Creeping Up On Psychological Thrillers

Painting by Marilyn Manson
The other half—the darker half, mwahaha!—of my genre of heart is psychological thriller. I’d love to talk about that one just as much as about science-fiction, though I’m not quite sure where to start. So I’ll go ahead and describe it the way I see it, and see from there.

According to common definition, a “psychological thriller” is a thriller subgenre that focuses on the unstable emotional or mental states of the characters, often in combination with elements of mystery, suspense or psychological horror (the last one, in my case). As a thriller subgenre, it’s permeated by tension and suspense, often surprising the reader with twists or different angles on the same problem. It can contain elements of terror like dread, anxiety and fear, or elements of horror like revulsion, trauma and shock.

But no matter the flavor, psychological and emotional stress are the engine of this subgenre.

In a psychological thriller characters don’t rely on their physical strength to overcome their enemies, but rather on their mental resources, and often times the enemies are not external (other characters or circumstances) but internal (phobias, insanity, urges, feelings, fears). Even when the enemies are other characters, the conflicts are usually played out through mind games, deception and manipulation, or even sustained attempts to demolish each other’s mental equilibrium, as opposed to the banging physical action in classic thrillers.

Another important aspect that differentiates psychological thriller from a classic action thriller is the nature of the characters. In a classic thriller we have good guys vs. bad guys, with quite clear distinctions and the corresponding actions. And even when the antagonist is obscure or unknown, we never doubt that the protagonist is the good guy. In a psychological thriller, however, the nature of the protagonist it is often questioned, and sometimes good or benign characters become or are revealed to be monstrous.

In this repsect, psychological thrillers don’t only play with the characters’ minds, they also play with the reader’s mind.

There are a few things a writer needs to do to achieve that, and the most important one is to have a good command of tension. It’s crucial to keep the reader guessing about the nature of the characters or their actions, and anticipating dreadful developments at every major point in the story. The instant this tension is dropped, the thrill is over and it’s practically impossible to build the momentum up again.

Character motivation and state of mind are also among the most important things in a psychological thriller, since the plot entirely relies on them, and the writer needs to have a good understanding of human psychology. The emotional and mental developments of characters in a psychological thriller must always be plausible and believable, even when they are outrageous (such as a child becoming a murderer) or come as a surprise (such as the protagonist being revealed to be insane). Surprises in fiction must never take readers aback, their purpose is to stir and stimulate re-evaluation, and they must always seem absolutely logical and inevitable in retrospect.

The most common types of narration chosen to create psychological suspense and maintain tension and emotional stress, are stream of consciousness and deep first person POV. There are exceptions, but they are rare and less powerful. Narrative style is very important, because it must erase the interface between the reader and the story, and plunge the reader directly into the throes and terrors of the protagonist. POV is also essential in the manipulation of atmosphere, which can greatly contribute to the effect of the psychological thriller.

Because the psychological thriller deals first and foremost with the human mind, the most common themes it touches upon are philosophical or psychological in nature, such as identity, honesty, determinism, fatalism, sanity, dualism, and the exploration of the darker sides of the human behavioral motivation. It’s less aimed at direct entertainment, and more at provoking thought and shifts in understanding of the human mind.

It is a very powerful genre, but also very difficult to get right.

I’m a huge fan of psychological thriller and psychological horror movies, even if I haven’t read an equal amount of novels in the genre (I prefer reading science-fiction and science books). I absolutely devour movies like The Machinist, Memento, Jacob’s Ladder, Repulsion, Vertigo, Changeling, American Psycho, May, Silence of the Lambs, Fracture, Fight Club, The Game, Donnie Darko, Black Swan, Martyrs, The Shining, basically any movie by David Lynch, and sooo many more.

I also read a lot about scriptwriting techniques, which is a very refreshing source of writing advice, and try to embed everything I learn into what I know about writing science-fiction. And believe me, it’s a weird combination from a technical point of view. It has been successfully done however, and that’s what I aim at. Remember movies like Event Horizon, Solaris, and Vanilla Sky? How’s that for an intimidating, scary ambition? *shudder* But I want to do things just like that!

All the characteristics of the psychological thriller that I’ve mentioned above are really exciting to me, and I’d love to always have them present in my fiction. I’ve tried to weave them into my novel, of course, and even though I’m certain I haven’t “nailed it” perfectly, it’s still one of my greatest goals as a writer.

What about you? Have you read a good psychological thriller, or a combination of it with another genre — or watched a good movie? What did you like most about it?

And what is your main expectation when you hear “psychological thriller”? What’s the image it creates in your mind?

 

31 Replies to “Creeping Up On Psychological Thrillers”

  1. Nice to see a glimpse into that other side of you, Vero. I’m with you, for the most part. While I, too, haven’t actually read many psychological thrillers (aside from the many Stephen King books I devoured when I was younger–so many books, so little time!), I do love watching them on the big screen. I loved pretty much every movie you mentioned.

    I also think writers of pretty much every genre would benefit from dipping into the psychological motivations of their characters, especially in first-person and close third. When you think about how much our own biased perspective shapes our world and experiences, from the highs to the lows, it just makes sense to use that as a tool in your story. You’re right in that it can be tough to pull off well, but you can tell an entire story in someone’s head if you attack from the right angle.

    I gave it my best shot with “A Giant Mess of Darkness,” and beyond having a special place in my heart as my first publication, that story taught me quite a bit about what works and what doesn’t when mucking around in a single character’s mindspace. I’m sure I’ll end up tackling that again at some point, even if it’s in a speculative wrapper like that one was.

    Like

    1. The troubles, idiosyncrasies, conflicting beliefs, fears and misconceptions of characters are very valuable sources of conflict in fiction, indeed. And toying with the thin line between a dream and a nightmare–like you did in Giant Mess of Darkness—is one of the oldest tricks in the book. 🙂

      Thanks for stopping by to comment, James!

      Like

  2. I love good psychological thrillers, love love love them! I agree with James that Stephen King is a master of the art, and I’m also fond of authors like Minette Walters, Barbara Vine/Ruth Rendell, and Dennis Lehane. When the genre spills over into literary fiction, that’s extra special icing (e.g. Emma Donoghue’s Room, John Fowles’s The Collector, Daphne DuMaurier’s Rebecca).

    This is the genre I’ve chosen for my 2012 NaNoWriMo novel, and I’ve been debating whether to use tight 3rd person or 1st person–or possibly more tnan one POV. I’ll continue to ponder this as the weeks roll by.

    I’ll be adding your post to my Reading List for easy referral throughout November. 🙂

    Like

    1. You’re cut out for psychological thrillers, Kern, there’s no doubt about it. 😀

      Thanks a lot for the recommendations too, I’ll wanna come back to those as soon as my to read list allows. I’m curious about November… the internet will go mad with writers, won’t it? Wish you good luck and godspeed with that novel. 😉

      Like

  3. “In this repsect, psychological thrillers don’t only play with the characters’ minds, they also play with the reader’s mind.”
    When movie or book involve in story and the person on the other side then it comes to quality.

    The text is excellent and credibly represent this genre. Thanks for it.

    View Abre los ojos. Vanilla Sky was filmed according to him.

    Like

  4. I LOVE psycho thrillers. Especially when I’m constantly questioning the narrator’s perspective. I’ve read some great ones in third person limited (close 3rd) episodic. I’ll get the viewpoint from the main character, and then a chapter later, get the perspective of another character – great way to contrast what’s going on.

    Like

    1. Very true, Jay! Getting different perspectives on the same events, heavily tinted by the respective characters’ personalities can make for quite delicious reads! 🙂

      Like

  5. I found this blog on the search for an image, and the subject caught my ocular attention. The psychological science fiction thriller genres are the ones closest to my amygdala, or “heart” if you enjoy the metaphor 🙂 I seem to have stumbled upon a writer whose interests mostly parallel mine, and I love learning about the technical aspects, as I am not an expert. I will probably read one post a day, since you twine words together to my liking. Fascinating stuff!!

    Like

    1. Hi Logan, thanks for commenting!

      I’m glad you enjoy my blog and that you’re a fan of sci-fi thrillers. Those have got to be the sweetest combination: there’s outworldish-ness and suspense, technology and psychology, bits of the future with bits of our primeval instincts. I certainly can’t imagine anything better to write! 🙂

      Snoop around and have fun!

