Sam Hepburn is the author of many YA and adult thrillers. She has been shortlisted for several prestigious prizes and nominated for the Cilip Carnegie Medal for her YA thrillers. Her latest novel Gone Before is a fast-paced psychological thriller that asks the question: what would you do if you discovered your whole life was a lie?
Here Sam shares some of her top tips for plotting, planning and writing a suspense-filled psychological thriller.
Just like the popular sensationalist novels of Victorian authors like Wilkie Collins and Mrs Braddon contemporary psychological fiction draws the power of its plots from shocking domestic secrets, the relatability of the characters’ lives and the unsettling idea that we can never really know our nearest and dearest. As a mixed race woman with three children by two different fathers, neither of whom I was married to when they were born, I think it’s safe to say that we have moved on from the time when readers related to characters who needed to resort to lies and murder to conceal their own illegitimacy, “exotic” parentage or secret love children. But the basic themes of identity, parentage, jealousy, betrayal, money and social standing are still powerful drivers of domestic and marital intrigue. So when plotting my psychological thrillers Her Perfect Life and Gone Before I found it useful to look at classic sensationalist plots and think about how they might translate to modern day settings. For example, although illegitimacy is no longer a cause of shame, advances in fertility treatments and DNA testing have made issues of identity and biological parentage increasingly fraught and complex, and while a woman’s reputation is unlikely to take much of a pounding from the whispers of local dowagers, it is now trolls, social media campaigns and tabloid newspapers that have the power to make life unbearable for those who are seen to have transgressed society’s norms.
Fillet the tabloids
Don’t be afraid to trawl the newspapers and gossip columns for real stories and issues, then look beneath the headlines at the lives of the people involved and think about their feelings and motivations and what might happen if you tweaked certain elements of their experience. For my latest novel Gone Before, which tells the story of a Phoebe Locklear who turns up out of the blue claiming to be a child abducted fifteen years before, I naturally spent a lot of time reading about the Madeleine McCann case. What really shocked me was the amount of vitriol hurled at her parents, particularly her mother. Kate McCann is a doctor, a pillar of society who left her sleeping children while she ate at a restaurant just yards away, but what if a woman whose child was abducted really were a bad mother? A wealthy but troubled woman with a drug problem who was guilty of neglect? The trolls and tabloids would make her life utterly unbearable. I began to ask myself what lengths such a character might go to survive these attacks and that gave rise to one of the threads of my plot.
Characters in psychological thrillers may, on occasion, do monstrous things but they are not monsters. It is their ordinariness that makes them compelling. Think about their homes and lifestyles, the food they eat, the cars they drive, the way they interact with their children and spouses and have fun describing them. The more relatable you make their worlds the more shocking and unsettling their crimes and secrets will seem.
Twists are key to the genre but it’s difficult to keep them coming. In Her Perfect Life I knew from the outset what the main twist would be but in Gone Before, which has multiple plot twists I added more with each draft. I am now writing my third thriller and although I wrote what seemed to be a very detailed plot synopsis to start with, more twists are taking shape as the characters and story evolve. So I would say don’t be afraid to depart from your initial plan. Try laying down a draft and then weaving new twists into the basic framework as you go. Think of each new twist as a slap in the reader’s face and use both hands to keep them shocked and off balance.
If the story is being told in the first person it is very easy to get so involved in the complexity of the protagonists’ actions and inner life that their partner and those around them can become two dimensional. Spend some time thinking about the thoughts, motivations and backstory of those characters. Write some scenes from their point of view. Even though what you write won’t actually appear in the novel what you discover about that character will give richness to their actions and the way they are perceived by the narrator.
Try to build up slowly to the big reveals but make sure you scatter plenty of subtle clues and hints along the way, little moments that only make sense once the truth becomes known. I have been really surprised by the number of readers who have got in touch with me to say that when they finished Her Perfect Life they enjoyed going back to the beginning in search of missed clues.