Paula Wynne's picture
Paula Wynne

Pinned 4 years 8 months ago onto Writing Advice

Psychological Thriller Checklist For Writers


Psychological thrillers focus on the darker side of human behavior and focuses on understanding the shifts in the human mind. While the main conflict is internal – overcoming fears or guilt and defeating demons, every great and mind-melting psychological thriller should include not all, but most of these 45 elements.

I have compiled this list from various excellent sources. Please click the link to read the full article to absorb and learn more about writing a Psychological Thriller. This started out as my own reference for learning more on writing a psychological novel, but it may help other authors writing a disturbing thriller in this psychological genre.

See more on writing a Psychological Thriller.

45 Elements To Writing A Psychological Thriller

Amelia Brunskill from  says:

 1.                   Embrace your manipulative side:

Readers want interesting events—a revelation, a discovery, or even just a strange shift in tone that makes them question which character they should trust.

 2.                   Poor but understandable decisions:

Is there anything so deliciously agonizing as watching someone making a poor but understandable decision? The decisions being understandable is equally important, because otherwise both the decisions and the characters would simply be irritating. The key to making terrible decisions understandable comes in having the characters be in a heightened emotional state. When stressed, when panicked, when grieving, it is much easier to make an unthinkable choice. If your characters are in a heightened emotional state, it makes sense that they might not make coolly rational decisions, and so instead they are free to make horribly, wonderfully poor ones.

Lucy Rennick from says:

 3.                   Psychological thrillers mess with our heads in the best possible way:

Leaving us wondering why we do this to ourselves. 

 4.                   It’s All In The Mind:

Psychological thrillers must be creepy so that it’s really hard to know what’s real and what’s the product of a clinically deranged, overactive imagination. The pay off at the end of a psychological thriller comes in the form of a protagonist defeating his, her, or its inner demons, or overcoming some sort of personal struggle.

 5.                   We Don’t Know Who To Trust:

Set up a classic psychological thriller trope ­– that of an unreliable narrator. The story in psychological thrillers usually unfolds from the perspective of a protagonist (or an antagonist), but how can we be sure that said protagonist isn’t criminally insane, lying to wriggle their way out of punishment? The joy in these films lies in searching for clues or signposts, even though most directors will choose to keep them well hidden.

 6.                   Just When You’ve Got It All Figured Out: Surprise!

Everything you thought you knew has just been completely turned on its head by a brilliantly crafted plot twist that plays out in the final 10 pages. Plot twists are arguably what makes psychological thrillers so addictive – no matter how hard you look for them, you never see them coming (anyone who says they Remember Bruce Willis at the end of The Sixth Sense? M. Night Shyamalan is the master of plot twists, with The Village, The Sixth Sense and The Visit to his credit.

 7.                   Smart Scares:

Psychological thrillers are less about jump scares, and more about fostering an impending feeling of dread accompanied by goose bumps and chills. We’re not so much scared for the POV’s physical wellbeing as we are for her mental health. Writers of psychological thrillers use scares sparingly and ingeniously, to ensure audiences are questioning what’s real at every turn.

 8.                   It Might Seem Like Ghosts Are To Blame, But They Probably Aren’t:

Psychological thrillers handle the paranormal deftly but the supernatural elements are almost always metaphors for real-life challenges faced by our protagonists.

 Hannah Richardson from says:

 9.                   Cerebral Tension:

In a psychological thriller, the tension is cerebral. The excitement is based on the mental process of the characters and, consequently, the reader. Psychological thrillers are like fast-paced mysteries but much more complex, and the villain uses mental as well as physical manipulation.

 10.               Engage the Reader – Quickly:

To set the tone for your thriller, put the reader in the middle of the action and create tension as soon as possible. Create an immediate and intense sense of urgency using action verbs and vivid descriptions not only of what is going on, but of who is involved and surroundings that may contribute to suspense.

 11.               Develop Your Characters:

Your villain should use mental tactics that defy convention, and your hero should be extraordinary in some capacity. Create emotional connections with characters, even minimal characters, by providing physical details and some sort of backstory.

 12.               Leave The Reader Hanging:

Thrillers are characterized by cliff-hangers. Connect scene to scene, and don't let the action drop. Always set up what's coming next with suspense. End each chapter with a glimpse into the next, and create tension at the last minute that will keep the reader turning pages. In a psychological thriller, the action will be primarily mental and emotional. Psychological manipulation and mind tricks will keep the reader guessing.

