Jason Dessen hears before being knocked unconscious by his unknown abductor — and wakes up to a new life as someone else. His wife has been swapped out for another woman, and he doesn’t have a son anymore. In this new version of existence, he’s not just a college physics professor, but a genius who has achieved a truly remarkable, game-changing feat. But which version of Jason Dessen’s life is real, and which one is the dream? That question is at the heart of this suspenseful thriller, which also asks how far we’ll go to get what we want — and what we are willing to sacrifice to get it.
  • The Girl Before by Rena Olsen — Claire Lawson’s life with her husband and daughters is running along smoothly — until one day, a squad of armed men break into her house and tear her away from her family. The last thing she hears is her husband commanding her to say nothing. From there, the book spirals back to Claire’s past: a tumultuous youth, escaping her family, falling in love with the son of her adoptive parents. But Claire’s history is full of dark secrets, some of which she doesn’t even remember herself. The more she finds out about herself, the more it becomes possible that the past could ruin her life as she knows it.

CONVALESCING

Related to periods of memory loss are periods spent away, convalescing, while the rest of the world moves on without you. I have heard former inmates say in interviews that coming out of prison feels like this. Technology in particular moves far more quickly than anyone can anticipate.

  • After The First Death by Robert Cormier
  • Breaking Dawn by Stephenie Meyer — Bella’s vampiric pregnancy

PARANOIA

  • The Chemist by Stephenie Meyer — As Alex, or Casey, or Juliana, or whatever her name is at the moment, can tell you, it’s not easy to be on the lam. A while ago, this secret agent learned a bit too much about her employers, and now they’re hell-bent on killing her. She lives in a state of paranoia, running from location to location and name to name. Soon, she gets a call from her boss, calling her in for one last mission. She’s not sure who to believe, but still, she goes along with the kidnapping of a schoolteacher, Daniel Beach, who’s supposedly involved with the design of a virus intended to wipe out the human race. Only problem with Mr. Beach? He’s irresistibly attractive, and doesn’t seem to be much of a villain at all.

MONSTERS IN OUR MIDST

Complicated and terrible (but passionate) marriages have made a big comeback since Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn. This is similar to the hired-nanny stories — the person we should be most afraid of in the whole world is also the person we’ve let into our homes (and hearts).

  • The Silent Wife by A.S.A. Harrison — A picture of a relationship through alternating accounts from a husband and wife. Similar to Gone Girl.
  • Fates and Furies by Lauren Goff — As with Gone Girl, the marriage at the heart of Fates and Furies is a multi-faceted beast. The first half of the novel tells the story of Lotto and Mathilde’s whirlwind romance and ensuing 20 years of marriage from the perspective of the exuberant, positive, and naive Lotto. Then, halfway through, Mathilde’s voice is heard — and what she has to say will shock you.

Neighbours can also be dangerous.

  • The Couple Next Door by Shari Lapena — Anne and Marco Conti seem to have it all: the gorgeous home, the loving relationship, the beautiful baby girl. But one night, while they’re at a dinner party next door, a horrifying crime is committed. Investigators pounce on the case, but the more they delve into the details of the Conti’s lives, the clearer it becomes that the couple has a trove of skeletons in the closet, and secrets that they’ve been keeping — from the world, and from one another.
  • Rosemary’s Baby is the classic film version of this trope — neighbours take a young pregnant woman under their wing with the aim of turning her unborn baby into the devil.

The Thrill of the Chase in Storytelling

Dewitt Clinton Boutelle - The Chase

In the spoof Thriller Concept Generator below, cartoonist Tom Gauld captures the centrality of the chase sequence in the thriller genre.



THE ENDURING APPEAL OF CHASE SEQUENCES IN STORY

Pretty much every modern storytelling technique can be found in the Bible. As for chases, there are plenty. Moses fleeing Egypt springs to mind.

