Much like a high-performing sports car, there are many moving parts under the bonnet of a psychological thriller.
Get any one of those wrong and, like the car, the book is likely to end up sputtering and choking along.
Conversely, if an author gets all the elements right, they end up with a story that flows like it’s on rocket fuel and leaves the reader gasping for more.
So what are the key elements of a great thriller that you probably didn’t even notice on a conscious level?
First of all and right out of the block, a psychological thriller needs an inciting crime – an event that kicks off the action.
For example, in Gillian Flynn’s excellent Gone Girl, the inciting crime is the revelation that Amy has gone missing, possibly murdered by her husband.
Without an inciting crime, you don’t have anything to propel the narrative forward.
Some inciting crimes occur right at the start of the story. Others come a short way into it.
However, the inciting crime must occur by a quarter of the way into the story.
Life and death stakes
When we read a thriller, we expect the character to be confronted by a life or death situation.
This distinguishes the thriller from other genres.
For example, in crime fiction, the life value at stake would be justice. In other words, will the villain be brought to justice or get away with it?
In a thriller, the life value at stake must be life and death. And ideally, the hero will face a fate worse than death, where death would be a blessed relief.
For example, in the Hunger Games when Katnis is facing the trials, she’s confronted with a situation where she's expected to kill Peeta, the man she's fallen in love with.
That would be a fate worse than her own death for Katniss.
In other scenarios, it might be a parent faced with causing the death of their child or being responsible for the suffering of someone they care for.
Hero as victim
Thrillers are all about how the hero overcomes the villain and to ratchet up the tension dial to ten, the hero must fall victim to the villain.
For example, in the Silence of the Lambs, Clarice Starlin, while pursuing the serial killer, Buffalo Bill, ends up becoming his victim when she enters his house and is hunted by him in the dark.
We usually expect to see the hero fall victim to the villain towards the end of the novel, as the hero heads towards the final showdown.
This was a term was coined by Alfred Hitchcock and is merely a shorthand for the thing that the villain covets.
It might be the nuclear codes. It could be to blow up a prominent building. Maybe it’s simply to cause chaos and destruction.
Every hero needs a McGuffin, otherwise there is no motive for their behaviour.
Another thriller writer’s tool to crank up the tension is the ticking clock.
You might have a hero searching for a hidden bomb on the underground network which, if set off, will kill hundreds of people.
But if you add that there is only a limited time to stop the villain, that’s so much more suspenseful.
The entire premise of the TV series '24' was built around this concept with a literal ticking clock counting down on the screen.
And how many James Bond films have you seen where Bond manages to diffuse the bomb with only seconds to spare?
Speech in Praise of the Villain
We need to understand why the villain is behaving the way he does.
What’s motivating them? What do they want?
The speech in praise of the villain occurs ahead of the final showdown and reveals the villain’s grand plans in all their glory.
And it's another must-off in a well-worked psychological thriller.
The false ending has become a well-known trope in thrillers – that moment when you think the villain has been defeated, only for them to pop up again for one last attempt on the hero’s life.
One of the best examples is in Ridley Scott’s 1979 film, Alien where it appears Ripley has defeated the alien but the the alien appears again when you think she's safely away on an escape craft.
Clues and red herrings
A legacy of crime fiction, from which the psychological thriller is derived, are the clues and red herrings.
We expect our psychological thrillers to have a strong mystery element so that we can tax our minds trying to work out what’s really going in the story.
The best psychological thriller authors are adept at laying trails of red herrings while leaving the real clues in plain sight for us to miss.
What would a good psychological thriller be without a shipload of twists and turns?
There are many kinds of twists that authors employ but the best ones are the ones we don’t see coming.
Probably one of the most memorable of recent years was in the film The Sixth Sense, which cleverly pulled the rug from under most filmgoers’ feet.
They are hard to pull off but when done well, they leave us reeling, frustrated that we didn’t spot it coming and delighted that we’ve been so artfully fooled.
Inside the head
Finally, one of the key tropes of a psychological thriller is the need for the author to take us inside the characters’ heads to fully understand their psychology.
We might never have to encounter an axe-wielding psychopath but we can read psychological thrillers to experience the thrill and start to understand something about our own behaviours and actions.
It’s one of the reasons many psychological thrillers are written in the first-person perspective as this gives us a deep insight into a character’s thoughts and motivations.
They also feature ‘normal’ everyday people – not spies and assassins or deranged criminal psychopaths like Buffalo Bill in Thomas Harris’ superb Silence of the Lambs.
In the modern psychological thriller, it’s husbands, wives, children, neighbours and friends who’ve taken on the role of the villain.
Isn’t it particularly chilling to think that those closest to us might be capable of the worst kind of evil?
We’ve also been programmed to expect a major plot twist in the psych thriller, something that pulls the rug out from under our feet when we least expect it.
Why? Because we love to be deceived – but only if it’s done well.
We love to be deceived – but only if it’s done well.
There’s nothing more satisfying as a reader than reaching a twist and realising we should have seen it coming.
By contrast there’s nothing more frustrating than being tricked by a contrived twist or a narrator who’s so completely misled us, it feels unrealistic.
Under the stewardship of an accomplished writer, these twists stay with us for years – but they’re not easy to pull off.
The genre demands lies, secrets, paranoia and half-remembered memories
It’s why we find so many unreliable narrators in psychological thrillers, but also because the genre demands lies, secrets, paranoia and half-remembered memories – which in turn lead to red herrings as we try to pick our way towards working out the twist.
Red herrings are a throw back to the crime genre where the master detective – along with the reader - tries to determine ‘whodunnit’ – but they’re necessary in the psychological thriller to keep us guessing.
Finally, the best psychological thriller authors know they need to keep the tension and suspense high from page one.
And so the best stories all start with an incredibly powerful hook.
Gone Girl – did Nick kill his missing wife, Amy?
The Girl on the Train – what did Rachel really see on her commute on the train?
The Silent Patient – why did Alicia Berenson shoot her husband five times in the head and then become mute?
In my 2019 thriller, His Wife’s Sister – what happened when Mara Sitwell went missing and how did she manage to return 19 years later?
When all these elements come together and are done well by a skilful author, we’re blown away and find ourselves raving about the book to anyone who’ll listen.
These are the elements that make the best psychological thrillers page-turners – stories that can transport you away from reality for a few thrilling hours and leave you gasping for more.
What do you think?
Why do you love psychological thrillers and what are you particularly looking for when you pick one up?
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AJ Wills is the bestselling author of multiple psychological thrillers. He was a journalist for more than twenty years and has been writing full-time since March 2021. He's married to fellow thriller writer, AJ McDine.