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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READER FRIDAY – Share Your Favorite Character Driven Novel

The Fault in Our Stars by John Green

The Fault in Our Stars by John Green

 

“I think the best stories always end up being about the people rather than the event, which is to say character-driven.” Stephen King – On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft

Some of the recent character-driven novels I’ve read lately are:
The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins
The Fault in Our Stars by John Green
Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

Give an example of a book you’ve read with a memorable character-driven story – Author & Title – and tease us with why the character story was special.

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Girl on the Wrong Train?

BN-LH180_GIRLTR_J_20151116151400My husband alerted to me to this article in the Wall Street Journal ( ‘loved-the-novel-about-a-girl-on-a-train-you-may-have-read-the-wrong-book’) about the unexpected plot twist associated with the best selling book by Paula Hawkins, The Girl on the Train, and readers confusing it with another thriller written by Alison Waines, Girl on a Train. Since my book group just did Hawkins’ book (and we all actually read the right book!) it made me chuckle – as it would seem that many book groups, book reviews and reader purchases have fallen prey to the confusion that comes from two, very similarly titled books.

I don’t believe I’ve ever actually bought the wrong book based on the title alone, but according to this article this is becoming a more common issue especially with the plethora of e-books now available. The article pointed to the novel ‘Joyland’ by Emily Schultz who saw her e-book sales jump after Stephen King’s ‘Joyland’ was released (I’m suspecting some readers would have been a little upset getting the former when they thought they were getting the latter – but Schultz said the confusion did open up a new audience for her!).

When I’m choosing the initial title for a work-in-progress I always search on Amazon to make sure that the proposed title I’m thinking of hasn’t already been taken. Likewise I usually do a quick Google search just to make sure the title isn’t  some well-known book/blog/other entity that I’m totally ignorant of…Now I know publishers often change book titles anyway so it’s not something I get too hung up over but still, I try not to knowingly call my latest book something really similar to one already available (especially when it’s the same genre). Likewise I avoid choosing titles that are likely to confuse readers or deliberately mimic a current bestselling series  (the WSJ pointed to a good example – ‘The Girl with the Cat Tatoo’). Still I’m sure it was a happy coincidence for Waines when her sales numbers took off because readers were buying her book, mistaking it for Hawkins’ bestseller!

So, have you ever bought the wrong book based on a confusing or similar sounding title? Have you perhaps benefitted as an author from a confusion like this? When choosing the title for your book how much research do you do to ensure yours will stand out (or do you simply not worry?)

Happy Thanksgiving this week to you all. May you, like Alison Waines, be the recipient of some happy coincidences in the holiday period ahead!

 

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