There are the chase scenes in fairytales, which often have a dream-like quality, ignoring the physics of real time and space:

The children saw her coming from afar and the maiden threw a brush behind her. The brush changed into a huge mountain of bristles with thousands and thousands of thorns. The nixie had great difficulty in climbing over them. When the children saw her, the boy threw a comb  behind him that changed into a huge mountain with thousands and thousands of spikes, but the nixie was able to grab hold of them and climb over the mountain. Now the  maiden threw a mirror behind her that formed a glass mountain that was so very, very slippery that the nixie couldn’t climb over it. So she thought: “I’d better go home and fetch my axe and split the mountain in two.” However, by the time she had returned and had smashed the glass, the children had long since made their escape, and the water nixie had to return to tread water in her well.

“The Water Nixie”, from the first Grimm collection

I suspect the chase nightmare precedes humanity. When my dog sleeps he twitches his feet as if running. I’ll never know for sure, but when he emits those half-hearted barks in his sleep, I bet you he’s being pursued. Or perhaps he’s running after me, thinking I’ve abandoned him.

WHY THE CHASE WORKS SO WELL IN STORY

A story isn’t a story until the main character wants something, and chase is a certain kind of Desire — one character wants something from another. And that desire is externalised. It is also high in suspense. A chase scene will be fast-paced. It is therefore almost mandatory in certain genres, like thriller and action.

FURTHER STORYTELLING TERMS

THE DOUBLE-CHASE

In Secrets of Story, Matt Bird talks about the ‘double-chase’. This is when the main character is both hunter and hunted. This is often what sets off the ticking clock.

Bird also points out that when the double-chase begins, this often forces a decision. The example he offers is when David offers marriage in An Education.

The double-chase is often a feature of what TV Tropes calls the Stern Chase:

The protagonist is being pursued and must stay in motion, usually moving to a different Adventure Town each episode. There will be ploys to delay the pursuit. Some will work, some won’t. Frequently the protagonist must complete a hunt of their own, to bring the pursuit to an end.

The term “stern chase” comes from the navy cliche, “a stern chase is a long chase”, which comes from the old days of sailing ships.

TV Tropes

CHASE-AND-ESCAPE VS. CHASE-AND-CAPTURE

In Writing for Emotional Impact, Karl Iglesias advises juxtaposing scenes — positive charge followed by a negative charge and so on. Positive charge means things are going well for the character.

Chase-and-escape, chase-and-capture also describe scenes, specifically how they end. Iglesias is using the term ‘chase’ more broadly than a literal running-race type pursuit.

Because a scene usually involves a character wanting something from another (the chase), there are only two ways it can end: The character gets what they want, either outright or in a compromise (capture), or they don’t (escape).

Writing for Emotional Impact

FURTHER READING

Why a former CIA spy stops at every yellow light from Insider Magazine explains how chases in the movies look quite different from chases in real world spy situations. (The essence is in the title.)

Header painting: Dewitt Clinton Boutelle — The Chase

The Tale of Mr Tod by Beatrix Potter

The Tale of Mr. Tod by Beatrix Potter (1912) is a child-in-jeopardy crime thriller. See my post on thrillers and also my post on secrets and scams.

Note alo, crime stories appeal disproportionately to women — for whatever reason, this is a female genre. Beatrix Potter was the perfect candidate to create such a work.

Also, if you want to see what sort of sociopathic, philosophising white man Peter Rabbit turned into, go no further than Mr. Tod — the unexpectedly dark sequel to The Tale of Peter Rabbit. Potter wrote this mindfully and opens with direct address:

I have made many books about well-behaved people. Now, for a change, I am going to make a story about two disagreeable people, called Tommy Brock and Mr. Tod.

Actually, Potter did not use the word ‘nice’. What she wrote was this:

I am quite tired of masking goody goody books about nice people.

The publishers made her change it.

I wonder if, by 1912, Potter had become weary of people’s assessment of her work. Even today, I feel Beatrix Potter is mischaracterised as a spinster who wrote cosy tales about bunnies dressed in coats. But you’d only believe that if you hadn’t actually read any of her stories. More recent made-for-TV bowdlerisations don’t help. Is the opening to Mr. Tod a note to the people who underestimate her darkness?

