Psychological suspense novels are characterized by thorny characters, unexpected twists, and an overall feeling of creeping dread. But if you want to construct an unforgettably unsettling plot, you’ll need more than just that grisly murder you came up with to kick things off. Here are a few tips for getting your book to inflict just the right amount of mental torment on readers.
1. Give Your Main Character one burning desire.
And make it one that she would kill for. Because, although she’s not a bad person at heart, before all is said and done, she will be driven to her breaking point. She can be likeable, she can be unlikeable, but make her interesting. Give her something that matters more to her than life itself. And then take that thing away.
2. Give your Villain one burning desire.
And an understandable, utterly human one, at that. A rampaging Godzilla is never as scary as the spider that just crawled in your ear looking for a safe haven. (Sorry) Monsters aren’t nearly as chilling as the villain-next-door, that kindly grandma down the street who really only wants to protect the young mothers of the neighborhood…by killing them, naturally.
3. Make EVERYONE a suspect.
Real people are enigmas. Make sure your secondary characters are complex and layered and have enough reasons—good reasons—to have done the evil deed. They should have secrets too, even if they don’t pertain to the central mystery. Because don’t we all?
4. But never trick the reader.
Although they may still enjoy the story, when they put the book down, something about the narrative as a whole will feel less-than-satisfying. Don’t, in an effort to pull off a spectacular mega-rollercoaster ending, reveal a chunk of totally new information that’s never been alluded to before. The answer to the riddle, the clues they need to solve the mystery must all be there in the pages of the book. Then spin the clues you’ve already dropped in a new, jaw-dropping direction.
5. Use setting to build tension.
Set your scenes carefully and with purpose. A creepy house, deserted lake, or abandoned factory will allow your readers to feel the danger through on a gut-level, long before anything bad actually happens.
6. Then cut a subplot, backstory, or longwinded explanation.
By definition, suspense novels should move at a fast clip, especially in the third act. If things are moving too slowly, you’ve probably got some padding to trim. Streamlining the narrative will allow you to dig deeper into other elements (like setting or character) that could use an extra zhush.
7. And finally, don’t be afraid to inject a little WEIRD.
An odd character—hey, why does that lady keep muttering the first line from The Illiad?—or a bizarre element of setting—that’s a very nice stuffed platypus on your sideboard, Douglas—will ratchet up the tension. A little something that’s not quite right about the scene should knock the reader the slightest bit off-balance in the best possible way.
Emily Carpenter is the critically acclaimed, bestselling author of suspense novels Burying the Honeysuckle Girls, The Weight of Lies, Every Single Secret, and the forthcoming Until the Day I Die, which Publishers Weekly calls “chilling…shocking.” She’s worked as an actor, producer, screenwriter, and behind-the-scenes soap opera assistant for the CBS shows, As the World Turns and Guiding Light. Born and raised in Birmingham, Alabama, she now lives in Atlanta, Georgia with her family. Visit her website or find her on Facebook and Twitter.