**KillerWomen** How to Write a Psychological Thriller

This session was almost standing room only as people crammed into the room - some sitting in the aisle- to hear Amanda Jennings and Tammy Cohen talk about Killer Writing. Here's a brief run down of their top tips!

In Her WakeWhen She Was Bad

A psychological thriller is a story which is focused on the emotional and mental state of a character and this is what is driving the reader's interest in the novel. It's usually in a domestic setting - something immediately relatable to the audience. There is a clear motive, a level of insanity or introspection and a huge amount of twists, turns, tension and suspense. There doesn't have to be a murder, but it does need a mounting sense of threat or dread.


  • You need a one line pitch. 
  • You need one strong line to be the heartbeat of your whole plot. A nugget - a strap line for your front cover. 
"What if at your husband's funeral you came face to face with his wife?"

"A woman is driven mad by an affair and stalks her husband." 

  • This is the true essence of the story and will make sure you stay focussed on the heart of the story with every sentence that you write. Put it somewhere you can see it every time you sit down to write. 


  • Focus on their state of mind. The reader doesn't have to love them but has to become emotionally invested in them. If they care about your character then they will turn the pages. 
  • Give your character some external conflict and exploit it - think about abandonment, social exclusion, vulnerability.... this will inform everything that they do
  • Characters need flaws. They need to be real. Psychological thrillers focus on the WHY - Why did they do it? Why did they act like this? 


  • Characters need goals - then they need obstacles in front of these goals. There has to be a goal for the character to achieve which is hard to obtain and involves an emotional risk.
  • Put your character under pressure. Make them make choices - with consequences. Make them make decisions - with ramifications.
  • Set up obstacles - small and large. Let the goals cross and impact on each other to add complexity.
  • Make sure there is a character arc for the character to follow as they journey towards their goal. WHY have they done it? The WHY is crucial! 
  • Plausibility- Avoid "that just wouldn't happen" feedback at all costs! The characters can do implausible things but it has to be plausible for that character. The reader has to believe this specific character might do whatever it is they do.


  • This about using hooks and cliffhangers. Keep asking questions throughout every chapter. Build tension.
  • There should be a little bit of breathing space - an ebb and flow - a little bit of a sub plot or description - just enough so the reader can take a deep breath and ready themselves for the next drama.....but not too long that they put the book down!
  • Use short chapters, short sentences and short paragraphs. 
  • To Prologue or Not to Prologue? They can be very good at putting questions to the reader but don't kill the tension by revealing too much or deadening the tension with too much back story.
  • A backstory is good as long as it doesn't cut into the action or prevent the story from moving forward.
  • Edit Closely. If it isn't moving the plot and character forward, should it be there?


  • Keep to first person or close third person as it's all about the internal workings of the character's mind.
  • Unreliable narrators are effective for viewing the action as it evolves but without knowing the whole picture so you can constantly wrong footing the reader (think Gone Girl and The Girl On The Train). 
  • A multiple point of view gives you the chance to show the same story from different point of view - it can give you the chance to get inside the head of a killer.
  • Keeping the killer anonymous is effective as you don't know which character they are in the novel and they can manipulate the reader. It can add dread to the everyday and be used to make the reader wonder about what is going to happen next.

  • Can't be contrived or forced. They have got to gel with the rest of the book. 
  • A 'Midway Twist' can turn the readers' assumptions upside down. Reader's remember authors who do it well. 
  • Plan the 'Midway Twist' from the beginning - it has to work from the start and has to make sense. You are not tricking the reader, just surprising them. 
  • Use mini-twists throughout. Make the reader sit up, worry, feel surprised, watch the ripple effect as the ramifications play out.
  • 'Final Twists'  - the 'big reveal' - usually come before the final chapter so the ending can tie up all the loose ends, but don't be afraid not to stick a mini twist in the last few pages. Wake the reader up at the end just when they think it's all over! 
  • When you find you are in a plot hole, (or getting bored) get up and do something else. Walk, run, clean, unstack the dishwasher, cook.......pause! Your subconscious will solve it for you and may even come up with something that will surprise you and shift the whole narrative. 
  • If you are flagging, inject a twist. What if......... 

  • The holy grail of a psychological thriller writer! Use the tips above to ensure your book will warrant this feedback!
  • Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn
  • The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins
  • The Shining by Stephen King
  • I Let You Go by Claire MacIntosh 
  • Fingersmith by Sarah Waters
  • Anything by Tammy Cohen
  • In Her Wake by Amanda Jennings 
  • And I would add The Good Mother by A L Bird which I thought had a brilliant Oh.My.Word. twist....!
*Sigh* they made it sound so straight forward and achievable!! If only! They forgot that you also need a lot of talent, skill and dedication! These women are Killer Women - imaginative, clever, focussed and immensely talented!

Good luck writing your own psychological thriller and hope these very helpful top tips are useful as you plot, plan, draft and write your novel!

CL Taylor also has a great clip with 5 Top Tips for writing a psychological thriller, click here:
https://www.facebook.com/bbcradiobristol/videos/1191709414219496/ …

My review of Amanda Jennings "In Her Wake" can be found here:

For more reviews, recommendations and book chat follow me on Twitter @katherinesunde3 (bibliomaniacuk)


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