Nobody could call Mr. Tod “nice.” The rabbits could not bear him; they could smell him half a mile off. He was of a wandering habit and he had foxey whiskers; they never knew where he would be next.

If Potter were alive today, I can guess what she’d say to people who insist people — women in particular — write likeable characters as role models for children. I think she’d tell them where to stick their opinions.



LANGUAGE IN MR. TOD

coppice — an area of woodland in which the trees or shrubs are periodically cut back to ground level to stimulate growth and provide firewood or timber. This suggests humans are living nearby, though the animals in Beatrix Potter stories are referred to as ‘people’, so it could’ve been maintained by the animals themselves.

to cut a caper — to make a playful skipping movement (it does not mean to slice a pickle, of the sort I’ve only ever encountered at Subway sandwich restaurants)

spud — I thought it referred to potatoes, but now I realise it’s a small spade, and potatoes probably came to be called spuds after the spade used to dig them up. (Looks like no one really knows if that’s the connection — before it was a little spade it was a Nordic dagger. I imagine these were used to cut tubers up. Vikings didn’t have potatoes, however. I’m stumped!)

pig nuts — One of the more palatable wild foods. The tuber can be eaten raw and is very tasty. In flavour and consistency pignuts are something like celery heart crossed with raw hazelnut or sweet chestnut and sometimes have a spicy aftertaste of the sort you get from radishes or watercress.

flags — in this contest it means flagstone, used as flooring.

coal scuttle — a bucket-like container for holding a small, intermediate supply of coal convenient to an indoor coal-fired stove or heater.

counterpane — an old-fashioned word for a bedspread

bedstead — the framework of a bed on which the mattress and bedclothes are placed

warming-pan — A bed warmer was a common household item in countries with cold winters, especially in Europe. It consisted of a metal container, usually fitted with a handle and shaped somewhat like a modern frying pan, with a solid or finely perforated lid.

monkey soap — Monkey Brand soap was introduced in the 1880s in cake/bar form in the United States and United Kingdom as a household scouring and polishing soap. (Today the publishers would be required to capitalise the M to avoid getting sued for promoting brand generification)

persian powderPersian powder is a green pesticide that has been used for centuries for the biological pest extermination of household insects.

kitchen fenderHere’s a picture of one. It’s made of steel but what is it for? Looks like a guard for the stovetop.

CAST OF CHARACTERS

  • Tommy Brock — a vile badger who sleeps all day and is therefore considered lazy (the curse of shift workers everywhere)
  • Mr. Tod — a fox who likes to eat rabbits, rats etc. Sly.
  • Mr. Benjamin Bouncer — terrorised by Mr. Tod, old, too old for proper babysitting but there we have it. Because he is old he is the designated dolt — easily tricked by a badger carrying a bag full of his grandbabies. I mean, Brock even stops to have a chat with him.
  • Benjamin Bunny — Benjamin Bouncer’s son
  • Flopsy — married to Benjamin. She cleans when she’s had a gutsful.
  • The bunnies — they spend the entire story in a sack, pretty much. They’re more goods than characters.

STORY STRUCTURE OF THE TALE OF MR TOD

Potter intends two main characters: Tommy Brock and Mr Tod. These guys are nemeses. The rabbits end up functioning as viewpoint characters as well as victims (mostly viewpoint characters). But they have their parallel plot, more reminiscent of a sprawling contemporary crime TV series than of a picture book.

Fairytale elements, such as from Hansel and Gretel are utilised in this story, as well as the classic character archetypes typical of Aesop (especially the sly fox). Then there’s the Goldilocks reference, with someone breaking in to some fierce creature’s house and accidentally falling asleep in their bed. But the forest and the trickery would be at home in almost any European fairytale.

SHORTCOMING

Mr Tod’s shortcoming is also his strength, as explained above:

Nobody could call Mr. Tod “nice.” The rabbits could not bear him; they could smell him half a mile off. He was of a wandering habit and he had foxey whiskers; they never knew where he would be next.

(He has ‘foxey’ whiskers because he is an actual fox, which is an interesting way of telling us that.)

