The superpower of psychological thrillers is heightened emotion. The reader should feel every tremor, every chill, every tragedy.
But what if your scenes are coming across as flat? You’ve imagined the emotion as earth-shaking, but the feedback you’re getting from readers is that the story is unengaging.
People tend to think emotion naturally flows onto the page. In my view, writers need to construct emotion with the same diligence that you build a plot.
It took many drafts and a down-to-the-bones rewrite before I captured the emotions of the dual protagonists (who are doppelgangers, but different in every other way) in my psychological thriller, Dead Ringer.
Here are five things I’ve learned about crafting emotional stories:
1. Get inside your characters’ heads
Emotion starts with character. In order to deepen emotion, you need to get to know your characters better. Forget window-dressing like their job and appearance. What are their desires, preoccupations, fears?
I find the simplest way to get inside my characters’ heads is through first-person free-writing. I’ll open a blank Word document or a new notebook page and pour out words, writing as if I were that character.
Most of this free-writing ends up on the figurative landfill, but there are always a few character-nuggets I uncover, which make it into the final draft.
2. Treat every character as the hero of their own story
While you’re grappling with the desires/fears of your main character, it’s easy to forget that the other characters have rich inner lives, too. Neglect these inner lives and your scenes will come across as hollow.
In order to deepen the emotional resonance of a story, I recommend an exercise:
Reimagine the novel from the perspective of each supporting character.
Write down the major milestones of the novel and then, in first person, note down the supporting character’s thoughts and feelings in reaction to what’s happened. There’s no need to write reams; the whole exercise doesn’t need to be more than a page or two.
I did this exercise with The Boyfriend in my psychological thriller Dead Ringer and it instantly unravelled a plot problem for me and deepened the emotion of a break-up scene.
I guarantee you’ll be surprised at what your non-POV characters have to say about what’s going on. This, in turn, will inform their dialogue and actions, making the scenes richer and more emotional.
3. Reduce the psychic distance
‘Psychic distance’ is one of those pretentious creative writing terms that makes my brain fill with white noise. But it’s an important concept to grasp. Put simply, it denotes how far inside the main character’s mind we the reader are allowed to go.
In a first-person narrative, (in theory,) we become the narrator, seeing, hearing, feeling everything they do. The psychic distance is nil. In an omniscient third-person narrative, where the protagonist is described as if by a God-like figure, the psychic distance is vast.
The tighter the psychic distance, the greater the emotion. In theory, this means first-person narratives are innately more emotional.
In practice, it’s a little more complicated. Ever read a first-person novel where the protagonist seems … bland? It’s probably a psychic distance issue. The author might be using “I”, but they’re writing more like an omniscient narrator, describing everything at arm’s length.
When psychic distance is reduced, everything around the narrator is described in terms of their personality and experiences. A crotchety ex-con hears birdsong and thinks it’s taunting him, while a naïve young schoolteacher gazes out the window to catch a glimpse of the lark.
No matter which style you’re writing in, make an effort to reduce psychic distance in order to boost emotional resonance. Even while writing in omniscient third-person, it’s possible to “zoom in” on a character’s thoughts and feelings. Noah Hawley’s Before the Fall is a great example of this.
4. Show emotional displays, both large and small
If you’re writing a story that’s densely plotted, it’s easy to forget to give your characters a chance to emotionally react to what’s happening. This is especially the case in thrillers, where it’s the job of the author to throw grenades in the protagonist’s path. The character dodges the grenade and they’re on to the next plot point.
If the character doesn’t express emotion, the reader will quickly disconnect.
Incorporate the character’s physiological reactions into your scenes: beating heart, flushed face, squirming stomach, jittery feet, dry mouth, prickling scalp, and more.
Pay attention to your own (and others’) physical reactions during emotional highs and lows. There are also useful books to use as a reference. Joe Navarro’s What Every Body Is Saying is an FBI profiler’s take on body language, while Becca Puglisi and Angela Ackerman’s The Emotion Thesaurus provides a handy cheat-sheet for emotional beats.
One word of warning: don’t overdo it with beating hearts and prickling scalps. Physiological reactions should be balanced with dialogue, description, and internal monologue.
5. Slow down and speed up scenes
The old saying goes, “time flies when you’re having fun.” By the same token, when you’re scared, a minute can feel like an hour.
The perception of time is intrinsically tied to emotion.
This means an effective way to amplify emotion is to speed up and slow down your scenes, according to how the main character is feeling.
When the protagonist’s well balanced and events are going as expected, shift to summary narrative. The reader doesn’t need to be bored with incidental details.
However, when things spiral out of control, it’s a good idea to slow down and describe the action second by sickening second.
Readers of psychological thrillers, in particular, want to immerse themselves in the dread of advancing footsteps on a deserted street at night. Using internal monologue in these types of slow-motion interludes is particularly effective.
Oh, sh__. Is he following me? I’m just imagining it. Or am I?
This erases psychic distance and transports the reader into the frightened protagonist’s head.
In conclusion: never underestimate the power of emotion. A plot that puts a killer on the protagonist’s trail may hook a reader initially, but it’s delving deep into the characters’ emotional lives that will keep them gripped.