      Like

  6. If you haven’t watched the movie The Prestige with Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman, DO IT NOW!! It is my top favorite thriller/suspense movie of all time, and I would never have predicted the ending in a million years,

    Like

  7. If I may, try Death Note. Even if you are not a big anime/manga fan, this is a psychological thriller that should not be missed. I’ve read a large number of psychological thrillers in the past, and Death Note was easily the best one I have ever seen.

    Anyway, I totally agree with your article, I’ve been attempting to write somewhat of a psychological thriller for awhile now, it’s not easy. I’m sure it will get there though. Anyway, nice article, I hope all goes well with your writing endeavors!

    Like

    1. Hi Zane, thanks for your comment!
      I LOVE Death Note! I couldn’t agree more that it’s an awesome, awesome series!

      Good luck with writing psychological thrillers! I stuck to sci-fi action for the moment, but will definitely write a mind-twister one day. Promise. 🙂

      Like

  8. Honestly, I just discovered my genre hours ago. I initially decided it was drama; traumatic drama is what I called it. I’m not sure what article I recently read that clued me of my genre, but since then I’ve read, and will continue to read on how this writing is done. I love writing in this genre, I really have to nail it.
    My 2 cents covers psychological thrillers playing with the minds of the characters and the readers. As a writer I strive to play hard, if you will, by answering questions such as what is the emotional impact I desire from the readers before I write any scene. However, there is another victim that is affected, and that’s you, or me. The writer, too, may be affected by writing psychological thriller.
    We don’t always know where the creative mind will take us. I previously wrote a dialogue of my main character and she ended up saying things that were so “out there”, strange, so unfamiliar and different from my own thinking that it shook me up. I ended up having to take a fiver, no, an hour-er, and walk around the apartment complex. The content of the dialogue was crazy and I ended up asking myself key questions to make sure that this wasn’t coming from me. I was loathing, and a little petrified that deep down inside this was coming from some past event.
    Took me a couple days to get over it, and I’m now in better control. Still, I often write stuff that requires getting up and chilling on my balcony.
    For me, Vero, writing is an incredibly and emotional experience, it has found me crying, laughing, and on the edge of my seat. Of course I won’t be consumed by it, but I’ll tell you this much, I make sure that the wall between self and character is thick.
    From what I can see, here, Twitter, etc., you’ve got a lot of good stuff to say – hope to see you become active real soon.

    Like

  9. I am a former psychiatric nurse. I have taken many advanced courses on psychology and the human mind. That was my line of work. You have a pretty good description of the meaning of a psychological thriller. I write in that genre now since retiring. Would you be interested in a guest post on your blog? I can talk about any aspect of psychiatric anomalies.

    Like

  10. I agree with your description of a psychological thriller. I, too write novels in this genre. I create fictional characters based on factual information from some of the cases that I counselled while working as a psychiatric nurse, my former career. My debut novel has been said to be dark and twisted. I have a post on my blog as well about your subject. http://bit.ly/1OOt3yi

    Like

  11. I’m attempting to write a psychological thriller where the main character suffers from many of the psychological disorders that i do. I can write them well, because I’m been through paranoia, hearing voices, alternate personalities. But I recently read a post about how readers don’t like weak protagonists. My novel is about this man overcoming his fears and confronting his demons. There are plenty of plot twists, but I’m not sure I have tension in every scene so it might not qualify as a thriller. To the point, can’t you have a weak suffering scared protagonist in a psychological thriller that at the turning point realizes he has to face his fears and overcome them or does he/she somehow have to be strong, and likable, not just from empathy, from the beginning? I’m struggling with this. Any feedback would be appreciated, especially examples of weak protagonists aside from fight club, which is a great movie, but the book is nothing special. Thank you in advance for any feedback.

    Like

    1. Every novel, regardless of genre, is about the main character overcoming opposition — whether it’s only external, only internal, or a mixture of the two. In case of a psychological thriller, the MAIN conflict is always internal. It’s the MC overcoming his fears, and defeating his demons, just as you wish to write.