I love the thumbnail character description of Tommy Brock:

Tommy Brock was a short bristly fat waddling person with a grin; he grinned all over his face. He was not nice in his habits. He ate wasp nests and frogs and worms; and he waddled about by moonlight, digging things up.

Only from the illustrations do we know for sure that Tommy Brock is a badger, though brock is a British name for a badger, so if you know that you didn’t need the illustration.

DESIRE

Does the badger really mean to kidnap those tasty little bunnies? I don’t think he meant to until he saw the opportunity. Remember he’s high on something potent — whatever ‘cabbage leaf’ cigar stands for. Ditto ‘seed cake’. I mean, he goes to the fox’s house, probably thinking it’s his own home. He sleeps and doesn’t move even when a fox comes into his house, probably thinking it an hallucination. He doesn’t give a shit, does he. He’s put the bunnies in the oven but forgot to turn it on. He’s off his face.

That fox isn’t off his face though. He comes home after a bad night of hunting and he’s wanting some breakfast. When he finds the badger in his bed, he only means to wake him up with a cold water surprise.

OPPONENT

Potter was familiar with the dietary requirements of a badger:

They can eat several hundred worms each night. But being omnivorous, they will eat almost anything, from flesh and fruit to bulbs and bird eggs. … They will eat nuts, seeds and acorns along with crops like wheat and sweetcorn. Badgers are known to eat small mammals mice, rats, rabbits, frogs, toads and hedgehogs.

Woodland Trust

When Potter’s narrator tells us that badgers only occasionally eat rabbit pie and only when there’s nothing else around she is setting up a hierarchy of opposition, with the fox as the most dangerous of all.

But even the rabbits have their own conflict. It strikes me what an absolute asshat Peter Rabbit has turned into — the returned and bereft Benjamin Bunny is worried sick — as you would be — that his babies are about to be consumed, the entire lot of them. But what does Peter do? Constant deflection and circumlocution. He’s in no hurry whatsoever. In fact, Peter Rabbit almost gives one the impression that he’d like the bunnies to be eaten. That experience in Mr. McGregor’s garden ruined him for empathy.

Look at how deliberately unhurried he is. Who cares how many? Who cares how hard caterpillars kick? I mean, under the circumstances!

“Whatever is the matter, Cousin Benjamin? Is it a cat? or John Stoat Ferret?”

“No, no, no! He’s bagged my family—Tommy Brock—in a sack—have you seen him?”

“Tommy Brock? how many, Cousin Benjamin?”

“Seven, Cousin Peter, and all of them twins! Did he come this way? Please tell me quick!”

“Yes, yes; not ten minutes since … he said they were caterpillars; I did think they were kicking rather hard, for caterpillars.

“Which way? which way has he gone, Cousin Peter?”

“He had a sack with something ‘live in it; I watched him set a mole trap. Let me use my mind, Cousin Benjamin; tell me from the beginning.” Benjamin did so.

“My Uncle Bouncer has displayed a lamentable want of discretion for his years;” said Peter reflectively, “but there are two hopeful circumstances. Your family is alive and kicking; and Tommy Brock has had refreshment. He will probably go to sleep, and keep them for breakfast.”

PLAN

Ben’s plan is to chase the dude with the sack full of bunnies. This is a classic thriller chase, with near misses, hazards on the way (Mr. Tod’s house), snags (the sack has gotten caught on twigs, leaving bits of thread).

The second half of this story mainly comprises the elaborate scheme the fox gets up to — a prank, basically, designed to rouse the badger, who has accidentally fallen asleep in his bed. The fox is scared of the badger’s teeth, so doesn’t want to do anything violent at close range.

The badger is onto him and replaces himself with the fox’s rolled up dressing gown, safely escaping a wet fate. But he’s not going to get out before enjoying the look on fox’s face when his prank fails.

(The badger is a proxy for the baby rabbits. The baby rabbits never genuinely come near death. It was always the badger who was for the chopping block.)

Peter and Benjamin have spent the night digging a tunnel under the house, hoping to rescue Ben’s children that way. This plan is interrupted when the fox returns home after a night hunting.