 13.               Timing Is Everything:

Time itself is a character in a thriller. Use time to your advantage, and engage the reader by using time as a catalyst for the action. If your villain is playing a game of cat-and-mouse with your hero, carefully plan the timing of each moment the villain strikes. Don't let the reader get too comfortable. Plan light moments of relief only to plunge the reader back into fast-paced action.

 Mark Edwards from says:

 14.               Write what readers know:

Psychological thrillers are set in familiar places – usually the home, but it could be the workplace. The Girl on the Train was a bestseller because so many people have gazed from the window of a train wondering what’s going on behind the closed doors of the homes they pass.

 15.               The subjects are familiar too:

Marriage, family relationships, parenting, sibling rivalry and love affairs. Readers want to picture themselves in the story – and imagine how they would act if they were thrown into a terrifying situation. The trick is to take an everyday situation and ask yourself this question: what’s the worst that could happen?

 16.               Make your characters real:

It’s not just the setting that needs to be familiar. Your characters should be too. The heroines (the main characters are usually female) and heroes of psychological fiction are every-women and –men. They are not superheroes. They are the people we are married to or live next door to. They are us. Your protagonist needs to be ordinary and believable.

 17.               Give your characters flaws:

So your characters should be recognizable…but they also need to have a flaw. They could be insecure or jealous; they might have an alcohol problem or find it hard to tell the truth. Best of all, they could be harboring a dark secret, something in their past that will come back to bite them in the present day of your novel. An internal problem as well as an external one. They need to grow as the novel progresses and learn how to face their demons, which will enable them to overcome the external threat that powers the plot. It’s important to get inside your characters’ heads.You need to show how they are feeling through their reactions and actions. But it’s vital to convey their emotions and the way they see the world.

 18.               The unreliable narrator is a staple of this genre:

Can we really trust what they are telling us? Can we believe what they are telling themselves? Perhaps they are being paranoid and imagining the dreadful things that are happening to them. If you make the reader wonder, they will be hooked as they try to figure it out.

 19.               Twist, twist, twist:

The twist is a vital component of the psychological thriller. Writing a brilliant twist is hard. Sometimes you will come up with it immediately and base the whole book around it. Other times it will come to you at the end. But it’s something you should put a lot of effort into because a great twist will guarantee that readers will recommend your book to others – and come back for more.

 20.               Scare Readers:

You need your reader to feel almost sick with tension, desperate to know what will happen. Will the heroine escape the terrifying situation she’s in? Try to avoid the obvious: footsteps following your character through dark streets, phones ringing in the night with no one at the other end.

 Angela Clarke from says:

 21.               Readers of psych thrillers want to be creeped out and scared:

They want those thrills, so don’t let them down: dose them up! Turn up the tension. Obviously, your overall plot needs to be tense, but it also needs to escalate. Keep checking that throughout your novel the tension is always there, and always building. Steadily turn up the pressure on your lead character, until they’re in deep boiling water.

 22.               Keep your audience in… suspense:

You want your readers to always be on the edge of their seats. Throughout the novel, you should have readers asking the same question: ‘oh my god, what happens next!’ Hold back and draw out your reveals. Add in plenty of cliff-hangers. Your reader should understand the danger, but your protagonist might not. You want them screaming instructions and warnings at your characters.

 23.               Make it snappy:

Thrillers are fast paced reads. You want your reader powering through the story desperate to know what’s going to happen. You want it to be a page turner. Make sure it’s tight and racy.

 24.               Write characters your reader will care about:

People are more invested in characters they care about. This doesn’t mean your characters have to be likeable and bland, but they must have redeeming features that an audience can empathise with. A reader will feel the tension far more if they care what happens to your protagonist.

 25.               Do the twist:

Don’t forget to add in twists. Lead your audience down one alley, only to reveal that all is not what it seems. Pull the rug out from underneath them. You want to make your reader gasp out loud. A good twist can make a book.

 26.               Have a killer concept:

The most successful books tend to have a strong concept to them. Think about how to elevate your story. Ask yourself what makes it stand out?

 27.               What makes it special:

An interesting backstory is always fascinating.

 Veronica Sicoe from says:

 28.               Unstable Mental State:

A psychological thriller focuses on the unstable emotional or mental states of the characters, often in combination with elements of mystery, suspense or psychological horror. It often surprises 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.

 29.               Internal fears:

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.

 30.               Protagonist Questioned:

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

 31.               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.

 32.               Character motivation and state of mind:

The most important thing in a psychological thriller, since the plot entirely relies on them, and the writer needs to have a good understanding of human psychology.

 33.               Believable Mental Development:

The emotional and mental developments of characters in a psychological thriller must always be plausible and believable, even when they are outrageous.

 34.               Believable Twists:

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.

