Tips on Writing a Domestic Thriller

Jordan Dane

@JordanDane

image purchased for use by Jordan Dane

Domestic/psychological thrillers have found greater traction since Gillian Flynn’s GONE GIRL & THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN by Paula Hawkins. James Scott Bell’s YOUR SON IS ALIVE is a great example of a domestic thriller. Laura Benedict’s upcoming book THE STRANGER INSIDE is a novel I can’t wait to read. I’ve pre-ordered it and you can too. Release is coming Feb 5, 2019.

These books remind us that readers are drawn to “reading what they know” but with a twist. The domestic thriller brings terror into the home/life of an average family or allows readers to see what might be held secret behind a family’s locked doors.

This seems like the ultimate terror, to set a story inside anyone’s house, but it can keep your writing sharp and focused on tough subject matter. Maybe your story will hit too close to home, making it a challenge to write.

Keys Factors for Writing Domestic/Psychological Thrillers

1.) Set your domestic thriller in familiar settings. Give the reader comfort until they realize your novel doesn’t take place in Mayberry. Set your story in a small town, on a commuter train, in a home with a family who could live next door to you, or create a situation that seems harmless at first until it escalates into a terrifying tale. Much like Stephen King is partial to turning everyday objects into nightmares–I’ll never use a turkey carving knife again–it’s important to think through an effective setting that lulls the reader into a false sense of security until you pull the rug out.

2.) Make your story hinge on familiar subjects. I’ve suggested a few below, but I’m sure you could come up with more that could be turned on its ear with escalating tension. Use your own personal experiences to discover what might touch your readers.

  • A marriage that doesn’t need much to send it over a cliff
  • Sibling rivalry
  • Neighbors from Satan
  • A clandestine love affair
  • School rivalry/Helicopter moms competing against each other
  • Parenting – Lots of possibilities
  • Family relationships
  • Boyfriends/Girlfriends/Jealousy

3.) Now ask yourself the critical question of “what if…” What are the worst plot twists that could happen in the world you’ve created? Think WAY out of the box. Use a dartboard to add some unpredictability to your brainstorming.

4.) Make your character(s) real. Imagine people you have known, but elevate them into a major player’s role in your story. It helps to start with the familiar to make it real, but then your character would take on his/her own journey. Remember, your characters need to be real and not supersized into movie star status. Take “every man or every woman” and force them to step into an horrendous plot. Make your starring character(s) believable.

5.) Give your characters flaws that could prove to be fatal. It’s a balancing act to pick vulnerability that doesn’t make them appear too weak. Give them insecurities they can overcome in a believable way, without making them whiners. Force them to face their insecurities. Are they capable of overcoming their worst fears? Give them a chance to do it. Will they? Dig deep with a journey for your character to survive through your plot. They must struggle to gain ground or appear that they never will. Nothing trite will work here. It must seem insurmountable. I found a great resource for character flaws – 123 Ideas for Character Flaws

6.) Unreliable narrators are gold in this genre. What if your main character doesn’t know what going on? Use it. Are they so paranoid that their very nature can’t be trusted? Great plot twists can abound with the use of unreliable narrators or unreliable secondary characters. Once the readers starts to question what’s going on, you have them hooked deeper.

7.) Bend those plot twists. In order to play with the minds of your characters, you must get into their heads and mangle their reality. It’s not easy to write and set up a major plot twist, so plan ahead and let your imagination soar. Sometimes you will know the plot twist that will come at the end – the big finale twist. Other times you can filter unexpected plot twists through the novel at key intervals to escalate the stakes & create key turning points that take the plot in different directions.

8.) Don’t be afraid to SCARE your readers. Make their skin crawl with the anticipation of something bad about to happen. Titillate them with the build up and add twists to keep the tension going. What would scare you? Picture times you might have told ghost stories around a campfire and what made you jump. That adrenaline rush is what you want to give your readers. I often like to walk the edge of the horror genre, but these days, books are written with multiple genres to tell a good story. Don’t be afraid to add elements of horror or mystery to your suspense thriller.

FOR DISCUSSION:

1.) Share your current writing projects & genre. What has got you excited in 2019?

2.) Have you read a good domestic thriller lately? Please share the novel and the author.

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22 thoughts on “Tips on Writing a Domestic Thriller

  1. Thanks for the shout out, Jordan. I’m drawn to this genre because I love Hitchcock’s domestic suspense, e.g., Shadow of a Doubt, Rear Window, The Wrong Man. Something about the “it could happen to any one of us” bit that grips me.

    And I love a good twist … or three or four. I just got an email about a twist in Your Son Is Alive, where the fellow said “it knocked me out of my chair.” Funny, it did the same thing to me, because I’d planned the scene to come out a different way. But when I got to the end of that scene a character did something I HADN’T planned. It definitely took the book in a different direction, but turns out to have been the right one!

    • I love hearing that a character did something you hadn’t planned, that you keep yourself open for surprises. Nice. The best twists come from the “I can’t believe I’m actually doing this” moves. Well done.

      The domestic thriller really IS a different type of story, yet familiar. The difficult part is to capture that “every man” notion but ramp up the stakes throughout the story because it seems plausible. It could happen to anyone.

      Thanks, Jim.

  2. Jordan, thanks for this comprehensive summary of the psychological/domestic thriller genre. You listed all the elements and how to put them together in a compelling way. So helpful! 123 flaws is now bookmarked and saved, also.

    My WIP has the main character reluctantly being dragged into her boss-lover’s troubled family. She finds his teenage daughter near death from a suicide attempt and it goes downhill from there. It’s in the editing stage and I’ll go through it again with your checklist in mind.

    BTW, I finished THE LAST VICTIM last night and didn’t want to turn off the lights! Your vivid descriptions of Alaska put me right there.

    • Oh wow, Debbie. Thanks for the shout out for Last Victim. Many of those Alaska experiences were mine from when I lived up there and wanted to capture those moments of experiencing the beautiful yet scary wilderness. Glad you liked it.

      You are the Queen of capturing the “every woman” idea and escalating the stakes. You have a very unique style with creating characters that are so identifiable. This is definitely your style.

  3. You nailed this post, Jordan. Anyone interested in writing psychological/domestic thriller should bookmark this puppy. An excellent example of an unreliable narrator, piling on the complications, and an ordinary life gone haywire is YOU by Caroline Kepnes (Stephen King blurbed the book). The series adaptation is also on Netflix. I can’t wait to read the sequel, HIDDEN BODIES.

    • I started watching YOU on Netflix. I will definitely want to read the book. In today’s society, it’s a reminder how exposed we are online to predators, even when we think we’re in control of what we post.

      In my book, The Last Victim, I addressed this frightening theme of how easy it is to stalk someone from online, even when they may not have a social media presence. If someone they know posts an image about them and tags their name online, whatever the stalker can gather from the image is fair game. A background image can tell an online predator where they might live or something about their friends that is traceable.

      There’s also facial recognition software developed by a Swedish company, called Recognizr, that is terrifying. Anyone can take a photo of a stranger anywhere, then do an online search where the results of any postings are gathered in the CLOUD. A stalker can remain anonymous, making it hard for law enforcement to trace their behavior.

      We live in a scary world. A domestic thriller can inform readers while scaring the hell out of them.

      • Along these lines, news today or yesterday about people posting real women’s faces on pornographic photos. And I’m sure readers of this column can think of other evil ways that technology can be used.

      • I read The Last Victim, and rated it 5-stars. 🙂 The way you used the Alaska landscape was inspiring, as well.

        Ooh, yes, facial recognization software is terrifying. In my WIP, I’m using a different technology that scares me even more. 🙂

    • I just binged YOU on Netflix. Wow. Terrifying. Many of the points in this post were illustrated in this really different TV series. I can’t wait for season 2.

      You almost feel sorry for the main character until you realize what he’s done for “love.” He makes mistakes & has quirky flaws that are relatable, yet he’s NOT normal. The plot is riddled with surprising twists as things escalate & mystery elements keep the tension going, yet there’s black humor too. His flaws keep digging him into more trouble & the script writer(s) gave him odd strengths that turn into his crutch. A truly intriguing character study of a complex character.

      Thanks for this recommendation, Sue. You’ve got me thinking.