Notice how Potter depicts Benjamin and Peter on both sides of the window — once from their point of view, once from the point of view of the bunnies in the oven.

See also: The Symbolism of Windows

BIG STRUGGLE

The thriller aspect of this story begins as the pacing dilates.

When they came near the wood at the top of Bull Banks, they went cautiously. The trees grew amongst heaped up rocks; and there, beneath a crag—Mr. Tod had made one of his homes. It was at the top of a steep bank; the rocks and bushes overhung it. The rabbits crept up carefully, listening and peeping.

This change in pace, the emphasis on detail at the life-and-death moment, that is typical of a thriller.

The fox’s house itself is the set of a horror or a thriller:

This house was something between a cave, a prison, and a tumbledown pig-stye. There was a strong door, which was shut and locked.

The setting sun made the window panes glow like red flame; but the kitchen fire was not alight. It was neatly laid with dry sticks, as the rabbits could see, when they peeped through the window.

But this is still a children’s book, after all. Potter does lighten the tone in several ways.

First, it happens Peter Rabbit is right. (I don’t think this absolves him of his sociopathy) and the young reader will sympathise with Peter Rabbit from having read Potter’s initial story starring him. So we are meant to  believe him when he says don’t worry, the bunnies will be fine, just fine.

Second, the comical snoring. The description of Mr. Tod’s snoring seems designed to provide comic relief, though I’m not sure it works much.

If I didn’t know this video had been dubbed over with a woman’s snoring I would’ve assumed the snoring was a part of the original foley.

The Battle scene includes a tantrum, as children’s stories often do — the fox seems to want to control his temper. He takes a moment to go outside and have a bit of a meltdown. He decides a coal-scuttle and walking stick won’t do for weapons. The badger has quite fearsome teeth. (This reminds me of Little Red Riding Hood.)

Peter and Benjamin come near death when the fox trips over their shallow burrow.

While the fox and badger are having an actual fight, the bunnies escape.

ANAGNORISIS

The plot revelation: The bunnies are safe inside the oven.

There’s a  bit of a moral to this story which comes out in the rabbit’s house — we should forgive people who do great wrong, especially if things turn out all right.

NEW SITUATION

At home in the rabbit-hole…

Now everything is cosy again. Well, sort of. Things will never be the same now that Mr. Bouncer has proven himself a totally irresponsible grandfather, letting in a monster, getting high together, basically handing over his own grandbabies.

But when the men arrive home with the rescued babies, Flopsy forgives her father-in-law and he is rewarded with a pipe, even though the misdemeanour of negligence hasn’t changed. (I wouldn’t hire him again, would you?)

The plot ends with a story around the fire before bedtime, turning this into a circular, repeating structure.

All About The Thriller Genre

writing thriller

Below, I list a collection of thought-provoking tips on writing the thriller genre. It’s not that easy to pinpoint what a thriller is, because a lot of descriptions focus on the tone. But this doesn’t help writers much. From a writing point of view, the thriller must contain certain things, otherwise it’s not a thriller.

Thriller is a hybrid genre of mystery and horror with crime and action elements. Each thriller story will have its own balance of these things. This explains why we can still be surprised by a thriller, even though the genre conventions are so strict.

The thriller is difficult to write. You’re writing characters who don’t tend to act as people do in real life, yet the audience has to believe they could behave like that, given the same outlandish circumstances. So when writing a thriller you have to come with all the reasons why the hero doesn’t just call the authorities.



Raison d’être of a Thriller

Thrillers are first and foremost entertaining. Thrillers heighten the audience’s moods, producing anticipation/ultra-heightened expectation, surprise, anxiety and terror. Thrillers tend to be adrenaline raising, gritty and fast paced.

Thrillers are simultaneously terrifying and reassuring because the villain almost always gets killed or arrested. Thrillers uphold surprisingly conservative values, but only if you watch them right until the end. The thriller is basically a Cautionary Tale For Adults

Thriller and Genre

Thrillers are typically the most emotional of the suspense genres. Thrillers focus on the fear, doubt and dread of the main character as they face some form of what Dean Koontz has deemed “terrible trouble.