      Starting out with a haunted, flawed protagonist is not a problem, as long as you then proceed to show the MC’s struggle to overcome his weaknesses. This is best shown if you use an external conflict (MC vs. an antagonist, environment, etc.) to mirror the stages of his struggle against his own demon. Make one step forward in the external conflict, make a similar step forward in the internal conflict. The two can also go in opposite directions in tandem. That’s all up to you.

      I would suggest you study the anatomy of story conflict, and character motivation. There are plenty of books on that on Amazon (or check out my list here). Good luck!

      Like

  12. I think a recent example of a great psychological thriller is Angelina Jolie’s “By the Sea”.It adheres to the staples of the sub-genre and has a palpable sense of menace to it.Jolie’s character’s obsession with the younger because of her own damaged psyche and just what it is she is going to do to them is incredibly compelling.It even flirts with the notion that she could cause them physical harm at times.Is there anybody else out there who is of the opinion that the film is a psychological thriller?

    Like

  13. Sorry Veronica.My comments are appearing on the page as I think of them after I have posted a previous one!

    You blog is wonderful,really good!

    One question I have is if no crime takes place and the threat is we’ll say more domestic and comes from the damaged psyche of one of the protagonists (such as films like Jolie’s “By the Sea”,Hitchcock’s “Marnie” and Alex Ross Perry’s “Queen of Earth”) but there is still tension (and possibly menace) there can they still be categorised as psychological thrillers?

    Like

    1. Hey John! Glad you like my blog. 🙂

      I haven’t seen the three movies you mention, but in my understanding, a movie/book can be categorized as a psychological thriller if the main source of conflict and danger in the movie is the unstable psyche of a character, their shifting sense of reality, or the constant threat of them becoming violent. It’s the combination of the source of danger (the twisted mind of a character) and the unpredictable way in which that danger could manifest (anything from psychological torment to physical violence and murder) that makes a psychological thriller. There doesn’t have the be actual violence on screen/on the page, but the constant looming threat of it needs to be present. The main difference between a “classic thriller” and a psychological thriller, is that in a classic thriller there is always a clear villain, a character with full possession of his faculties who is after a clear goal and willing to remove the protagonist from the game by any means necessary. In a psychological thriller, there is no clear villain. Or you could almost say the villain is insanity, mental instability, obsession… the villain is inside, not outside of the protagonist.

      Like

      1. So if the threat was more domestic and shall we say aimed at innocents with a view to damaging their lives as in the relationship of a couple and damaging that realtionship,without any bodily harm or physical violence of any sort that could fall under the definition so?

        Like

      2. Ah cool.I thought so.Thank you! I must regularly look at the blog after finding it.It’s great.

        P.S. You should check out those films. 😉 (Another one is the film of Pinter’s “The Homecoming”.)

        🙂

        Like

  14. Hi Veronica,

    My name is Blake. Im writing my first novel and obviously googling like crazy they best ways to write etc. Which led me to your blog. Your insight has actually been some of the easiest to understand and has triggered alot of new plots and twists in my timeline, so thank you ☺

    I’ve chosen my psychological genre based around some of my most nail biting favourites including fight club, the girl with the dragon tattoo and the hannibal movies / tv show (mads mikkelsen gives an exemplary portrayal)

    I’m having problems with my narration.. trying to decide between a third person limited (3 separate POVS) and third person omnipotent 6 or more. My logic behind more POVs is to demonstrate broader understanding of the events throughout the timeline. (The storyline affects the entrie country in the end).. As an alternative, am I able to have 3 POV characters throughout the book and then use a fourth POV for a flashback at the end? The flashback is to further enlighten the reader of the Protagonists mental condition.

    Being my first novel, its proving quite the challenge. However, I’ve been developing characters, dialogues, themes and settings for over a year ago and feel no less enthused. Thank you so much for sharing your time and insight☺

    Like

    1. Hey Blake! I’m glad you found my posts useful.
      Choosing the right POV, tense, and number of POV characters is definitely a tricky task. If I were to give you any advice in that area, it would be to keep it as simple as possible, and to remember that Story Is King – meaning that nothing should be more important than the actual story being told, and that includes stylistic choices. So if any POV setup gets in the way, ditch it and go for whatever works best with your particular story.

      Thanks for taking the time to comment, and Good Luck!

      Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s