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Diary of a Psychological Thriller Writer: Planning

Where do your ideas come from? How do you think up the characters? Do you plot before you write or does the story reveal itself to you as you type?

Authors face these type of questions from readers every day and so, in an attempt to demystify the process of writing a thriller, I’m embarking on a diary to show you step-by-step how my novels move from a rough idea to a published book.

Welcome to the Diary of a Psychological Thriller Writer.


After wrapping up the edits on a novella I’ve been working on for a few months, it’s time to turn my attention to my next full-length thriller.

At this stage, I have nothing more than a vague idea. A premise which I think has potential.

I’m never short of ideas. They occur to me at the most unlikely times; when I’m in the shower, having a shave, listening to the news or even reading a book.

They all get noted down on my phone, the modern-day equivalent of carrying a notepad and pen, and when I’m ready to start a new project I pick the one that resonates the most.

Usually, it’s the one that has been subconsciously kicking around my mind for a while.

This time is it’s a story inspired by a real-life crime that I was recently reminded about while listening to a podcast.

I won’t go into details while the idea is still forming in my mind, but I will say that it’s about an abducted child and the hunt to find her.

I took the story and applied the ‘what if’ principle to it and wondered what twists you could wrap around it. One in particular immediately came to mind.

The next step is to craft that one story idea or premise into an 80,000-word novel. And that’s where the hard work starts.

For me, that begins on a Monday morning by reminding myself about story structure and the key principles of writing a compelling thriller.

What elements and tropes do I need to include? What will my readers expect? And how can I shape the story to fit all those requirements?

I have lots of writing craft books I can refer back to, but today I’ve plunged myself into YouTube and a series of tutorials on writing.

It’s a bit like a sculptor being given a wireframe to begin his masterwork. Without that structure, they could create something of outstanding artistic merit, but with it, they are much more likely to succeed.

With a framework, it’s easier to the clay into something beautiful.

The videos I focus on today are the ones that discuss the process of turning a premise into a fully-fledged novel, and that remind me of the baby steps I need to get there.

Rome wasn’t built in a day and neither will this plot be fully formed for several weeks.

I need to think about characters, their motivations and arcs; sub-plots; setting; hitting the plot points at the right time, themes and twists.

Who’s my protagonist? What’s his or her flaw? Who’s the villain and the victim? How can I make the villain sufficiently terrifying in a contemporary, domestic setting?

Ideas are sparking in my brain like pulses of electricity. Some work. Some are ridiculous. Some are mundane.

At this stage, it’s all about seeing what starts to fit together.

Crucially, with this novel, I’m looking to pull off a couple of jaw-dropping twists. That seems to really light readers’ fires.

Done well, they look effortless but are incredibly difficult to manufacture without either a) making it obvious b) making it implausible.

Still, I have lots of ideas.

I just need to remind myself – what exactly is a twist? Or more to the point, how to make a twist unpredictable and satisfying for the reader?

Back to YouTube…


After a day of watching lots of videos and taking in huge amounts of information, it’s finally time to sit down and start scribbling.

Just notes at this stage. Lots and lots of notes.

I tend to fill up multiple A4 pads at this stage, scribbling with a pen or my trusted fountain pen, letting the ideas flow onto the page.

For me, there’s something magical that happens when I start writing long-hand. Somehow it helps formulate my thoughts as I work through plots to determine if they hold water or not.

Most of the time, I never reread my notes. But it’s not necessarily about recording my thoughts. It’s more about ordering my brain.

By lunchtime, my head is spinning. I’ve been cocooned alone in my study for too long. I need some fresh air and a new perspective.

Taking refuge in a birdwatchers hide overlooking the Thames Estuary

I take refuge in a wooden hide used by birdwatchers to photograph the plethora of seabirds attracted to the marshes on the estuary here in the north of Kent.

And suddenly, I have a new location for the story. It’s perfect. It was worth the walk to get here as suddenly an idea for the third act comes into my mind.

Now I have the basics of a plot. I know how it will begin. I have a great idea for the mid-point twist and a pretty sound idea of how the story will end.

But before I go further, I need to think about the characters. Who are they and what are their motivations?

This is crucial information to pin down before I proceed, but my brain is fried.

Time to give up for the day.

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