The thriller shares a literary lineage with the epic and myth. Monsters, terror and peril prevail. Thrillers emphasise the dangerous world we live in, the vulnerability of the average person, and the inherent threat of the unknown.

Thrillers have an atmosphere of menace, violence, crime and murder.

Primary THRILLER Sub-genres 

Different people divide thrillers differently. Here’s how Shawn Coyne divvies them up. The nice thing about Shawn Coyne’s taxonomy is that any thriller can be made to fit into at least one of his categories:

  • SERIAL KILLER THRILLER — About police officers doing their jobs (Silence of the Lambs)
  • LEGAL THRILLER — About lawyers doing their jobs (A lot of John Grisham novels)
  • MEDICAL THRILLER — About doctors doing their jobs
  • MILITARY THRILLER — About army personnel doing their jobs
  • POLITICAL THRILLER — About politicians doing their jobs (The Killing is an interesting blend of political and serial killer thriller). Political thrillers are not as popular with audiences.
  • JOURNALISM/CONSPIRACY THRILLER — About journalists doing their jobs
  • PSYCHOLOGICAL THRILLER — These emphasise the unstable psychological and emotional states of their main characters. There are similarities to Gothic and detective fiction:
    • A dissolving sense of reality.
    • The setting is usually domesticated.
    • The main characters are usually obsessed, tortured or sociopathic.
    • Unreliable narratives are common.  e.g. Psycho, Homeland, pretty much everything by Stephen King, Henry James, Patricia Highsmith.
  • FINANCIAL THRILLER — about investors doing their jobs
  • ESPIONAGE THRILLER — About spies doing their jobs (The Americans)
  • WOMAN IN JEOPARDY THRILLER — From the point of view of a vulnerable woman who must find her way out of a life and death situation
  • CHILD IN JEOPARDY THRILLER — From the point of view of a vulnerable parent (usually a woman) who must risk her life to save her child
  • HITCHCOCK THRILLER — If you’re using many of the same techniques used by Hitchcock, you’re probably writing a Hitchcock thriller. Techniques include: the Macguffin as inciting incident, the sense that you’re a voyeur into someone’s private life, the sense of psychological unease running throughout, and the false ending (or ‘climactic plot twist’).

ROMANTIC SUBPLOTS

Woven through all and any of these, there might be a romantic hook. (Despite using the term, I have a problem with the concept of subplot.) Often, in any of the suspense genres, there’s a romance between a couple which gets ‘suspended’ (amping up the romantic suspense along with the life and death suspense) due to more pressing issues relating to the action, adventure or crime situation of the film, e.g. Speed.

CHECKLIST FOR THRILLERS

Are you writing a thriller or a mystery?

The mystery genre is very wide and encompasses many other genres. In a thriller, the nature of the mystery is quite specific: In creating thrillers, writers do not have to outsmart the reader (as they do in a straight, Agatha Christie style mystery story). In a thriller mystery, the characters have to outsmart each other.

Are you writing thriller or detective genre?

As in the detective genre, thriller involves detection, but in a thriller there are typically far fewer suspects. Just one really terrible villain, usually.

ARE YOU WRITING THRILLER OR HORROR?

In a thriller, the worst that could happen to your main character is death. In horror, the worst that could happen is ‘a fate worse than death‘. The horror genre is heavily based on Christian symbolism, and often, the ‘worse than death’ consequence is damnation, or a version thereof.

In horror, the opponent is way more powerful than the hero. The hero really stands no chance. The opponent is not just a monstrous ‘villain’ — it’s an actual monster, or supernatural. (They might have the body of a human, but they’re not human.)

In horror, the opponent commits an escalating series of crimes whereas in a thriller there might be just one big crime. In horror, the opponent is on a path of destruction and devastation, whereas the villain in a thriller has a logical (if not empathetic) human reason for wanting the hero dead.

