More tips about writing Psychological Thrillers - Authors A.I.

Alessandra Torre
June 7, 2021

Author Andy Maslen was a guest on our biweekly First Draft Friday podcast, talking all about Psychological Thrillers, and returned to the show to finish his conversation with me. You can see the recap of part one of our talk.

Now, let’s continue the conversation….

I’d like to point out some of the important elements of a Psychological Thriller that we discuss in this chat.

  1. The fluidity of the potential role of the protagonist. In Psychological Thrillers, the main character is often unveiled as the villain and doesn’t have to be likable. What they do often need to be, is relatable. We discuss several examples in the video.
  2. The need to establish cozy domesticity before you destroy it. In this element, “cozy domesticity” is just a placeholder for whatever calm you’re about to destroy. Maybe it’s a neighbor that you’re going to kill off. You want to make sure that the reader cares about that character a bit or is a little invested in them so that you have the most impact off their death.
  3. Keep tension high. You want to make your characters’ lives as difficult as you can, within plausible reason. You want them to struggle with decisions and moral obligations, all while the stakes are raising.
  4. Have a puzzle for the reader to solve. There is almost always a mystery in Psychological Thrillers that the reader is trying to figure out for themselves. Andy and I discuss a few examples, and how to misdirect the reader.

Watch the full video above, or keep reading for the transcripts. If you want to read some of Andy’s favorite Psychological Thrillers, check out his list of top Psychological Thriller books.

If you’d like to see more First Draft Friday chats, subscribe to our YouTube channel or listen to the podcast.

Transcript of our talk with Andy Maslen

Here is the full transcript from our chat:

Alessandra: This is First Draft Friday. I’m your host Alessandra Torre with Authors AI. This is the fantastic Andy Maslen who has joined us again. And we are continuing our last chat, which was about Psychological Thrillers. And many of you joining us today watch that chat or you watch the replay, so I’m really excited. I want to say from the very beginning, if you have any questions, don’t be shy. We did not have a chance to get to everyone’s questions last time, so we want to be sure that we can interact with you guys and answer as many questions as you have. So you have a chat box, feel free to pop questions in whether you’re joining us from YouTube or from Facebook. Please, don’t be shy. So Andy, in case they didn’t join us last time, do you want to give a quick intro?

Andy: Sure. Hi everyone, nice to see you again; a really brief intro this time. So, my name’s Andy I’m based in Salisbury in England. I write now kind of in three genres, vigilante revenge fiction, police procedurals set in the UK and now Sweden, and Psychological Thrillers. Early this year I felt like a change after I wrote my first one, which by the way, is now being read by a publisher, so you kind of first hear that, so fingers crossed. And I turned fully professional or fully full-time two and a half years ago, so this is now how I support myself – just writing novels,

Alessandra: Writing novels, best job in the whole world. So just as a recap if you did not watch this last time, we started off talking about the ingredients that are not exactly required, but common ingredients that exist in a Psychological Thriller and kind of the thing that separates it from a vigilante thriller or an action thriller or some other sort of thriller. So we talked about having an element of psychology, hence the name, Psychological Thriller. We talked about the disordered mind, which is the protagonists, possibly the antagonist, having a sort of perception distortion. We also talked about secrets and keeping secrets from the audience and often from your main characters. And we talked about a domestic setting, which is where most Psychological Thrillers typically could happen to you. You know, you’re not a super spy, you’re not a billionaire, or in a lab somewhere, cooking up something evil. It’s normally an everyday person where the reader could really picture themselves. So, those were the things we covered last week. And if you missed it, you can catch it on the podcast on our YouTube channel or on our authors.ai blog. But diving in today, we still have so much to talk about when it comes to Psychological Thrillers. So I know, Andy, I was thinking about this long after our conversation and I know you were also; what are some of the things we didn’t get a chance to talk about last time?

