05 July 2018

Five things I’ve learnt about writing a psychological thriller

Heidi Perks, author
by Heidi Perks From Our Students, Guest Blog, Student Successes, Writing Tips

Heidi Perks took our online novel-writing course back in 2013, and after impressively self-publishing her debut Beneath the Surface in 2016, her second psychological thriller, Now You See Her, was bought by Century in a major deal. Here she shares five important lessons she’s learnt about writing psychological thrillers …

One of the very first things I remember my CBC tutor, Chris Wakling, teaching me was that I needed to learn how to ‘show not tell.’ Maybe this seems obvious to many writers but it’s still something I have to remind myself to do. The course was a great start to what’s been a continual learning curve. Writing Now You See Her has taught me a huge amount: I’ve come up with five points which I think are key for anyone writing a psychological thriller.

Create a ‘that could happen to me’ situation
One of the most common things I’m told about why people loved Now You See Her is that they recognised how easily it could happen. I believe it’s so important to create a situation that resonates with the reader, so they can relate to the fear, and to what the characters are going through. You want their hearts to start racing (along with your characters) as they’re turning pages because they’re in the middle of the drama with them.

In Now You See Her Charlotte is responsible for her best friend’s daughter when she disappears, and this is something I thought carefully about. How would you feel if you lost someone else’s child? I am sure anyone who’s ever looked after other children can imagine how terrifying it would be. Charlotte has taken the children to a busy school fete when she loses Alice. I actually had two mums from school stop me in the playground days before our own fete – one to tell me she had to stop reading until after it was over and the other said she’d almost offered to look after someone else’s child but then decided she just couldn’t do it!

Decide what you want people to be talking about
It may not be the main topic of your book that will get people talking, but something should – and it’s important to work out what that is because you want your thriller to stand out from the crowd.

When editing the book my agent and I talked about the ‘water cooler’ conversation: what did we want readers discussing at work, or at the dinner table? There are a fair few books about missing children and we agreed that what made this different was the fact Charlotte was responsible for someone else’s child. The dynamic between the two mothers became a key theme throughout the book and it was clear readers could divide between team Harriet or team Charlotte. It’s an added bonus if you can divide opinion in a way that gets people talking.

Leave breadcrumbs
A psychological thriller should have a twist – be it a big one at the end, half way through or lots along the way. These are the crucial curve balls that throw your reader in a completely different direction, making them totally rethink what they believed they knew. How amazing is it when you read a book and audibly gasp? It’s clever and a little thrilling when it happens. BUT it’s vital your twist is plausible and doesn’t come from nowhere. At the point the reader’s exclaimed that they didn’t see it coming they, should be able to look back and realise they missed the little clues or breadcrumbs you’ve dropped in along the way.

Create a nail-biting moment
My editor has already asked me what my nail-biting moment is in my next book and I realised I was working so hard on other things like structure and characters that I hadn’t given it enough thought. By this I don’t mean the main topic – the child who’s gone missing, the body that’s been found – it’s the point when it gets really scary and the reader has no idea what’s going to happen to the characters. I always look back to Clare Mackintosh’s I Let You Go to remind myself what I’m looking for because for me there was a very poignant scene near the end that did this brilliantly.

Make sure your characters and their relationships are believable
Your readers should identify with your characters even if they’re nothing like them. Often as readers we’d react completely differently but the character’s actions and reactions must be believable and true to the people they are.

It’s a good idea to run through your entire cast of characters and make sure they’re all earning their place. While editing Now You See Her I ended up changing two key relationships because it became clear they weren’t working properly, and I ended up taking a character out when it became apparent he was little more than a plot device.

Get Now You See Her here.

If you’re interested in taking a novel-writing course, like Heidi, why not apply for our next 6-Month Online Novel-Writing Course taught by Lisa O’Donnell. (Applications close this Sunday, July 8th at midnight.)

Our next 6-Month Novel-Writing Course in London with Simon Wroe is also open for applications.

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