STORYWORLD OF A THRILLER

  • Whether as small as a cottage in the woods or as large as the planet, the arena the hero seeks to protect represents everything she values. The stakes are ultimate.
  • The setting is an outworking of your hero. Detective stories, crime stories, and thrillers often set up a close connection between the hero’s shortcoming — when it exists — and the “mean streets,” or world of slavery in which the hero operates.
  • Thrillers show society as dark, corrupt and dangerous.
  • The setting is atmospheric — the writer gives plenty of detail. Writers also use tricks to make the setting feel like it’s ‘alive’. If you want to know more about those tricks, see: How Can Setting Be A Character?

PLOT AND CHARACTER WEB OF A THRILLER

  • A life and death situation.
  • There’s probably a single main character.
  • The inciting incident will be your main character’s opponent.
  • This devastating crime is about to be committed, or has been committed with the threat of an even worse one to come. (This is why serial killer thrillers are so popular — we know there will be another one.)
  • A thriller has a villain-driven plot. The villain presents obstacles that the hero must overcome.
  • The hero has to solve the puzzle of overcoming the villain, getting one step ahead.
  • Basically, the main character is saving their own life and probably others’ lives by escaping from a person who wants to kill them.
  • Make use of a common storytelling technique known as The Shadow In The Hero.

Shadows are villains in the story. They exist to create threat and conflict, and to give the hero something to struggle against. Like many of the other archetypes, shadows do not have to be characters specifically – the dark side of the force is just as much a shadow for Luke as Darth Vader is.

The shadow is especially effective if it mirrors the hero in some way. It shows the audience the twisted person the hero could become if they head down the wrong path, and highlights the hero’s internal struggle. This, in turn, makes the hero’s success more meaningful. The reveal that Darth Vader is Luke’s father, right after Luke had ignored Yoda’s advice, makes the dark side feel more threatening.

Mythcreants

  • The ‘main character’ will be your typical hero, or ‘the character the audience roots for’. Using terminology proposed by Northrop Frye, they may at first appear to be low mimetic, but then they rise to an incredible challenge and prove themselves high mimetic, or even almost superhero. This allows an audience the wish fulfilment fantasy as we imagine that we, too, might rise to any challenge to save lives.
  • The difference between a hero and a villain: heroes wants to save themselves, others and the world, but villains are motivated by power.

In the simple thriller form the opponent is marked out by their desire to control and dominate the lives of others. They don’t follow the moral codes of the community. More often than not they’re an embodiment of selfishness. They are also, historically, often marked by physical or mental deformity. Le Chiffre’s maladjusted tear duct in the film of Casino Royale is the modern equivalent of Dr No’s missing hands or Scaramanga’s third nipple in the Man With The Golden Gun. In a more politically correct age, the physical flaw (clearly an outer manifestation of inner damage) has been scaled down to a level society finds acceptable. If the antagonist is internal, the same principles apply: the enemy within works in opposition to the host’s better nature — it cripples them. It stands in opposition to everything they might be.

John Yorke, Into The Woods

Tears for Fears wrote a song about your typical desire of a villain.

A Difference Between ‘Internal’ and ‘External’ Thrillers

This is from an episode of The Narrative Breakdown podcast.

Internally Motivated Thrillers

This is really weird when it’s first pointed out (by the Narrative Breakdown podcast, for me), but there’s a type of thriller which maps exactly onto the structure of comedy.

Both thrillers and comedy relies on the ‘mask’. I have written an entire post about Masks in Storytelling.

Matt Bird calls this the Transgression, Noir, or Wrong-Man Thriller. Hitchcock was a fan of these. Its structure looks like this:

  1. Discontent — someone is unhappy about something
  2. Transgression with a mask — peculiar to comedy and thrillers
  3. Transgression without a mask — midpoint disaster when the mask is ripped off
  4. Dealing with consequences
  5. Spiritual Crisis — happens in almost every story
  6. Growth Without a Mask

As you’ll have noticed, this is an ‘internal’ subgenre because it starts with the psychological shortcoming of the hero — the hero’s ‘discontent’. The standout Transgression Thriller is Double Indemnity, from the 1940s.

Externally Motivated Thrillers

This type of thriller is often called the Conspiracy Thriller. (In The Narrative Breakdown podcast this starts at 17.50.)

