Barbara Copperthwaite is the USA Today bestselling author of psychological thrillers INVISIBLE, FLOWERS FOR THE DEAD, and THE DARKEST LIES. Her new book, HER LAST SECRET, is out today, Friday 13th October – can the lies that bind the Thomas family destroy them all? Here, she shares what she looks for in psychological thrillers…
A killer hook
People’s time is precious, and even stories that play out slowly must drag people in quickly, otherwise they move on to the next book. I love a slow-burning tale, personally, and it’s the style I write, but they have to have an opening that intrigues, or has lots of actions, so that I MUST keep reading.
Her Last Secret opens with a prologue from a mother fearful for her family’s future, and of her own actions. In the next scene, the police have been called to a home on Christmas Day because shots have been fired. What do they find at the scene? Who fired the gun? And why? The answers to these questions can only be revealed after the story hurtles back to one week before and slowly reveals a normal family on the edge of destruction.
Fear in the familiar
The most successful psychological thrillers are those where the author takes the everyday - marriage, family, sibling rivalry, the workplace, affairs - and turns it into something chilling. Why? Because it’s all too easy to imagine it might happen to us, too.
I’ve taken a mundane train journey and stared aimlessly out of the window at the houses flashing by, just like Paula Hawkins’s The Girl on the Train. I’ve celebrated finding an unexpected fiver in my purse, like in my novel, Flowers For The Dead. I’ve driven past someone who had broken down on the motorway (though never a lone woman) and felt guilty because I haven’t stopped, as in B.A. Paris’s The Breakdown. Seeing how something I’ve done can unravel and destroy someone’s life in a book makes it all the more terrifying…
I know someone like that!
The best characters don’t have to be likeable, but they do have to be relatable. Psychological thrillers don’t tend to feature tough cops who can take a beating and shrug it off. They have people like you and me in them, or every-day folk we may have met. Once again, as we see something so familiar falling apart, or revealing an unexpectedly dark side as the story continues, it gives us goosebumps because we feel so very close to the action.
A stroppy teenager, a mum trying her best against the odds to make Christmas special, a dad struggling to provide for his family, all feature in Her Last Secret – and then you see behind their facades as everything goes wrong. That feeling of ‘there but for the grace of God’ creeps in…
Make me feel
A continuation of characters being relatable is that it’s easier for readers to invest emotionally in them – and so CARE what happens to them. I need to care, otherwise it doesn’t matter what perils the characters are put in. The reason why so many people love Adam from Flowers For The Dead? Because, despite him being a serial killer, readers feel sorry for him, and care for him. Who’d have thought!
Say what? - Unreliable narrators
Psychological thrillers often present something initially that, by the end of the story, turns out to be nothing like it seemed. An unreliable narrator is frequently the key. Can we really trust what they are telling us? Can they trust themselves? Often, we are trying to pick out what has really happened alongside them – and that drive to work out the truth is what keeps us reading. Before I Go To Sleep, by S.J. Watson, Sometimes I Lie, by Alice Feeney, and Behind Her Eyes, by Sarah Pinborough, are brilliant examples of how well this can work.
Floored by flaws
It’s hard to beat a great character flaw. From a drink problem, to hiding a dark secret, from memory-loss, to post traumatic stress disorder (used to brilliant effect in Nuala Ellwood’s My Sister’s Bones), they all offer a fascinating and realistic device for characters to get in their own way, and cause all manner of complications as they try to solve the mystery surrounding them.
Give me a moral dilemma
This is a personal favourite of mine: the moral dilemma. If a character is wrestling with a tough decision, the reader will be doing so alongside them. There’s nothing I like better than thinking: ‘Eek! What would I do in that situation?’ You only have to read The Darkest Lies to know that I enjoy it as an author, too!
Suspense that makes me breathless
Action is great, and necessary, but non-stop chases, thrills, spills, and dead bodies can end up losing their impact. A great psychological thriller has incredible suspense, where each page turned is like the slow turning of a screw, and you find yourself becoming more and more tense, anticipating what is going to happen next while wanting to shout ‘no!’ Wow, that is great writing. I bought Try Not To Breathe, by Holly Seddon, as an audiobook, but was so desperate to get to the end that I bought it to read instead! The Gift, by Louise Jensen, gave me goosebumps.
Get in the reader’s head
When I write, I want to make my readers check their doors are locked, or hug their children a little tighter. I want to make them cry. That’s only possible if I can get inside their heads – and when I’m reading a psychological thriller, I want to look over my shoulder along with the character, and feel what they are feeling. The tension should be so great it’s palpable.
Do the twist
Who doesn’t love being completely blind-sided by an unexpected plot twist? Behind Her Eyes had the hashtag #WTFThatEnding – and deservedly so, as no one saw that coming! One of the best compliments I’ve had from an early reader of Her Last Secret is that it should have that hashtag, too! Twists don’t have to come at the end of a book though, just look at how Clare Mackintosh’s I Let You Go got everyone talking thanks to a corking twist halfway through her story.
So, there you go, those are the key elements I look for in a psychological thriller. They don’t have to all be present at once, but when they are, it’s a guaranteed winner!