Tammy Cohen asks if it’s a genre running out of steam…
Hands up who can work out this formula. Main character (flawed but decent) + dodgy event + limited number of other characters (ideally with something to hide) + suspicious glances across the breakfast table + danger + more danger + twist + even more danger + OMG, it’s not the one you thought + dawning horror + massive twist (it’s the one you least expected) + maximum danger = ?
If you said Psychological Thriller give yourself a pat on the back (although it’s worth bearing in mind this sort of gentle gesture is almost always a sign of hidden psychopathy in psych thriller land).
Some genres have always stuck to a tried and tested formula because that’s what readers expect. Who wants a traditional romance without a happy ending? But in the case of psychological thrillers, isn’t there a danger that once you’ve worked out the formula, there’s really not much point in reading the book?
As a writer of psychological thrillers, as well as a reader, I’m overly sensitive to the mechanics of the genre – sometimes I can sense a twist approaching from a few scenes away, and too often work out the villain by the end of chapter three by a process of elimination. Unless it develops organically from the story, so-called High Concept (the quick-pitch idea so beloved of acquisitions boards) too often peters out into Low Tension.
So is the writing on the wall for the psychological thriller?
Thankfully not. The fact is psychological thrillers, or domestic noir or whatever the current term is, are nothing new. Othello was an early example of ‘can you really trust your spouse’ lit. Mauriac’s Therese Desqueyroux and du Maurier’s Rebecca also feature the psych thriller’s trademark qualities of a small cast of characters in a claustrophobic, domestic setting. But there’s nothing formulaic about these books. The characters make sense in their own right, they’re not there to fulfil a set role: the suspicious spouse, the best friend (usually gay but sometimes a smug-but-harried suburban housewife), the person whose sole role is to look least likely but who turns out to have a hidden agenda. The stories are just that, stories, rather than plots you can put together with a ‘build your own Psychological Thriller’ set.
The runaway success of books like Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train, ensures that psychological thrillers still dominate bestseller lists, and those that eschew formula and place the story and the characters firmly at their heart still have the capacity to surprise and delight and astonish and appal and excite. Caroline Kepnes’ You, Louise Candlish’s The Sudden Departure of the Frasers, Tom Rob Smith’s The Farm all thrill without following a checklist.
In this era where the most popular books are adult colouring books, it’s perhaps not surprising that some novelists choose to follow suit – stick to what’s familiar, stay between the lines, don’t go off piste. Thrill By Numbers. Sometimes it’s publishers who shoehorn authors into a particular mould, ordering up a psychological thriller in advance as if choosing a burger off a menu. But the writers who are allowed to sit down to write a story first and foremost, only realising at the end that they’ve written a psychological thriller, they’re the ones who genuinely push the boundaries and ensure that the genre will survive and thrive.
The psychological thriller may appear in danger, but don’t forget, there’s always a twist.
Tammy Cohen, who also writes as Tamar Cohen, is the author of six novels including First One Missing, which is out in paperback on 6 October 2015.