The Psychological Thriller

Clammy, sticky weather, and I’m ploughing on with the novel, making the changes needed to strengthen the story. A psychological thriller. It’s hard.  A fresh twist in the plot increase the tension, but often at a cost, as each alteration affects the rest of the story and errors creep in, usually unnoticed.

I’ve also observed that ruthlessly cutting superfluous sentences – for instance, 100 words here, 50 words there – will tighten the prose, but might result in the loss of the writer’s unique voice. The story may take on a racy-pace, but lack originality.

For me, psychological thrillers must create an atmosphere (preferably portrayed through a first person narrative) that the reader relates to, even if their own experience differs from that of the main character. The atmosphere determines the plot, I believe, although this runs counter to the general advice that plot should be character-led.  Perhaps there is room for both then – atmosphere and character actions?

Let’s hope so.

In the meantime, I have another fifty-five thousands words to deal with.

Fiction: More Than One Viewpoint

Once more, I’ve reached the waiting stage.  I’ve sent out the manuscript for my last novel and am hoping to hear back.  Quite a stressful time.   Writer’s block.

In the meantime, I thought I would post an old article I wrote on the subject of viewpoints.   Generally, I like to introduce a second viewpoint in my work or, at least, a different time frame to add greater texture to the writing.  Of course, this technique can backfire, producing complexity and unnecessary details.


Currently, I’m writing a psychological thriller about two guys who last met when they were ten.   A serious crime occurred in the woods near their home and the main character managed to escape, but he has no recollection of the events or the person he ran from.   Twenty-six years on, he is reconciled with his former best friend, also present at the crime scene.   Soon, however, a set of disturbances occur, triggering a set of flashbacks about what really happened twenty-six years ago.

The central character’s wife has recently run away with someone, leaving him with a vulnerable eight-year-old son who has become withdrawn after a stint of bullying at school. At the start of the novel, the central character moves to his sister’s country cottage.   The story is told from three viewpoints – the central character’s (first person), his sister’s (third person) and his best mate’s (third person).    Each chapter is limited to one viewpoint.   The viewpoints rotate.

The advantages of rotating viewpoints are:

  • Greater psychological intensity and immediacy;
  • The viewpoint characters might have different interpretations of the same events;
  • By introducing back story, the varying viewpoints and time shifts expands the story, giving it a fuller feel.

However, watch for the pitfalls:

  • Story runs the risk of becoming laboured and repetitive;
  • The constant moving between character viewpoints and past and present could prove confusing.

In all, I’m enjoying this form of narration and feel it best tells the story I’m writing.

Your Main Character In Fiction – Too Good (Or Too Bad) To Be True…

The difficult part.  Creating a realistic character – or in fact, creating two.  Protagonist and antagonist.

Both are crucial to the story, but in some ways, the antagonist needs greater complexity, as that character drives the story forward – perhaps more so than the protagonist.

Stereotypes (e.g all bad, all good, all tough) don’t help.  Readers find it difficult to identify with a persistently flat character. Yet, in life, personality trends tend to fall into a few basic categories, suggesting that humans are pretty stereotypical at heart.

Until you dig deeper…

I think the secret lies in balancing the character’s strengths and virtues with their weaknesses and conflicts.  No one can be truly good all the time.  The truly good person must have conflicts of their own, regrets, resentments, etc.

Conflict provides a key to the main characters.   For instance, a writer should ask their major character questions: “What’s your problem?”, “What drives you?”,  “What’s the worst thing you’ve done that no one knows about?”,  “What are your secrets?”  Some writing coaches suggest doing exercise like these in the First Person, to get deeper insight into the character.

A further tip…make a note of the questions or character qualities that prompt a strong emotion…later, they may provide you with plenty of story questions to drive the narrative forward.  Plus, you may get a couple of satisfying, three-dimensional characters: protagonist and antagonist


New Month And Freezing Cold

First day of February, and the temperature has dipped.   You can feel the chill against your bones, and apparently things will get worse at the weekend.   

Recently, I read through viewpoint sections of Dark Whispers, the first ever novel I wrote (the one I felt just didn’t come alive for me in the way I’d hope), and I can see certain parallels with some of my earlier photo shoots.   When I was editing the shots in Google’s Picasa, I tended to bring out the colors and emphasise contrast – but I can see now that the photographs would probably have benefited from less color/saturation.  I think the idea extends to the writing too, especially in Dark Whispers, that first problematic novel that never seemed to work, no matter what changes I made.   The tone of the writing, I suspect, contained too much “color”, when it needed less. 

I think the choice of subject matter didn’t necessarily help.  The other novel tended to have an otherworldly feel and contained classic whodunnit clichés: the village, the vulnerable (possibly paranoid) wife, rhymes, etc.  When a writer paints a picture like this, s/he often has nowhere else to take the story because the story has a tight but limited focus preventing further plot and character development.  However, when I worked on my debut novel (Secrets by Lawrence Estrey), I ditched about two-thirds of original material and began almost entirely from scratch, resetting it in a different part of the country (no more villages) and concentrating on varying degrees of crime.  Suddenly, I had plenty of places to take the story and ways of broadening the central characters, plus better ideas of how to make sections truly chilling. 