Andy: One of the things we didn’t get to talk about and it is absolutely crucial to making this kind of work, is the protagonist themselves, you know, the hero or heroine. Well actually, let’s stick with the Greek word protagonists because they aren’t necessarily a good person. I mean, I’ve just finished a book where the protagonist was the villain, in fact, so the whole book is from the perspective of this kind of psycho controlling person, which to me sort of breakthrough that I feel is quite important. You know, the characters need to be relatable, that you have this empathetic lead character who is… you know, let’s assume that that was a special case. So we’re going to talk about Psychological Thriller, where the reader is thinking, “Oh my God, that could be me. How would I cope if that happened to me?” So we feel that person as someone we could be like.

And I read a great, great quote today, which was that we haven’t necessarily experienced their situation, but we have experienced their emotions. I mean, I’m really pleased, I’d never had a stalker or a home invasion, but if having a stalker made you anxious or worried or depressed, but we’ve all had those sorts of emotions. So we have this kind of character, I think, who, as you say, they’re not a billionaire, I mean, my protagonist, she is an advertising executive. In fact, she kind of used to be, she’s given up her job to raise her baby. I’m watching this amazing movie. It’s kind of a preparations machinist with Christian Bale and he just worked in a machine shop, making tools, making things on a laser. So he’s like the ultimate every man. And I think, again, that’s very important because what happens to these people has to feel like kind of everyday life, I think only with some level of God, it was actually you or me, or one of our kind of listeners here, turning up the pressure. Whatever the dial is that says, we’re going to screw up your life; let’s turn that right up to 10.

Alessandra: And I want to chase down there something you said but then you drop it. But I do think as soon as you said it, you’re right, in that a lot of times in Psychological Thrillers, it might even be a majority of the time, the protagonist is often the villain or has some sort of role in the disaster that is unfolding. And when I think of that, I don’t want to spoil anything, but when I think about the biggest hits of psychological fiction, lately, almost all of them at the end, the main character ended up being the bad guy or to be at fault or evil in some way. And I come from a world of romance, so it was really freeing for me to write Psychological Thrillers because I could make the main characters bad, I could make them unlikable. You know, in Gone Girl, I mean, we hate most of the people in that book, but obviously, that was a book that readers loved. Most of Gillian Flynn’s books are like that, but I would almost say that that is a common thread, is that the protagonist is oftentimes not heroic, and if anything, oftentimes can be the villainist. But they don’t necessarily know it, and they don’t necessarily see themselves… I mean, the rule of thumb is always right; the best villains think that they are heroes in their own way.

Andy: Yeah, exactly. I mean, I taught to write creatively, been everything I’ve read and learned and figured out myself and taught myself, you know, we hear this sort of golden rule, which is give your villains virtues and your heroes flaws. I think that’s very important, even more so with Psychological Thrillers that if you just have a villain who is completely evil; a sort of malevolent force of nature, then it’s kind of…

Alessandra: It’s kind of boring, right?

Andy: I was thinking malaria is like, you know, if you make your villain like malaria or like a tsunami, or an asteroids streaking towards you – you can’t understand malaria. You can’t empathize. Why is malaria killing millions of children in the third world? Well, I don’t know, it’s what malaria does. So you have to make your kind of antagonist. I think we’ve just lost Alessandra, are you still there. Okay Alessandra, we’ve just lost her, so I will keep talking, vamping. So I think that when you have the antagonist, the person causing all the trouble in the protagonist life, we often get some chapters and sections from their point of view. And that’s a chance for us to understand how they see the world from their perspective. And there’s a book I really recommend it’s called the Psychopathic Whisperer, and it’s a book by the guy who literally wrote the book on psychopathy and developed the hare psychopathy checklist. And when he interviewed psychopaths in prison or in secure psychiatric hospitals, you know, these guys were not kind of like ravening werewolves. They were not completely mad and bonkers. And they would justify themselves. And often, they would have had an incredibly violent or abusive childhood.

So in a sense, you could understand from their perspective why they are behaving like this. It’s not fair. The world is not fair, I haven’t been treated well, why should I treat anyone else the same way. But in fact, we can be even more subtle, I think, with the antagonist and say that they don’t really realize that they’re bad or they’re lying to us, they’re lying to justify their behavior, and so we don’t really know who to believe. So, this kind of interplay really between the protagonist and the antagonist, I think is absolutely critical that we keep the reader on the back foot and would there never really sure who to believe. So, let’s say we’ve got this kind of every man, every woman hero; one of the things I think we need to do is to really paint a detailed kind of believable picture of their life, their internal life in particular, so, what’s going on in their brain, but also their world. So if, as in my book, You’re Always With Me, we have the lead character being a… Hi, we’re back.

