How do you write a gripping psychological thriller? (2023)

A psychological thriller. It's a story that gets into your head and keeps you on your toes.

Psychological Thriller: "A suspenseful narrative that emphasizes the unstable psychological states of its characters."

In a psychological thriller, the conflict takes place mainly in the person's head.Hero. So it should also take place in the mind of the viewer.

But to accomplish the task of getting inside his head and delivering surprises, you must first allow the audience to see the world vicariously through the main character's eyes.

Achieving this connection will be an unsettling experience. As a result, the emotion will be much more intense.

In this article we will learn mainly from Christian Bale Thriller,THE MECHANIC, as we explore narrative tools and techniques for writing a psychological thriller.

Keys to a Psychological Thriller #1: Identification and Empathy

Writers need to identify themselves. That does not mean that we identify with a character because we have gone through a situation similar to his.

Instead, we identify with the characters because we have experienced similar emotions.

Most of us can identify with strong emotions. We know what it feels like to be afraid, scared, guilty, mistrustful or lonely.

As a result, approaching your character's pursuit of their goal from an emotional base will allow for greater audience identification.

One way to achieve this is through vulnerability and externalizing the internal struggle of the main character orerror fatal.

The Machinist - Trailer

Keys to a Psychological Thriller #2: Externalize the Inner Struggle

Show the internal struggle by creating an external weakness or vulnerability.

When we first see Trevor Reznik in THE MACHINE DRIVER, he appears in the reflection of a window.

  • Trevor goes to the window to smoke a cigarette.
  • The transparent reflection of his severely emaciated body tells us that this is a man who hardly exists anymore. Something is literally bothering him.
  • It is later revealed that Trevor is suffering from insomnia. He hasn't slept in a year.
  • His constant washing of his hands with bleach is an externalization of his repressed guilt. It is a visual motif with an emotional meaning.

This motif is taken from Shakespeare.MACBETH, where Lady Macbeth obsessively washes her hands of guilt.

  • MACBETH is one of the best examples of how to dramatize a character's psychological trauma.

Visually showing how an issue affects the main character will help inspire empathy in the audience. It will add significant weight to the character's emotional conflict.

In addition, it will create a tone in the images. Trevor's paranoia is palpable as we see it in action. The images set the tone.

In terms of the inside and outside, psychological thrillers can be viewed as follows:

  • How does an external conflict affect the internal conflict (of the protagonist)?
  • How then does this internal conflict become an external one?
  • Where does this outsourcing lead? How does it affect the world of the protagonist (secondary characters/context)?
  • How does this spiral externalization reinforce the internal conflict of the protagonists?
  • What is the resolution of this combination of internal and external conflict? Can it be unraveled or will it be the protagonist's downfall?

Macbeth Movie CLIP - Will these hands ever be clean? (2015) - Marion Cotillard HD Movie

(Video) Jordan Peele’s Advice on Writing Thrillers

Key to Psychological Thriller #3: All the Men

Psychological thrillers tend to downplay spectacle in favor of character studies. The characters of the genre are not usually superheroes. For example, Trevor is a machinist who works in a factory.

He is an ordinary person in an everyday environment. This allows us to continue to identify with him. Consequently, we put ourselves in this position and ask ourselves:

"If I were in this situation, what would I do?"

Consider finding the extraordinary in the ordinary. Take an everyday character and put him in situations that will test his mental capacity. Therein lies the psychological attraction.

What is the worst that can happen? and how will it beHerocope and react?

10 psychological thrillers that completely turned your head

Key to a psychological thriller #4: The truth will set you free

Characters in a psychological thriller often act as detectives. They may not be literal private investigators. But often they are depicted conducting some kind of investigation.

  • Trying to solve a puzzle may be your main desire.
  • In the case of Trevor in THE MACHINE DRIVER, he wants to know who Ivan is.
  • He also believes that deciphering a series of mysterious sticky notes on his fridge with an unsolved hangman game on it will help him remember his past.

The truth is usually the solution to the protagonist's problems in a psychological thriller. Often it is the prize, the elixir of the inner journey; something cool for everyoneHeroI need to have.

  • Also, by completing an inner journey, the character can resolve the conflicts of his outer journey.
  • This internal process usually involves the character fulfilling an emotional need. This need often clashes with the external need.