I’m currently working on a new crime thriller set in Manchester and the central characters have already begun to make an impact on me.

A New Novel

I’ve started a new novel, another psychological thriller set in flat English countryside.   In the story, central character Gavin has to make sense of events that occurred when he was a student living in remote student digs.

More Paranoia: The Novel

I’m close to the end of my novel, a psychological thriller set in the north of England.  Central character Alan reaches the point where he begins to lose control:

I make a start on supper. Electronic beeps and squeals come from Robert’s bedroom. Ollie’s computer game. Dead wicked, he described it when we went up in the lift. His laughter rings through the flat. He gets overexcited, shouts too much. My nerves are on edge, my neck rigid with tension.  Each time I glance out of the window, I pick up on the watcher’s presence out there in the post-industrial landscape. Twice, the landline phone rings by the sofa bed. Silence both times, number withheld. I hardly use the landline. Less than a dozen people have the number. My hands shake as I slice the vegetables. I look out of the window again.  The invisible gaze.  I pull the kitchen blinds down, but just before I do I catch a glimpse of a car reversing out of a lane behind The Factory – then nothing, apart from fading daylight slipping into evening, darkness falling over Kiddlestone valley.

From My Novel…

I’m near the conclusion of a psychological thriller after a struggle with writer’s block earlier in the year.

At this point of the story, central character Alan has discovered information about an event he doesn’t fully recall and he is being closely monitored:

At lunchtime, I sprint to the deli to fetch sandwiches for Kerry, Barry and Gordon. The unseen person watches me leave the gym; but he or she is also there when I turn the corner by the main square, scanning me amongst the tourists and the walkers with their binoculars and maps. More than one person must be monitoring me, since no one can be in two places at once. I think again of Gordon’s theory about corrupt officers desperate and mean enough to silence me, but the theory no longer makes sense.

In the deli, I feel the gaze fixed on the back of my head. The person watches me take cash from my wallet and place the cash on the counter, stuff my wallet in my inside jacket pocket, exit with a tray of sandwiches and drinks, and make my way towards Burrington Bridge to the cobbled street where the gym in situated. I wonder how much more of this I can take. It feels like a psychological form of Chinese torture by water drops, designed to make the recipient go mad slowly. I force myself not to glance round and hurry inside, the only place where the gaze isn’t.

The Novel: More Than Two-Thirds Of The Way Through

The struggle with writer’s block has paid off and I’ve now reached sixty thousand words of my novel, a psychological thriller set in the north of England. Central character Alan is  investigating something that happened nine years ago, an event he doesn’t fully remember…

 I continue on at the railway bridge, across the t-junction and down a hilly tree-lined road, scanning the buildings and the side avenues in the hope of answers. Brief flashes come to mind, but none exact, only that I drove down this hilly road in the rain in search of a hoover store for an important meeting that I’d arranged back in London. I felt flat as I drove that other time, the aftertaste of tea from Kaz Bradshaw’s cafe fresh in my mouth. The days when I still added milk to hot drinks. I drove past an RC church with a crucifix. The church is still there, about two-thirds of the way down the leafy road. Nothing against church buildings, but this is freaky.

I reach the bottom of the hill and another set of lights and a familiar tower-like building that reminds me of bells and the rhyme about the oranges and lemons. Row of shops, gastronomical pub, garage, an island with pylon wires overhead. Then, I see it on the other side of the island.

The Novel: Making Progress

A brief excerpt from my second novel, a psychological thriller.  Central character Alan has recently received information leading him to investigate an incident he doesn’t fully remember:

I didn’t come to this part of the neighbourhood last week, but straightaway I recognise the railway bridge opposite a snooker hall that has since shut. It’s the same bridge with railings on both side and a steep incline up to the ticket office; and also, the railway bridge I dreamt about at the weekend Nine years ago, I stopped the car on the other side of the bridge and checked my A-Z. I got out of the overheated car, stepping into wind and rain, but I don’t know where I went afterwards.

I drive under the bridge, past a concrete walkway with murals painted on the wall, and slow the car. This is it, the walkway flanked by the bridge wall and hedges. No benches, just strips of light that come on at night. This is where I stopped the car to look at the map the other time. The tall hedges conceal the remainder of the pathway from sight. In the distance, high rise flats dominate the landscape, spectral in the cloudy weather. The high rise flats I remember from the other time, although they seemed much dirtier then. The pathway didn’t lead to the flats. An industrial complex on the other side prevented direct access, forcing me to go round via a maze of turnings.The maze is still there, along with an old brewery on a corner.

Spring’s On The Way

Spring’s on the way, and I already can feel the writer’s block shifting.   For me, the winter months were grey and depressing. I struggled to throw off the lingering effects of the flu, caught two days before Christmas. 

On Friday, I went to see the doctor.  He prescribed a strong but simple gargle that got rid of my two-month sore throat in less than twelve hours.

Recently, I’ve enjoyed working on the novel, a psychological thriller.  I’m concentrating on building up atmosphere and developing the various character relationships in the context of the home setting, a former factory in the north of England.  There’s quite a few chilling moments too.