Popular plot elements in psychological thrillers

So many books, so many psychological thriller plot elements!

I’m currently part way through the line edits for my eighth psychological thriller (Her Last Holiday) and, naturally, I am thinking ‘What’s next?’

Some (possibly a lot) of authors get an idea for their next book part way through the first draft of the book they’re writing. Some are inundated with ideas.

I am NOT one of those writers.

I don’t have the headspace to come up with a new idea until after my book has been sent to my editor.

Once I’ve finished my line edits for Her Last Holiday I only have copy edits and page proofs to do until this book is done and dusted. And then I’ll have one month, maybe two, to come up with an idea for book nine and plot it.

My contracted deadline is 1st June 2021 so if I start writing it on 1st January I’ll have five months to write the draft that I deliver to my editor (let’s ignore the fact that it took me six months to write Her Last Holiday!)

So it’s quite important that I come up with an idea relatively soon.

But I haven’t got one.

Well, I have several ideas, all jotted down in my phone, but none of them are lighting a fire in me. I’m not desperate to write them, nor am I convinced that they are particularly original or exciting.

The trouble is, having written eight psychological thrillers so far, I’ve already covered a lot of ground in terms of types of plot elements in this genre.

The Accident – stalker / coercive ex

The Lie – toxic friendships / cults / ‘I know who you are’

The Missing – missing child / mental health issue

The Escape – mysterious stranger appears

The Fear – victim of a crime gets their revenge on their aggressor

Sleep – locked room mystery / stalker

Strangers – dead body. Who is it? Why are they dead? / letter from someone ‘dead’ / stalker

So what’s left? What type of psychological thriller plot haven’t I covered so far? Quite a lot as it turns out. I just did a quick brainstorm and this is what I came up with:

  • Missing child/sibling/friend/husband/parents
  • Missing child returns
  • Escaping domestic abusive/coercive/controlling partner
  • Gaslighting by friend/partner/family member
  • Toxic friend/family member/coworker/in-law/ex
  • The stalker – friend/ex-friend/stranger/relative
  • The unreliable narrator – alcoholic/drugs/amnesia/mental health issue
  • A letter/email/FB request from someone ‘dead’
  • The serial killer partner/friend/relative
  • Being set up for a crime you didn’t commit
  • The Locked Room mystery – someone is dead/dies. Who in the group did it? Or who will die?
  • Twins
  • Cults
  • ‘I know what you did’ threatening text/email/FB message threatens to reveal a secret from the past
  • ‘I want what you’ve got’
  • neighbours from hell / neighbourhood crime
  • a stranger enters the main character’s life (possibly stranger with amnesia)
  • my child/husband/friend/child committed a crime (I need to keep it secret)
  • the covered up crime aka ‘we all have a secret’
  • victim of a crime stalks their (or their child’s) aggressor
  • Locked in/kidnapped and have to escape

What have I missed? Please let me know in the comments.

I’m not going to stress about the fact I don’t have a new idea yet. It’s hard enough to be creative as it is (thanks 2020) without me putting additional pressure on myself. It will come, in time, and probably when I least expect it.

P.S. The paperback of Strangers is published on 1st October. If you want to get your hands on a signed copy, made out to you, you have until 30th September to order one from independent bookshop Max Minerva’s. They can send them anywhere in the world!

20 thoughts on “Popular plot elements in psychological thrillers

  1. punkandoiarchives says:

    Maybe the best plot is the one you’re currently living through : Covid.
    Whatever you decide, it’ll be ace. Your books always are.

  2. Rob Briggs says:

    Hi Cally,

    What a super useful list – thank you!

    I’m working on a missing parent + series of unreliable narrators (therapy patients) + covered crime project. It’ll all come together in the end, I promise!

    There are multiple combinations from your plot points. Multiple (un)reliable narrators will allow me to both a/ play with different registers and b/ absolutely put my protagonist through the wringer.

    I haven’t developed his character yet and I still feel sorry for him…!

    Kind regards,

    Rob

    1. C.L. Taylor says:

      Thanks Rob. Yes, it’s interesting how so many of these different plot elements can come together in a book. It’s like a game of mix and match!

      1. Rob Briggs says:

        Thanks Cally 🙂 Would you mind if I share your list (credited) with colleagues on my Creative Writing MA? It’s a genre focused course and I think we’d all find it helpful.

  3. Debbie Ridley says:

    Oh Cally. Toxic work colleague please! I worked with one. A total spoilt brat who decided to pass me ALL her work on the premise SHE was the manager! She did the minimum and spent the rest of her time playing solitaire or on FB while I was slogging my guts out trying to get the work done. Trouble was, the directors wouldn’t intervene as they ‘didn’t want to upset her’ and also, they sat in a different part of the company so they didn’t have to put up with the constant whinging and the favourite ‘I haven’t got time’ quote. After TEN YEARS, two formal complaints, I had a breakdown and left.

    However, as bad as I sounds, I had visions of going in with a baseball bat and trashing the place completely and standing there screaming everything I felt about her and the rest of them.

    I didn’t. Promise.

    The psychological damage of working with them has made me very wary of going back into any kind of work place, especially an office and more especially a family run firm…..

    1. C.L. Taylor says:

      Very good point. I know Charlotte Duckworth has a book called Unfollow Me about Instagrammers. I also realised I missed out psych thrillers about motherhood and school mums (although the latter may come under the ‘toxic friends’ header and many of the former come under mental illness as many seem to include post-partum psychosis.

  4. Sarah K says:

    Your books are fantastic, so I’m sure inspiration will strike.
    Am currently drafting book 2 (book one stalker theme), (book 2 gas-lighting) but both with a tech twist (in an attempt to do something different). I think you’ve got most bases covered. What about starting with a character and going from there? In my first my MC was inspired by my wonderful nephew (but you’d have to read it to find out how…(if it ever gets representation lol).
    Congratulations for a great, though-provoking article. SK

    1. C.L. Taylor says:

      Thanks Sarah. I’ve only started with a character once and that was The Accident. I ‘heard’ the character tell me the first few lines of the story while I was standing in a supermarket queue, seven months pregnant. It’s never happened again!

  5. Rachael C says:

    This was such an interesting read, thanks for posting it. They say no idea is completely original (as all Stories have been told before in some form) so I guess we shouldn’t worry too much. I’m sure whatever you come up with will be great. Good luck!

    1. C.L. Taylor says:

      I’m glad you found it interesting. Very true that all stories have already been told, all you can do is put your unique spin on it. I just don’t want to have a book published with a similar premise to lots of other authors who are published at the same time!

  6. Becca says:

    Oooh a kidnap scenario, with a victim with stockholm syndrome! 🙂 That would be interesting to read about. Although I’d find it really frustrating to read about as well! x

    1. C.L. Taylor says:

      I’m reading a fantastic book at the moment called The Last Thing to Burn by Will Dean, out next year, about a kidnap victim. She doesn’t have Stockholm Syndrome though.

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