Alessandra: I’m using my hotspot on my phone. I have no idea what happened to my internet.

Andy: No worries, I’ve just been talking about malaria personified. In fact, so you don’t have the villain from their perspective has every reason to behave the way they’re behaving. And I’m just saying that, in order for us to relate to the protagonist, if we use that word or the victim character, their world needs to be fully believed, you know, fully realized. So in infancy, we talk a lot about in a world building and cipher world building; if you want to destroy someone’s cozy domesticity, well, you have to invest some time in creating that cozy domesticity in the first place. And I did write a blog post for Authors AI about Stephen King and his influence on my writing. And one of the things I said, and I think absolutely nobody does it better in my opinion, is that he will make sure that you care about every single character on the page, even if they’re about to be horribly wiped out, which they usually are.

Alessandra: I would venture to say, almost especially if they’re about to be horrifically, right.

Andy: If you’re reading a Stephen King novel and you really like somebody, its kind of two papers left. In my case, if it’s a young mom, you know, what’s the color of the nursery, what sounds does the baby makes; you know, it’s not just got stuff on its face, it’s got porridge or banana, so it’s that real kind of detailed thing. So we start to, what we know really in Psychological Thrillers that we know stuff’s going to go wrong. But the more perfect it looks, the kind of more tense we’re becoming that we know at some point something’s going to go wrong. And again, that tension starts to feed him right from the very beginning.

Alessandra: Yeah. And tension, that’s another thing on Psychological Thrillers. You want to keep that tension high; it’s almost constant. I mean, you want to give the readers a break, but tension is another thing that you want to keep an eye on, and Stephen King does a great job of doing that. He’s very descriptive and everything else and he still manages to.

Andy: I mean, one of the things that I find good with this sort of genre, I mean, the tension is you, kind of can’t escape it. In the action thrillers I write in the one that’s coming out on Monday, there’s a scene and this is not a spoiler, but there’s a guy driving a Lamborghini down a canyon, you know, sort of ravine road. There’s a guy up on a hill who’s about foreign RPG. And there is a sort of tension, and there’s this approaching collision, but he could just turn the car around and go the other way, he could escape, or he could not go to Serbia in the first place. But if the threat is happening in your own home, what are you going to do? There’s this word I like – this is so insidious that the threat is very insidious, it’s there. Somebody comes to the door and they’re selling Girl Scout cookies or whatever it might be. And they say, “Oh, you know, I really need the toilet. Can I come in and use your bathroom?” You go, “Of course you can.” And then they’re in the house, and then why won’t they go? And then something else happens, and you see this kind of person. “Can I use your phone?” “Yeah, of course you can use the phone.” “I’ve just got to go and…”

Alessandra: A little bit and a little bit, and then in action thriller, the guy would just be like, “Get out of here.”

Andy: And he could just pull a big gun.

Alessandra: But that’s a great point, but in a psychological suspense or psychological fiction you’re inside their head and it’s an ordinary person. And we’ve all been in that uncomfortable situation where it’s like, “Gosh, like at some point, am I going to have to ask this person to leave,” and I don’t think I could even do that. It would be hard for me as a person.

Andy: Do you know what I mean? I mean, a great example of sort of prompt, it’s like, imagine you’re in your home, somebody comes to the door and for whatever reason you invite them in, and now you have to get them out again. What do you do if they kind of don’t want to go? How would you get… you don’t have…

Alessandra: You will be living in my guest room by the end of it.

Andy: I mean, you’re not going to fight them, because this real life. This is a real house, you can’t just pull a gun or knife or a baseball bat; they’re not a zombie. They’re not a super hero, they’re just like a normal person. I’ll give you an example from my own life that could very easily have turned the wrong way. When I used to have in London, I was working at home during the day. There was a knock on the door, and there’s a guy there with kind of metal Billy can, you know, a little sort of food tin. And he’s a builder working next door, and he said, can you heat up my lunch for me? I say, “What?” “Can you heat up my lunch? I immediately say okay, because if I’d say, no, then that’s actually mean, right?

