The ‘psychological thriller’ isn’t a new genre, but it has seen an increase in popularity in the last decade or so. You know the books I’m talking about — the covers have large lettering, the titles usually include words like ‘Lies’ and ‘Secrets’, and the stories often involve female protagonists.
I recently penned a blog post about how I’ve decided to rewrite my cosy mystery novel as a psychological thriller. For inspiration, I’ve binge-read all of Ruth Ware‘s books. Ruth is the bestselling author of five psychological thrillers (In A Dark Dark Wood, The Lying Game, The Woman in Cabin 10, The Death of Mrs Westaway, and The Turn of the Key). Using her novels as examples (spoiler-free), I’ve come up with a list of 5 must-have elements in a psychological thriller.
1 – An ominous prologue.
These prologues set the tone for the rest of the novel and raise questions in the reader’s mind. They might be a scene from the long-ago past, or a taste of things to come. In Ruth Ware’s first novel, In A Dark Dark Wood, the main character wakes up in a hospital bed, unable to remember anything. How did she get there and why is she so badly injured? The story then returns to a time before the events of the prologue. The Lying Game opens with a a body part washing up on the beach. Using a prologue can be contentious, with several judges of novel competitions saying to leave them out. But perhaps Ruth Ware’s success suggests otherwise?
2 – An unreliable narrator.
It’s an unsettling experience reading a book where you aren’t certain you can believe the main character. They might be lying (e.g. Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn) or they might have some kind of personal issue, such as a drinking dependency that triggers memory loss (e.g. The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins). Ruth Ware has used this device to great effect in The Woman in Cabin 10, where the main character, Lo Blacklock, is certain she’s witnessed a murder. Only problem is that she’s a heavy drinker and no one believes her. In The Turn of the Key, the narrator tells the story through a long letter to a lawyer and it soon becomes apparent she’s omitted some major details about her life.
3 – An isolated setting.
There are several classic thriller novels that are famous for their use of isolated settings (e.g. The Shining by Stephen King). These stories play on the fear of being alone when there’s no one to call for help. All of Ruth Ware’s books use setting to create tension. For example, in The Turn of the Key, the main character is a nanny to three young children in a remote Scottish house. If she called the police, it would be a very long time before they arrived. The Woman in Cabin 10 is set on an elite cruise ship in the middle of the ocean with no phone reception. Add a murderer to the mix and you can be certain things won’t end well.
4 – A dead body.
Amidst all the shady behaviour and spooky settings, there’s gotta be a dead body somewhere, right? All of Ruth Ware’s novels involve a murder mystery. Halfway through In A Dark Dark Wood, someone gets shot at a hen party. The Lying Game opens with the discovery of a body part, and in The Death of Mrs Westaway, there’s a long-lost missing sister — so we can be sure that whatever has happened to her, it isn’t good. In The Turn of the Key, the main character is on trial for the murder of a child, but we don’t find out what really happened until the very end.
5 – A dramatic climax scene.
All suspense novels, not just psychological thrillers, should build towards some kind of showdown between the main character and the antagonist. These scenes have high stakes — think life or death situations. For example, in The Lying Game, the main character and her baby are trapped in a burning house that begins to fall down around them. In The Death of Mrs Westaway, the main character confronts the murderer on a frozen lake.
There are lots of different elements that go into making a thriller/suspense book a real page-turner for the reader. If you read several books by the same author you may notice they follow a specific pattern or formula. Do you have a favourite psychological thriller author? What tropes, techniques or plot devices do they use to amp up the suspense? I’ve finished binge-reading Ruth Ware: who should I binge-read next? Let me know in the comments below.
In the meantime, check out Ruth Ware’s novels — published in Australia by Penguin.