Emma Curtis writes an exclusive piece for Female First
Emma Curtis writes an exclusive piece for Female First

To celebrate the release of her new novel Invite Me In, we asked author Emma Curtis to write us an exclusive piece that gives aspiring writers some top tips on how to put together their first psychological thriller. Here's what she had to say...

1. Beware of the original concept

Originality is important but take a concept that you think no one has ever thought of, like I did with face-blindness in When I Find You, and when another book launches the same year with the same subject it glows like a beacon. No one bats an eyelid if it's another story about a controlling husband. It's what you do with your story that makes it original. On the other hand, when 'Big Concept' works, for example SJ Watson's Before I Go To Sleep, magic happens.

2. The villain and the heroine

Unless I want to write a James Bond, as far as I'm concerned they don't exist. Some people can be nasty and manipulative, others kind and vulnerable. Sometimes a nice person can bring out the worst in another nice person. Some people are selfish to their core but would never hurt a fly. Others are saints who break lives. Good people make bad judgements. By all means make your bad character Bad but give them vulnerabilities, angles and pressure points. Make your villain as relatable as your protagonist, have your heroine make your reader cross.

3. To plan or not to plan

There is no right or wrong here but be wary. Often authors don't plan their first books. Writing on spec. you're buoyed along by adrenaline and crucially you don't have a deadline. It works and you get a deal! And since you didn't plan that first success you naturally think this will work again, so off you go. But this time there's a contract and pressure, and editors who know what they want. You have months not years and unless you're a natural it can backfire. If you absolutely do not plan, then at least give yourself turning points to aim for and a feel for the arc of your story.

4. POV problems

Deep POV is often employed in psychological suspense. It's up to you to choose whose head you allow the reader into. And of course it's interesting to see the world from the POV of your villain as well as your protagonist, if you can swing it without giving the game away. If you know everything they know you can create excellent tension… but you can also fall into a booby trap of your own making - the Snakes & Ladders of who-knows-what-and-when. This is where planning comes in useful because my goodness it's easy to write yourself into a corner! Unpicking is not fun. Restructuring is a word all writers dread hearing from their editor.

5. The seductive premise

Beware the seductive premise. It will introduce itself to you when you're a third of the way through your WIP. A sparkly new premise with its promise of surefire-hit-dom will lure you away from the hard slog of a story that isn't going quite as well as you hoped it would. But this new idea…surely you'd be a fool to ignore it? Perhaps you should write it? Don't. Be good. Write one sentence that encapsulates it and file it under Story Ideas. Then back to your WIP. Be faithful.

6. Coincidences and real life events

An agent once said to me, 'you can get away with one clunking coincidence.' I think that's generous but fair. It comes under the same umbrella as telling your editor, 'but it actually happened to me!' when she dismisses an event in your book as too far-fetched. A reader will relish a young woman trapped for two years in a bunker under a writer's garden, as happened in my book Keep Her Quiet, but might sniff at your protagonist's clumsy waitress turning out to be their long lost twin. It would work in a movie though!

7. And last but not least...

A thriller is just a story and the most memorable stories are those that make us care about the characters. No amount of girls locked in bunkers by psychopaths will make up for thin characters. So don't go into this to write a thriller with lots of clever twists and jaw-dropping cliff hangers. Go into it to write a story about human beings.

Invite Me In by Emma Curtis is out now, published by Black Swan (£7.99).

MORE FROM BOOKS: Writing the middle grade books on the shelf that talk openly about mental health, by Susan L. Read


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