Alessandra: Yeah, even though it seem like you’re ridiculous sometimes.

Andy: I did say can you just wait there, and I shut the door, But you know, it’s my house even shutting the door on this complete stranger felt like I was transgressing some unspoken social rule. And I went and heated it up and gave it back to him, and it was all fine. It was just a normal guy doing a thing and he didn’t think there was any problem with it. But if he said, “Oh, would you mind if I came in and waited?” And then it’s like, well, I guess not.

Alessandra: Or I’ve really got to use the restroom. Like, what do you say?

Andy: But then if you switch back into Psychological Thriller author mode and say, and actually let’s make this guy some kind of psychopaths, now you’re in big trouble. And so, I think this idea of reality being subverted and your protagonists will stick with the idea that they’re the good person, they’re not perfect. So they do a perfectly normal thing, but the other character isn’t playing by the same set of rules. And that in itself is a great setup, which is why I think a lot of thriller, you know, with house guests. In fact, my friend Mark actually has a book called the house guests. But again, we’re back to that idea we touched on last time with the domestic setting, I think, because it is so familiar to all of us, I mean, we talk about burglars and car crashes, but we never really think that’s going to happen to us, and then it does.

Alessandra: We had a guest on First Draft Friday, Tex Thompson, who is a fantastic book guru, for lack of a better term. I think she has a different term for herself, but she was also talking about when you’re putting your characters in these uncomfortable situations; don’t make it easy on them. If there’s, like you said, your guy driving down narrow theme, he could just turn around and go back. But if you’re talking about domestic setting – someone knocks on the door, they asked to use your phone and create a situation that enhances that stress for some reason or another. Maybe she has a baby sleeping in the next room, maybe she was in the middle of hiding something, but whatever you can do I think you said, like, turn up the heat on the kettle that they’re cooking in. But yeah, make your characters’ lives more difficult.

Andy: And it’s a temptation I think that we all have. I know I very much do, which is you get the aww factor, where it’s like, oh, let’s bring them together. I mean, if you’re writing a Romcom or romance, which I never have done, but I would be thinking whether in fact the best things like when Harry met Sally. You know, you’re constantly driving a wedge between them, but that kind of story, the tension is a kind of erotic romantic tension that eventually it’s resolved by bringing them together. But I think the Psychological Thrillers like any kind of thriller, really, you’re constantly thinking, “Okay, well, if you just did that; that would be fine. Let’s do the opposite of that.” Or she’s just about to take the kid, it goes down the drain or whatever it might be. And in fact, I’ve just seen a quote from Bailey. He says, “As a reader, knowing I’m reading a Psychological Thriller, I’d be screaming, ‘No, don’t let them in.'” And that again is something we, I think, talked briefly about last time, this idea of the poor decision making, poor choices, you know, the simplest way to make your protagonist life difficult is, when they should say yes, make them say no, or when they should say no, make them say yes. I think it’s the best range.

Alessandra: A valid reason to be doing that, whether it’s their backstory or their personality. I think one of the best things my first traditional publisher editor, you know, my first big editor, I had a very convenient story where my heroine was eavesdropping on this guy or something. I can’t even remember what it was, but she introduced me to TSTL syndrome, which is too stupid to live. And at some point your readers go, “This character is just too stupid to live” and they stopped caring about them because they’re making so many stupid decisions that you’re just like, “Why is she going down that dark stairway where there’s somebody groaning, screaming, help me, at the bottom?” Like at some point you have to, and not at some point, you need to make your characters relatable and you need to make them fairly intelligent and put them in those situations because they truly don’t have another option, or because there’s a very valid reason for them to be making those bad decisions, which were then going to trigger all these others.