 35.               Emotional Stress:

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.

 36.               Narrative style:

Erase the boundary between the reader and the story and plunge the reader directly into the throes and terrors of the protagonist, which can greatly contribute to the effect of the psychological thriller.

 37.               Human Mind:

A 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.

 Kath Pathak from   says:

 38.               Recognizable Setting:

The psychological thriller should explore events and scenarios that are immediately recognizable to the reader. The tension is built instead through gradually unfolded secrets from the past – clues deeply woven into the development of character and situation. Families are often the focal point of the psychological thriller. Dark secrets that span generations or suppressed domestic abuse are the archetypal fodder of the genre.

 39.               Psychological thrillers need to be character driven:

The action may be sparing, so the lead players must be realistically drawn and their fate something we deeply care about. The best psychological mysteries reveal incisive observations of human nature.

 40.               The darker side of human nature always seems to prevail:

Introduce the reader to the depths of the human condition but offer hope and resolution.

 The Artifice at  says:

 41.               Predominant Themes:

Some of the better psychological thrillers in recent years include two overarching themes that tend to pop up: guilt and obsession.

 42.               Character Guilt:

In Shutter Island, directed by the great Martin Scorsese and based on the novel by Dennis Lehane, Leonardo DiCaprio plays Teddy Daniels, a U.S. Marshal investigating a disappearance at an institution for the criminally insane. As the story unfolds, we see His overwhelming guilt over this crime had caused him to create an elaborate story in his mind that gave him a new identity and could make him cope with what he had done.

 Likewise, after falling down a vicious spiral of paranoia, Trevor in The Machinist comes to learn that he had killed a child in a hit and run accident; at this point, the answer to the hangman game is revealed: “Killer.” As a result of his guilt over the incident, Trevor had lost weight and been unable to sleep for a year. Most of his visions involved elements of this tragic event.

 43.               A character’s obsession:

Show how he becomes alienated from those around him. His obsessive quest becomes more important than his family and colleagues. Thus, while not all psychological thrillers might portray the themes of guilt and obsession in exactly the same way we see that the most effective ones often group these themes with fear. In portraying her mental struggle, in Black Swan the viewer is completely unaware of what is real and what is simply imagined in Nina’s head. In the end, Nina cannot achieve perfection without a huge sacrifice.

 44.               Internal Conflict:

Because guilt is such a strong personal, individual feeling. It is something that is typically internalized, because the person/character in question feels terrible about an act or event but is scared about the ramifications that will arise should the truth be revealed. This fear of revelation — or of facing the consequences head on — collides with the feeling of guilt to create a perfect storm of psychological disarray.

 Obsession, like guilt, is another feeling that entails fear and is typically internalized. Obsession is often driven by fear and can become so extreme that people/characters have difficulty being fully transparent with others, as they feel that they are the only ones who can understand what they are facing and what they are trying to achieve. In Black Swan, Nina is obsessed with achieving perfection. Thus, she fears imperfection. Her obsession and fear are so internalized that we cannot even tell the difference between what is actually going on around her and what is simply going on as a fantasy in her head.

 45.               Character Fear:

Fear can be a byproduct of guilt, a driver of obsession, or simply an accompanying theme. Guilt and obsession are common themes in psychological thrillers because they are such strongly internalized, personal emotions. This trait makes it natural to delve deeply into a character’s mind. In a psychological thriller the only way for a character to overcome guilt is to also overcome fear, which is achieved by accepting the truth and the resulting consequences. Once each character does this, he is at peace.

Upvote this Pin: 

Log in to vote
Pinned onto the category

Writing Advice

A Comparison of Seven Story Structure ModelsWriting Thrillers To Scare The Pants Off Your ReadersBreaking Down Story Structure3 Acts to Your Story Structure12 Point Hero's JourneyHow To Create A LoglineWriting a Psychopathic CharacterStructure Your NovelMind-Blogging Story StructureHow to Evoke Character Emotion in Every SceneDecide Your Novel Length
Writing A Suspense Conspiracy Thriller
Originally pinned by

Paula Wynne

Grab your FREE historical thriller
Winter Without You: The heartwarming and emotional read for Christmas 2018
Oxford Dictionary Of Modern Slang
How Women Lived In Harems
5 Rules Every First-Time Author Needs To Know About Planning A Novel
Find out when new Thrillers are published
Pinned onto the board

Writing Advice

Scrivener Writing Software
History of Sweets Through The Centuries
Breaking Down Story Structure
Story Structure Humour
What Is Story Theme?
Psychological Thrillers That Will Mess With Your Head
Scroll to top