  4. I’m just now getting interested in psychological thrillers. Loved Gone Girl. Found The Girl on the Train unreadable. Tossing movies in I loved What Lies Beneath with Harrison Ford and Michelle Pfeiffer. Great ending.
    I’m reading The Sisters Brothers and No Country for Old Men is queued up next Who knew that westerns could be this good.
    My first 2019 WIP is called L.A. Breakdown. Here’s my opening sentence:

    As usual on Friday afternoons, Colt Flowers sat in one of the bars in LAX Terminal 3 drinking a boilermaker and wishing his mother hadn’t gone into labor in a Texas gun shop.

    I think I’m channeling Raymond Chandler into the twenty first century. We’ll see.

    • Can’t wait to read your WIP, Brian. Intriguing first line, because it gets the reader wondering about the connection to the gun shop. You could tighten the line, however. (Feel free to bop me.) Maybe something like:

      “Every Friday afternoon, Colt Flowers swilled a boilermaker in the bar beside LAX Terminal 3 wishing Mother hadn’t gone into labor in a Texas gun shop.”

      Of course, my advice and fifty cents might buy you a cup of coffee at that place with the golden arches. 😉

      Happy New Year to you and everyone here at TKZ! I’ve been enjoying all of the articles, even on days when I don’t comment. Sue’s Christmas poem was a hoot, and this article by Jordan is on my list of bookmarked articles to share with friends. Good stuff. Thanks to everyone for their contributions! I really missed reading the articles over the holidays.

  5. My next book will be in this genre so I’ll be saving your comprehensive pointers for future reference. I just finished Catherine McKenzie’s The Good Liar which has three women all affected by a building blowing up in Chicago due to a gas leak. Serious twists and turns throughout and two unbelievable reveals at the very end that twisted my head around.

    • That sounds intriguing. I love how mystery elements & plots turned on their ear plays a big part in this genre. I takes thought & some planning to write these. The better domestic thrillers don’t come from winging it. Thanks, Maggie. Best of luck with your new project.

  6. Great information Jordan. I recently (as of last weekend) finished the last book in a trilogy that is, in a sense, a domestic thriller. While ICE HAMMER is technically a war novel, it is set completely in my home region, in places I know intimately, and the cast of characters are based in varying degrees on my actual family and friends. One thing I learned from doing it this way was that putting facsimiles of my own actual family members into the story played a much higher toll on my own real life emotions than I had anticipated, especially as the later half of the story progressed and the characters were put into severe jeopardy and the kind of plot twists that not only end marriages, but often end lives.

    That said, it was an incredible experience that really opened my thinking to grasping the inner workings of my real family members as I got their input on the situations their fictional selves were being plunged into. I highly recommend trying to write a story this way, but only if you have a pretty solid marriage and relationship with your kids.

    No spouse likes reading that their significant other has a new mate, or that their kids may be turning into psycho killers. Very important to constantly reiterate to them that this is purely fictional storytelling, and not the author’s actual fantasy.*

    Otherwise great fun though.

    *This author’s actual fantasy involves sipping foofoo drinks on the veranda of a little villa over the water in Fiji with my wife, the four leprechauns that live in my basement, and our butler, Gerald the Troll.

    …oh … and our unicorn, Fred, happily munching on the best hay at the foot of a rainbow. Fred really likes rainbows.

    • Wow. I can see how tough it would be to start with a framework of real people. I can completely see how emotionally draining it could be. You’d have to be tough as nails to branch out into danger in your plot. Gutsy.

      Of course we know you REALLY have connections with leprechauns, unicorns & rainbows. Thanks, Basil.

  7. I just finished reading “A Simple Favor” by Darcey Bell and understand a movie has just been released. Stephanie with her “Hi Moms” blog and her best friend, Emily kept me riveted. A psychological thriller complete with two unstable women and murders of convenience. I loved it.

    • That sounds really good. The blog idea reminds me of a popular YA novel made into a movie – THE PERKS OF BEING A WALLFLOWER. The main character tells his story in a diary format where he begins every entry with “Dear Friend.” It amazed me how riveting the entries were & how my mind created a movie in my head. The movie was really good too. Thanks for the recommendation, Frances.

  8. Thanks for a great post Jordan. Linwood Barclay is another great writer working in this genre. Definitely worth a read.

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