  1. Injustice (externally motivated)
  2. Overconfident Investigation Begins
  3. Midpoint Disaster
  4. Overconfident Investigative Crusade
  5. Midpoint Disaster
  6. A Series of Betrayals (again, these are external to the hero’s psychology)
  7. Revelation — the conspiracy is exposed or the mystery is solved.

The standout  conspiracy thriller is The Maltese Falcon (also from the 1940s). Other examples include: L.A. Confidential, Crimson Tide, All the President’s Men, China Town.

Other Writing Techniques Typically Employed In Thrillers

  • A MacGuffin often begins the plot (The MacGuffin must be plausible and valuable object of desire that will push the characters to obtain and fight for it. the quest for the MacGuffin must create conflict, tension, and emotion. Shawn Coyne.) Hitchcock invented the word. If you’ve started with a McGuffin, you may be writing a Hitchcock Thriller.
  • The writer will make use of techniques like reveals.
  • Narrative drive — Characters and setting serve the pace of the narrative rather than the other way round. You still need to texture the pace. Even fast-paced stories need down moments.
  • Deferment. The reader wants to know what happens next but don’t tell them right away. Withhold information for as long as possible without it seeming contrived.
  • In thriller novels, balance on the page tends to be: lots of dialogue plus the occasional two-inch paragraph of narration. For more on that distinction, see Parts of Prose.
  • Ticking Clock technique is most common in action genres (Speed), thrillers (Outbreak), caper stories (where the characters pull off some kind of heist, as in Ocean’s Eleven), and suicide mission stories (The Guns of Navarone, The Dirty Dozen). There are many variations on the ticking clock. Panic Room invents a variation in which the daughter’s watch is a number showing her blood sugar levels. The specifics are meaningless unless you’re familiar with Type 1 diabetes, but any audience gets the idea. The watch is shown in close up when the daughter rolls over to settle down to sleep.

Thrillers Written From The Villain’s Point Of View

Most thrillers are told from the hero’s point of view, but some are told from the point of view of the villain.

  • The whole Ripley series by Patricia Highsmith is an example of this kind of thriller. Tom Ripley is our main character who both solves murders and murders his own people.
  • There’s an Agatha Christie book which does this. (She tried it, but didn’t stick with it.)
  • Dexter — the TV show diverged a lot from the books. He only kills criminals who have gotten away with things. It’s an interesting reverse because we know who’s committed the crime. It’s the process of him working backwards from that and planning the kill.
  • 20 Books With Villain Protagonists from Bustle

Thrillers and Feminism

A lot of [thrillers] have the classic “male cop investigating murdered woman” plot. […] When the women aren’t being “brutally murdered” and raped, they sometimes get to be the main characters. […]

We need to start describing characters and blurbing books better. Seriously. In 100% of books with male and female cops/detectives as co-protagonists, the woman occurs second in the description as such: “Man, with Woman by his side”, or “Man, teamed with Woman”. Karin Slaughter’s Triptych features this gem: “Male veteran cop and Female beautiful vice cop.” In Caleb Carr’s The Alienist, two men set out on a mission but when “they are joined by Sara Howard, a brave and determined woman who works as a secretary in the police department,” their team becomes “unlikely.” Sue Crafton’s M is for Malice, written by a woman and featuring women doesn’t even have GR description.

Let’s talk more about these female protagonists, which either accidentally stumble upon the murder/crime or are unlikely suspects in the plot; they are rarely formally established and celebrated cops or detectives. Sample this description I Let You Go, with a female protagonist: “Desperate to escape, Jenna moves to a remote cottage on the Welsh coast, but she is haunted by her fears, her grief and her memories of a cruel November night that changed her life forever. Slowly, Jenna begins to glimpse the potential for happiness in her future. But her past is about to catch up with her, and the consequences will be devastating.” It is tough to read this, keeping in mind that this is opposed to their male counterparts, who get to be “brilliant geniuses” and “brave” and “veteran”, while women remain “lonely”, “desperate”, or at most “the first in their fields”.

Bookriot

RESOURCES

I’ve mainly learned about thrillers from the following sources: