One of the questions I’m often asked in interviews is how I get myself into the right mood to write a particularly tense or harrowing scene and my answer is always the same – I listen to a TV or film soundtrack (without lyrics) that matches the mood of the scene (and then I put myself in my main character’s shoes and feel every emotion they feel).
Whenever I start a new book I try and find an album that matches the mood of that book. It’s wonderful procrastination, logging onto iTunes and listening to samples of different soundtracks (and you can claim the cost back on tax!). It’s also a huge part of my process. If the music is wrong, if it’s too screechy, too slow, too weird, my mind pays too much attention to it and not enough attention to the words I should be writing. But if it’s right, if it builds in intensity, it’s it’s atmospheric or if it makes my heart pound faster then I feel the music rather than listen to it and I’ll write faster as a result.
So here’s my top ten soundtracks to write psychological thrillers and suspense to (NB: they’re all largely instrumental because I can’t write to lyrics):
10. Widows film soundtrack – Hans Zimmer
This is one of the soundtracks I wrote my most recent novel, The Guilty Couple, to. It was a bit of a no brainer of a pick as Widows is about a heist and The Guilty Couple features one. With repetitive beats creating a ticking clock to most of the soundtrack, there are also quieter, more reflective, emotional moments too. The only reason that this album isn’t higher up my list is because the last three tracks contain lyrics and I had to delete them or find myself whipped out of my book.
9. Let The Right One In – Johan Söderqvist
The first three tracks on this album almost tease you that it’s not going to be dark. La, la, la, nice and light and airy and then CREAKKKK in comes track 4 (The Slaughter) and suddenly we’re in creepy territory with slashing sounds and wailing strings and track 6 (Hiding the Body) conjures up a dark basement with horrors in every corner. As soundtracks go this is a fairly slow one so you’re not going to pound the keyboard to it but if you turn off the lights you’ll channel the creepiness.
8. Broadchurch TV soundtrack – Ólafur Arnalds
This is an album for suspense or mystery writers and the main soundtrack I wrote to when I was writing Strangers which begins with three strangers standing around a main body and then cycles back to their lives before the death took place. As you can imagine (if you’ve watched Broadchurch) the music is emotional, sweeping, builds up feelings of dread and of time running out, and conjours up images of the sea. There are lyrics in track 4 (so Close) but, unusually, I don’t find them too off putting. You’re not going to write quickly to this soundtrack like you might with some of the other albums I’ve listed but it makes for a good heartbeat to a mystery and it’s not an intrusive soundtrack, so you can almost forget you’re listening at all.
7. One Hour Photo film soundtrack – Johnny Klimek and Reinhold Heil
Possibly the only film I’ve seen where Robin Williams played a creepy character but definitely one that stayed with me. This is a soundtrack that’ll get under your skin with its drawn out strings and its throbbing bass. There are moments of pleasant melody (on piano and what sounds like a harp) then in come the strings again, or a foreboding low drone. Like the soundtrack to Notes on a Scandal (#5) this isn’t album to write action scenes or to build tension but if you’re looking a subtle, atmospheric, creepiness this one’s right on the money.
6. The Dark Knight film soundtrack – Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard
This is an album I couldn’t imagine writing a psychological thriller to. Batman? Really? But it absolutely works. Right from the first track, with the constant background ticking, plane engine type roar, screeching strings and low throb and then another agonising build this album makes my heart beat faster and my fingers dance across the keyboard. It’s pretty unrelenting, but that’s what you want from a Batman movie, and its soundtrack.
5. Notes on a Scandal film soundtrack – Phillip Glass
This is one of my newest purchases, bought alongside One Hour Photo as the soundtrack to Book 10 (out in 2024). It’s incidiously creepy, full of suspense and building tension, overplayed with light tinkling notes in parts (mirroring Dame Judi Dench’s brillliant performance as Barbara), a very Hitchcockian vibe to this one.
4. Rambo Last Blood – Brian Tyler
With pounding drums, trumpets, clashing symbols and an almost battle-like vibe the first track on Rambo Last Blood will give you the shivers and get you writing. There are more horns in the rest of the tracks, strings too and moments of relentlessness action alongside slower, more thoughtful tracks. This album was recommended to me by author BP Walter when I was looking for albums to write The Guilty Couple to and I almost discounted it without giving it a listen because – how on earth could a Rambo album work when you’re writing a psychological thriller? But it really does.
3. Hunted TV soundtrack – Nick Harvey
I’m an absolute sucker for this TV show, despite knowing how much of it is staged and how the CCTV etc is mocked up (and how the producers make sure the contestants win now after that terrible series where they were caught and the ending felt flat). A huge part of why this series makes your heart pound is down to this soundtrack. It’s fast paced, it’s urgent, it’s relentless and it’s threatening. If you’re writing a scene where your character is on the run, or they’ve urgently got to get themselves out of a sticky situation, slap this on and jam on your headphones. You can’t help but write quickly.
2. Inception – Hans Zimmer
The film was mind-bending and the album’s an absolute winner in my book. More electronic than a lot of my other choices (I do love a soaring string) Track 5 (Mombasa) is so pacy, so relentless, so urgent it’s one of my go-to tracks for writing a ticking clock scene where the stakes are high and the main character has everything to lose. I guarantee you won’t be able to listen to it without bouncing in your seat (or feeling as though you are).
1. In Time – Craig Armstrong
Why yes, I have chosen the soundtrack to a sci-fi film as my number one score. Why? Because it’s the first soundtrack I ever wrote a crime novel to and now I have an almost Pavlovian response when I hear it – opening chords play, I start writing. Part of the reason why it works for me is because In Time is a ticking clock movie – literally, Justin Timberlake’s character is running out of time to live – and that’s reflected in the music. No it’s not a brilliant film (Rotten Tomatoes gives it just 37%) but I won’t hear a word said against the soundtrack. If I’m struggling to write and put this on I’ll get going. It will aways be my number one.
So how about you? What soundtracks do you write to – and why would you recommend them?
Above are just some of the books I’ve written whilst listening to the movie and TV soundtracks listed above. They’ve sold over 2 million copies worldwide and have been translated into 20+ languages. Take a look by clicking the links below: