Psychological thrillers are one of the most popular genres of novel currently on the market.
You’ll find them littering the bestseller lists both in the UK and the US, with plots about missing children, serial killer spouses and evil neighbours, to name a few.
But why do we love them so much?
What is it about the psychological thriller that keeps us coming back for more – and what exactly do we mean by a psychological thriller anyway?
Let’s answer the second part of that question first.
To do that we need to understand what we mean by a thriller.
Most people think of a thriller as any story that ‘thrills’ – but there’s a bit more to it than that.
A thriller is a combination of three other genres – crime, action and horror and requires a number of key components, including the threat of death or damnation for the hero.
In the thriller, a victim has to survive a crazed villain and the hero has to overcome a more powerful enemy.
But in psychological thrillers, the stakes are raised another notch by taking us inside the heads of our main characters to understand their motivations, reactions and decisions as they battle with their fears and moral and ethical dilemmas.
"What would I do if that happened to me?"
It’s a safe way for us to experience these huge questions without actually experiencing the danger first-hand and makes us wonder “What would I do if that happened to me?”
But that’s only part of the appeal. There are a multitude of other tropes and conventions we expect in a psychological thriller that we find irresistible.
To start with, most have an everyday domestic setting we can relate to.
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?
*Please note - I do make a small commission on purchases made through the links in this article.
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.