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Ten Tips to Create Tension in Psychological Thrillers

By 12/03/2021May 13th, 2022Featured, guest post
Tension in Fiction: Bestselling Author Barbara Copperthwaite


One of the biggest challenges any author faces is sustaining reader interest. Distractions abound  in our modern lives, and keeping a reader hooked to a book is no mean feat. Psychological thrillers thrive on tension, the foreboding that something terrible is about to occur to the character. The more you heighten the tension, the more gripping the read. Readers come to this genre expecting to be transported into a scenario where they will be worrying about someone else, forgetting about their own lives.

Here on Daily (w)rite, as part of the guest post series, it is my pleasure today to welcome Barbara Copperthwaite, a bestselling author of several psychological thrillers. Her new book THE GIRL IN THE MISSING POSTER came out on February 23, 2021, and is already making waves.

 She’s here to speak about crafting tension in fiction. Take it away, Barbara!

The recipe for a successful psychological thriller includes many ingredients, but a key one has to be tension. That ever-present sense of unease, which builds with each chapter – each turn of the page – is what keeps readers thinking ‘just one more’ until they realise they’ve devoured the book in one sitting. So how does a writer go about building tension? Here are my ten top tips….

  1. Start Small

At the beginning, it’s often best to start small and build the sense of unease gradually through the book.
In The Girl In The Missing Poster, my main character is a canine behaviourist, and her dogs were useful in creating this sense of the world looking the same but being tilted slightly so that the reader’s sense of equilibrium is disturbed. How? Through tiny details such as all three of them lifting their heads at once, as if hearing a sound she herself couldn’t. Getting home from a walk and them giving a small growl even though there’s no one there, and nothing out of place. From those tiniest of beginnings the tension can than increase slowly.

2. Beat the Clock

Introduce a race against time and you’ve instantly got yourself a great tool for creating tension in your fiction. The mystery has to be solved in the next 24 hours otherwise the main character’s lover will be be executed; the protagonist will be arrested for a crime she didn’t commit if she doesn’t find the real culprit before the police find her; even love stories can benefit from a deadline: if the couple don’t get together in the next two days then the main character is moving to New York. Look at your current work and ask yourself: can I compress the timeline and so increase the stakes?

3. Keep the Reader…

…hanging, so they want more. It’s that classic of devices, the cliff-hanger, where climactic events are interrupted midway. They are useful for chapter endings or even line breaks, and can be big or small, from leaving someone as they are about to go through a door into who knows what, to the middle of a life or death fight, or a realisation, yet to be explained, that will turn everything on its head. Play around with them, too – they don’t have to continue the way people think they will; cliff-hanger breaks can be a great excuse to suddenly flip things.

  1. Bank on Emotional Investment

Cliff-hangers are all very well, but they only work if the reader is emotionally invested – and that means crafting well-developed characters. If a reader cares about the characters then they will feel tension for them when they’re in difficulties.

  1. Vary the Pace

Action is great, and necessary, but non-stop chases, thrills, spills, and dead bodies can end up losing their impact. Try interspersing high tension scenes in your fiction with calmer ones, creating light and shade that will keep your reader hooked.

  1. Use both Internal and External Tension

When writing, make sure you use the full emotional spectrum, don’t keep things tonally similar. This can be achieved by constantly changing how you create tension, sometimes internally and sometimes externally. What does that mean in practical terms? Tension in fiction can be added through dramatic action, conflict with others, conflict with themselves and their inner demons; and even conflict with characters they generally get on with.

  1. Follow the Breadcrumbs

Don’t tell the reader everything they need to know about a character all at once, instead withheld information and only give teasers and hints. Even innocuous details can be made to feel suspicious if handled right, and withholding information and revealing it only at the optimum time can help create a sense of mystery – and with it, tension.

8. Do the Twist

Who doesn’t love being completely blind-sided by an unexpected plot twist? Behind Her Eyes had the hashtag #WTFThatEnding – and deservedly so, as no one saw that coming! One of the best compliments I’ve had for Her Last Secret is that it should have that hashtag, too! Twists don’t have to come at the end of a book though, just look at how Clare Mackintosh’s I Let You Go got everyone talking thanks to a corking twist halfway through her story. Smaller twists and turns can be employed throughout, too, to really keep a reader on their toes and maintain that sense of nothing being quite as it seems.

  1. Make an Obstacle Course

An obvious one here, which makes it all the more important not to miss it out: nothing should be easy for the characters in your books. Whatever they want, in any scene, thrown an obstacle in their way. This doesn’t only apply to them achieving their main goal, either, but to everything they do throughout the book – and don’t forget, the stakes and conflict should increase as the story moves toward its conclusion.

  1. Create Mystery with Character History

A character’s complicated backstory can be used to create tension in so many ways. Perhaps they have a secret they’ve been keeping from everyone – including the reader. Perhaps they are have a history of reacting violently to news, or have self-destructive traits that the reader knows about – and knows may come to the fore once the character has received some news only the reader currently knows. Playing around with a protagonist’s history can really help keep readers on the edge of their seats.

Do you stay glued  to your reading due to tension in fiction you read? What psychological thrillers have you enjoyed recently? Do you read or write them? Do you have questions for Barbara? Have you read THE GIRL IN THE MISSING POSTER? (If you like the article, please consider supporting Barbara, and sharing it using the icons below. I have her book on my Kindle, and it will be my read over the coming weekend!)

ABOUT: Barbara is an Amazon, Kobo and USA Today bestselling author. Her writing career started in journalism, writing for national newspapers and magazines. During a career spanning over twenty years Barbara interviewed the real victims of crime – and the culprits. She’s fascinated by creating realistic, complex characters, and taking them apart before the readers’ eyes in order to discover just how much it takes to push a person over a line.

 When not writing feverishly at her home in Birmingham, Barbara is often found walking her two dogs, Scamp and Buddy, or hiding behind a camera to take wildlife photographs. More about her on her website, here.

Are you part of nay online or offline book groups? Founded any? What is the experience like? Do you think online book groups are similar to those offline?My debut literary crime novel,”You Beneath Your Skin,” published by the fab team at Simon and Schuster IN is optioned to be a TV series by Endemol Shine.

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Damyanti Biswas

Damyanti Biswas is the author of You Beneath Your Skin and numerous short stories that have been published in magazines and anthologies in the US, the UK, and Asia. She has been shortlisted for Best Small Fictions and Bath Novel Awards and is co-editor of the Forge Literary Magazine. Her literary crime thriller series, the Blue Mumbai, is represented by Lucienne Diver from The Knight Agency. Both The Blue Bar and The Blue Monsoon were published in 2023.

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