Andy: And I think that that sort of too stupid to live potentially leads to another sort of trap for the unwary writer. Because if you think about horror films; the first generation were teen screens like Friday the 13th and Halloween; isn’t there a sort of thrillers called the Last Girl where you’re the last girl standing, all the others has been horribly murdered, and Jamie Lee Curtis, you know, you have to be the one who fights off the serial killer. And then you’ve got these sort of post-modern kind of thrillers, like Scream, I think, where they were actually starting to acknowledge in a very to ironic nineties way, the whole thing is that, “You know what this means? What the hell are you doing? You’re the last girl.” Which is okay, I mean, it kind of works, but I always feel with fiction, you know, with on the page or the Kindle screen, I don’t want the author having the characters deconstruct the genre for me as they go. And the trap is where people said, do you know what, if this was a book, I wouldn’t even believe this. And it’s like, that is just to knowing and the author is too clever to live freely, not too stupid to live. You need to resist – I’d do this. I think we need to resist the temptation to have characters in a novel saying, “Wow, this is just like the girl on the train.” I mean, you’ve to play it straight; you’ve got to play it there with the reader.

Alessandra: And another great comment from Margaret and it’s very similar to you. I don’t know if you’ve seen this ad on TV, but there’s like a killer coming over and the guy is like, why don’t you just get in the car and drive away? And she’s like, “No, let’s hide behind this wall of bloody chainsaw.” And that’s right in there, but yeah, we definitely don’t want to do that in our books.

Andy: On the subject of the kind of crimes and the kind of bloody chainsaws and all the rest of it; one of the things that I know, I mean, I wouldn’t say I struggled with and I enjoyed, was figuring out the relationship between the protagonist, the antagonist and the police, if you’ve got this kind of love triangle. Because obviously with the police procedure or it’s from the police perspective, everything is true, except that possibly one of the suspects is lying to the police in the interview, and that’s kind of fun in its own way. But with a Psychological Thriller, the police are not that kind of focus, I think. If it was cozy mystery, the police kind of bumblers; they stamp around the place, getting it wrong, being a bit hopeless and Plucky Jill, the homemaker, sleuths around and figures out, and that goes back, way back to sort of the strayed of the art Sherlock paints. I think in Psychological Thrillers, the cops are more like everyday people; they’re sort of in the background. We see them from the protagonist point of view, so they may be instrumental in the plot, but we don’t really focus on forensics and all of that kind of stuff. It’s still very much about dialogue and the police, I think they can be like a Greek chorus; they’re helping us interrogate what we’re being told as whether it’s true or false, which I said last time, I like to have the police in the third person, because for me, this is one anchor point that whatever the police see we see, and that is actually happening. So, it’s kind of a way for them to play a role. But we don’t follow them around the whole time because then all the unreliability that goes out the window.

Alessandra: And its funny when you’re an author, you read books differently. So a lot of times when I am reading psychological suspense or Psychological Thrillers and there is a primary police officer in first person, especially, I’m almost like, “Oh, well, he’s obviously got to be bad.” You know what I mean? Like, there’s no reason why this author is moving into this head and it’s not a rule. It’s not a rule that you have to have your police in third person or that you can’t; but the genre norm is to avoid all of those details of cop life and of forensics and of that sort of… that’s really when you kind of wander in police procedural. Heidi says, “Keep the reader guessing who is lying to the police.” I like that. I like that comment, but I agree. Normally the police are kind of on the side and they help feed information to the story and validate the information and help the reader along, but oftentimes they’re not a primary character.

Andy: Yeah, they’re almost like a mirror or a kind of reflecting pool through, you know, because I think this is a puzzle, it’s a form of puzzle book. I love to try and figure out what’s going on, and that’s why we read these kinds of books, or partly, or it’s one of the pleasures of reading a Psychological Thriller is trying to solve it just before the end or before we give them the final piece of the puzzle, the final breadcrumb. And one of the things I noticed when I’m writing books, because you know everything, you know where everything is, but you kind of forget that, you know, in let’s say an 80, 90,000 word manuscript, readers have short memories. So what I like to do is have a character say or do something on page five. And then when they’re asked about it by a police officer on page 95 or 200, they lie. And if you’re paying attention, you go, “Hang on a minute.”

Alessandra: I love that.

Andy: That doesn’t work, and I think this is another one of those kinds of rules or guidelines that you have to play fair with the reader. You cannot just withhold information that should have come out. Everything has to be there, more or less in plain sight. And there’s a book I really recommend, I think it’s called ‘How to Write a Thriller’ by Patricia Highsmith who wrote Mr. Ripley, Talented Mr. Ripley. She gave this great example of putting a massive clue, absolutely front and center and everybody misses it, and the big clue is that the killer is short-sighted. And I can’t remember why, but…

Alessandra: Like short-sighted mentally or he literally can’t?

Andy: No, like myopia.

Alessandra: Near sighted, okay.

Andy: Near sighted, sorry, British English. We say short-sighted. And so, basically, if we know who is so short-sighted, that’s it, mystery over. And the detective is interviewing the domestic staff in this house about dates. Where were you on Friday the 13th of July? And the housemaid goes like this… I’ll have to make sure I find something short. And she kind of squints that kind of goes, “Friday the 13th. Oh, I was here.” And what you pay attention to is her saying that I was here on the 13th, but really, she’s squinting, or she brings the camera. And it’s just such a clever thing and you do it in movies. You see a lot in movies where the little bit of misdirection, which could be another.

Alessandra: They are distracting you with this big, shiny thing.

Andy: Yeah, look, shiny thing.

Alessandra: This huge clue is right there.

Andy: I love things like that, and almost is how audacious are you prepared to be, you know, make the clue bigger and shinier and brighter and more and more obvious, but then put something in the foreground basically moving about. And people notice the thing moving about, and the huge clue is just gone.

Alessandra: Yeah. And Peg said, “Agatha Christie was a master of that.” We are already out of time. I did want to, because I think this is a great question and I have what I think is a great answer, but we did have a question, which is what is your favorite thriller movie or book not including your own? And for me, Silence of the Lambs was such a fantastic movie. To be honest, I’ve not read the book, but I love how that story unfolded. And that’s one where we talked about cops, there were cops and it was a serial killer investigation, but you really never even saw much of that other than like the butterflies being or the moth being investigated. But really the focus was on the psychology and on her sort of almost amateur sleuth, you know, activity separate from the police investigation. So, that’s my favorite, and it’s one I use all the time when I’m using examples for psychological fiction.

Andy: I think it’s a great example, and it shows how broad the term is, or the genre. Mine, I am going to go for what I hope is a little known gem, a movie, Tim Robbins film called Jacob’s Ladder.

Alessandra: I’ve heard of it, but I haven’t seen it.

Andy: Mind blowing. It’s very, very suspenseful. It’s a Vietnam vet who got medivaced back to the States; he was in this weird hospital. There’s elements of horror, it’s very disturbing; you really don’t know what’s going on, and the twist is off the scale. It’s 25 on a one to 10 scale.

Alessandra: I’m going to watch it this weekend.

Andy: Jacob’s Ladder.

Alessandra: I’ve heard of it, but I’ve never… I don’t know anything about it. It sounds like contemporary fiction; it doesn’t sound… Margaret said that movie is crazy. Oh my gosh, I have my homework assignment for the weekend. But this is a wrap, so we are going to sign off. For everyone watching, if you’re watching on Facebook, please join the group. If you’re watching on YouTube, please subscribe. And if you’re listening to on our podcast, please subscribe. It’s been great to have you guys. Thank you so much, Andy, for coming back and sharing your wisdom. And if they are interested in reading your books, would they visit andymaslen.com?

Andy: Yeah, they’re all there or your local Amazon stores where they belong.

Alessandra: Perfect. And best of luck with your publisher submission. Yeah, fingers crossed. If you’re interested in trying out our artificial intelligence fiction editor, visit authors.ai and check out Marlow. She has some really exciting updates coming in the next 24 to 48 hours, so I can’t wait for you guys to check her out. All right, we’re signing off. Thank you, guys, for watching First Draft Friday.

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Margaret Daly
Margaret Daly
11 days ago

Excellent episode! Great information shared in this one, as with all of them. I could listen to the two of you talk all day.