There are three ways to fill the need once you have your main character:

  1. recognize something.
  2. Take action to do something.
  3. accept something
  • Trevor Reznik has put aside his guilt for killing a child in a hit-and-run accident.
  • To deal with this, his subconscious created the persona of a mysterious partner, Ivan. This is a projection of Trevor's inner dark side.

Michael Haagehe describes this survival tactic as "identity."

"The subconscious of these characters creates what I call an identity: a persona or mask that the character presents to the world in order to make them feel safe."

Sometimes this mask is metaphorical (a behavior). Sometimes it is more literal. Either way theHerohiding from others and from the truth.

How do you write a gripping psychological thriller? (1)

Key To A Psychological Thriller #5: Safe, But Never Happy

In Trevor's case, the introduction to the world is replaced by an introduction to his own psyche.

Remember: a significant part of the psychological story takes place inside the human mind.Hero.

This identity acts as a form of armor, allowing the character to be safe but never happy. He protects her from an injury that occurred before the story began.

Trevor's choice to repress and forget about the car accident denies him the experience of guilt. However, he is not without consequences.

  • Trevor doesn't sleep.
  • He takes life-threatening risks in the factory and once cost a colleague his arm.
  • Doubt and paranoia strain relationships in your professional and personal life.
  • He hallucinates every day.

By discarding identity, theHeroIn a way, he achieved his goal. But his true goal may not be reached until his fake identity is destroyed.

(Video) How to Write a Thriller

  • For Trevor, that means finding acceptance and standing up for hit-and-run murder.
  • After that, he is finally able to sleep for the first time in a year. He resolves the inner conflict (guilt) that affects his outer being so much (insomnia).

In a psychological thriller, the resolution doesn't always have to be the realization of the actual truth. ThatHerothey may have arrived at their own truth.

But his deceit destroyed her. That's the end of her story. Alternatively, as in THE MACHINE DRIVER, they could have found a way out and a way forward.

How do you write a gripping psychological thriller? (2)

Clue to Psychological Thriller #6: Hiding Information

This is often a hallmark of a psychological thriller. Hiding important information makes your audience ask questions. There are no questions rooted in confusion, but in curiosity.

In THE MACHINE DRIVER, for example, Trevor shows paranoia when he dumps the body on the edge of a cliff by looking over his shoulder and seeing a flashlight in the distance.

  • Are we being followed?
  • What happened?
  • Why it happened?
  • Whose body is this?
  • What will be the consequences?

As the wrapped body rolls off the cliff, Trevor's reaction is one of surprise. But we do not see what he sees.

  • This withholding of information from the audience pays dividends later in the film when we return to the scene.

Consequently, seeing the character react to situations in abnormal or extreme ways can offer something to the audience.strain. This is necessary for the next emotion.

strainfollowed by release. like music. Control the delivery of information to surprise the viewer. Think about the questions your scene will raise. Then answer them later.

Just don't let things stay that way for long.malcolm gladwellwarns:

"You can withhold information for inappropriate lengths of time and make your audience say, 'Well, wait a minute. Why didn't they tell me that?'

Make sure you're not withholding information just because. Always try on behalf of the building.strainand keep both theHeroand hearing on your toes.

Key to a Psychological Thriller #7: Psychological Revelations

the story writerraymond schnitzerhe was known to keep a card with a Chekov quote on it on his desk. He said:

"... and suddenly everything became clear to him."

Carver noted that this line is "full of wonder and possibility." Encapsulates the change.

Use this moment in your psychological thriller. Allow your character to experience an epiphanic moment.

This can be finding love, acknowledging a lost love, a discovery or a renunciation of faith.

  • In the case of THE MACHINE DRIVER, Trevor's lightening moment is remembering the accident and finding ways to rid himself of his guilt.

The big reveal or twist should be surprising but always inevitable.

You're allowed to pull the rug out from under the visor, as long as there's a logical trail of breadcrumbs leading to that point. We can achieve this through anticipation.

  • One of the most important revelations in THE MACHINE DRIVER comes when we return to the cliff edge scene. We finally see what Trevor was looking at. There was no body on the carpet.
  • It's a revelation that comes after we see him murder Ivan in his bathroom and snuggle his body.

But it works because we've spent time uncovering a series of logical clues. Among those clues is every character Trevor interacts with who insists that he doesn't know who Ivan is.

