Writing a Psychological Thriller …

I have been asked to run a workshop in Bath in November with this title so I thought I would talk a little about it here. But first, and it is related, this week I’ve been looking at various potential covers for my novel and been in discussion about how covers sell books, and what they say. I have talked about this before and I was also interested in the following link about covers. http://www.buzzfeed.com/lukelewis/19-book-cover-cliches

I have been looking at lurking silhouetted figures but the one I want isn’t that!

The cover I really hope they go with is very bold and that’s what I think you want to grab your buyer’s attention but I hope it also says classy mystery/American/thriller and not just  commercial cop/crime thriller — which it’s not. We can fall into genre traps and while my novel is about a crime,  none other than the very public assassination of John F Kennedy, it’s not a conspiracy thriller per se. The main focus is really the missing child — so is that the real crime? Is the book just about solving that? Well, yes and no. It’s about a family; broken families, about love, loss, keeping your children safe and it’s set now but the key players are brought together by the events on the grassy knoll in 1963. So what I don’t want the cover to scream is gritty cop crime thriller when it’s not. Not do I want it to say literary mystery with an arty ambiguous cover. Because it’s not that either.

I’d call it a psychological thriller or mystery  but it’s more than that. I guess you could also say it has historical elements but more recent history but then 50 years is history although it’s set now but uses the past. In fact I use flashback as well as insights by the psychic to go back to 1960s Texas.

And I am thrilled to be asked to run a workshop because I feel I have learned from the greats in terms of the kind of books I read as a teenager. I loved Stephen King,  Dean Koontz and even the medical horror writers Robin Cook who wrote Coma. One of my favourites though was Mindbend where drug reps were taking doctors on cruises and implanting microchips into their brains. Says something about me perhaps! I have not revisited Robin Cook as a writer to look at his style, I’m sure there are things about it I won’t like now — but at the time I was addicted to these kinds of mind-bending thrillers. More recently I have enjoyed Dennis Lehane’s Shutter Island, S J Watson’s Before I Go To Sleep  to name a couple. I have read Sophie Hannah but not that excited about her. There are many many others.

So what exactly is a psychological thriller? 

Well any thriller needs a compelling mystery to solve so crime novels  are of course thrillers — but I like to think of psychological thrillers as tapping more into the thoughts of the characters and more importantly unnerving the reader’s own sense of immortality and vulnerability. It’s not just about finding a killer. Personally I like to put  what seem like ordinary people into situations that test them to the limit, and this can be more what’s going on in their own head than just external — psychological manipulation of the main characters by an impact character or in this case event. Like any thriller the main character is put into a situation that threatens ‘normality’ so  they can be  trapped in their own head , haunted by memories, have a ‘different’ way of seeing the world or thinking about the world or are driven by an uncontrollable compulsion or need. So it can be more internal than the classic crime thriller.

 There are cross overs and genre is just a way of saying what type of book this is and what to expect so gritty murder mystery crime thrillers need to use psychology and many of King’s novels are classified as horror but still use psychological manipulation, my favourite is the Dead Zone (if pushed to name one although I LOVE his Kennedy/time travel novel 11/22/63) and these are both more psychological than horror. But then what often scares us most, as humans is our own thoughts! Those that do really well are those that manage to tap into a universal sense of the human fear — what makes us uneasy? What scares us? What would happen if something about the world  we know changed? And that can be waking up and having to remember who we are every day to being trapped on an island where you go insane — or more frighteningly none of it’s real and you were insane the whole time.

I like to think While No One Was Watching is a psychological thriller but it’s not just that, it’s a mystery, it’s historical and it has a touch of the supernatural — in a loose sense. I use the devices of thrillers to hopefully (fingers crossed)  give it page turnability with twists and turns the reader doesn’t expect, so action is essential but there’s a great deal of the psychology of loss, do you know what your child is doing? Now that’s universal as a fear, right? And Kennedy and what happened to him, that also has universal appeal too, right? So by definition it’s commercial because it’s the kind of story that needs to be plot or action-driven, but at the same time it still taps into characters and, for me is very much about voice and the psyche. What happened to Eleanor Boone? Can finding the answer to that unearth some important questions about Kennedy? And my narrators have very distinct voices and ways of thinking as I hope you’ll see!

So I will have great fun exploring what it is about these kinds of books that hook a reader — what gives some more universal appeal than others and how can you keep your reader second guessing, surprised even …? What techniques are used? I might also draw some of this from films in the genre. Recently I saw  Premonition with Sandra Bullock and this had that quality I love — of having to really work and think about what really happened. It’s an oldish film now but I found it on late one night and got hooked.

But even if you don’t write, read, watch psychological thrillers, in essence what makes a good story, an unnerving conflict, a question you MUST know the answer to and so the techniques and structures writers use to achieve that — can be applied to any genre. And that’s what I also hope to look at in my workshop.

And it might also be interesting to look at how we can use fact and fiction side by side in our writing for authenticity.

Anyone want to recommend any great psychological thrillers — books and/or films?

If you live near Bath and want to come to the workshop it’s taking place on November 19th in the evening and I will send more details of how to book it etc soon. This is the website: http://www.writingeventsbath.co.uk/2/Writing-Events-Bath.html

Right — still need to hone that short story of mine.

Also unusually I have a little lull while I wait for work to pop in my inbox so now is a good time if anyone wants to hire me for critiquing. Just saying! In three and a half years I have had three only occasions when my whiteboard was clear temporarily– although work is expected soon!  http://www.debzhobbs-wyatt.co.uk/Pages/default.aspx

Have a good half-way through the week day! So much to look forward to!





Filed under 50th anniversary of Kennedy Assassination, a book deal, Acceptance, Bath Short Story Award, Being a professional editor, being a successful writer, Believing, Blogging, Book Covers, Characterisation, Conflict, Conflict in fiction, Critique, Dreaming, Flashback, Flawed characters, Indentity, John F Kennedy, Kennedy, Learning to be a writer, Literary Fiction, Living the dream, Mainstream Fiction, Novel writing, Parthian Books, Passion for life, Passion for writing, Plot, Point of View, principles in writing, Psychological Thriller, Short Stories, Story Arcs, Structure, Subplots, Theme, thoughts in fiction, time to think, Tone, Truth in Fiction, Voice, While No One Was Watching, Winning, Writing, Writing a Psychological Thriller

5 responses to “Writing a Psychological Thriller …

  1. Julie-Ann Corrigan

    Good luck with the workshop, Debz! Agree re: Sophie Hannah; good but not great. Expecting more from your novel …!

  2. Pingback: “I’m not quite dead yet,” said the Thriller writer | Author D.J. Lutz

  3. Pingback: Accidents Happen – Louise Millar | Cleopatra Loves Books

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