I have a rule about reading: I only allow myself to read psychological thrillers during the weekend. If I make the mistake of starting a new novel during the workweek, I would be in danger of being dragged away by a snowballing plot that is impossible to stop and find myself reading well into the wee hours of the night.
Psychological thrillers explore their characters' innermost thoughts and motivations, allowing us to examine how their decisions propel the plot forward into the extremes of human ethics and morality. The genre prompts us to consider the darkness in others and ourselves. And yet, considering the unsettling questions raised by psychological thrillers, why do readers find them so compelling?
To answer this question, I turned to a master of the genre, Jean Hanff Korelitz, the author of You Should Have Known. In 2020, millions of viewers became familiar with You Should Have Known through HBO Max's hit adaptation, "The Undoing," starring Nicole Kidman and Hugh Grant. Korelitz is also the author of the critically acclaimed new novel The Plot, which the Kirkus Review hailed as "Gripping and thoroughly unsettling: This one will be flying off the shelves.”
Korelitz states that the reason that psychological thrillers are so engaging is the ongoing tension between what the audience knows (or thinks that they know) and what the characters know (or what they don't know) and the sort of "smugness" the readers feel in relation to the characters. She states, "And while we're busy yelling at them (in our heads, at least) not to make such stupid decisions, we're also telling ourselves that we would never fall for such a suspicious character or obvious ruse."
"Then again, we're safe in our own armchairs while we're throwing all that certainty around. Are we really so sure we wouldn't be making identical mistakes? Watching the protagonist contribute to her own ordeal affords an opportunity to feel superior."
Psychological thrillers give readers the opportunity to explore individual motivations from a birds-eye perspective. This allows readers to predict how individuals faced with impossible choices would play out in real-world situations.
"I think most of us spend some portion of our time trying to imagine how others feel and predict how they'll behave. As the writer, I have certain advantages here, given that I have complete access to my characters' histories, experiences, and inner lives, including their psychological and emotional proclivities. As creatures I've created in circumstances I've also created, it isn't difficult to imagine how they'll behave."
And, of course, the most essential component of any psychological thriller is the climax and ensuing denouement. All of the characters' choices and reactions serve to catalyze a cathartic conclusion as the pent-up tension is released and the mysteries are finally revealed, usually with a twist or two. Psychological thrillers live or die based on their ending.
When asked about how authors of psychological thrillers approach the endings, Korelitz mused, "It's no easy task to move between this particular Scylla and Charybdis."
"On one hand, the solution cannot be obvious or even seem likely. On the other, it can't come out of left field: a brand new character at the 11th hour, a character with a 'split personality' or a long-lost identical twin. I've read hundreds of 'thrillers' that fail to make this passage; their solutions are either too simple or so complex that I can't bring myself to care.”
“That's why it's so satisfying when someone gets it just right."