Great psychological thrillers you haven't seen on Netflix yet

Key to a psychological thriller #8: Unreliable narrator

A common characteristic of the psychological thriller is that the main character feels that he is dissolving reality.

(Video) If You Can't Answer These 6 Questions You Don't Have A Story - Glenn Gers

This is often represented by lies, fear, deceit, paranoia, hallucinations, mysterious characters, and moral conflict. Usually, the character's relationships become complex or distorted.

  • Using an unreliable narrator's device can increase audience anxiety and interest.
  • You will try to solve the puzzle and determine which characters are trustworthy.

In THE MACHINE DRIVER, a sense of unease and mistrust arises when Trevor talks to the waitress at an airport cafe. He reproduces verbatim a conversation he previously had with his prostitute Stevie his.

Stevie/Maria: Are you okay?
Trevor: Don't I look good?
Stevie/Maria: If you were skinnier, you wouldn't exist.

The digital clock on the wall that repeats the seconds also adds to our sense of unreliability towards the narrator.

We know something is wrong. Eaststrainmakes us careful. Anything can happen since not everything can be what it seems.

Keep in mind that in the world of psychological thrillers, the character's perception of the world is often tainted and their sense of reality can often be distorted.

If we can't trust the narrator, who can we trust?

Key to a Psychological Thriller #9: A Trail of Breadcrumbs

In a psychological thrillerpresagingnot only will it allow for logical plot twists, but it will also enhance the themes of the story.

In EL MAQUINISTA, at the carnival with María's son, Nicolás, we see critical examples of foreshadowing. Here Trevor's conscience is questioned.

  • You are disturbed by the carnival displays at a ride called "Route 666":
  • Haunting animatronic features: a severed arm held by a Native American; a woman in black mourning at a tomb; a hanged man with a sign reading "guilty"; a boy cut out of cardboard running in front of the car; a traffic accident with a bloody corpse under a white sheet.

This is Trevor's approach to the innermost cave, the point of his inner journey where he must face his deepest fears.

How do you write a gripping psychological thriller? (3)

Key to a psychological thriller #10: Active protagonists make decisions

You must put your character in a position to face his fears. But you must also give them the generosity to make a decision.

This decision will lead them to reach their objective or to fail in the objective. However, the decision should not be easy. This is one of the reasons why it is worth following.

The carnival ride culminates at a fork in the road, suggesting that Trevor has two options:

  • Turn left onto Highway to Hell


  • Turn right onto Camino a la Salvación.

You have to make the right decision. As the automated car turns left, Nicholas has a seizure and Trevor is helpless.

After building this moral dilemma and his troubled subconscious, Trevor finds himself driving down a freeway at a later stage in the film. He has the option:

  • Turn left towards "Airport" where you can escape.


  • You can turn right towards "Downtown" where you can face the police.

Having previously witnessed the carnival scene, we are committed to this choice. The film's themes resonate more than if we hadn't experienced the omen.


In short, when the audience can identify with an ordinary person who:

  • Protected by a breached identity.
  • He found external accounts of his internal psychological struggle.
  • In search of an emotionally rooted truth.
  • Within a complex or distorted reality.

If you can display and provide these narrative elementsstrainThrough a controlled delivery of information, he is well on his way to creating a great psychological thriller.

Let's see the hallmarks of the genre in these psychological thrillers:


Joker-Teaser-Trailer #1 (2019) | Film clip trailer

(Video) How To Write A Thriller
  • ordinary man: a clown and wrestling comedian.
  • unreliable narrator: experiences delusions and an invented relationship with his fellow man.
  • Outsourced Infighting: laughter disorder; a stranger disenfranchised by society.
  • fighting for a truth: his true affiliation, social respect.


Memento (1/7) Movie CLIP - I Finally Found It (2000) HD

  • ordinary man: an insurance investigator.
  • unreliable narrator: You experience anterograde amnesia.
  • Outsourced Infighting: the need to tattoo new memories on your body.
  • fighting for a truth: to find his attacker and his wife's murderer.


Black Swan (2010) Trailer #1 | Film clips Classic trailers

  • Ordinary woman: an ambitious ballet dancer.
  • unreliable narrator: You experience frequent hallucinations.
  • Outsourced Infighting: physical self-harm (back scratching/stabbing yourself).
  • fighting for a truth: plays the main role in Swan Lake.

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