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writing a psychological thriller set on a ship? (1 Viewer)

(I've posted this on another writing forum as well so it may seem familiar!)

Hello everyone,

I'm in the very early stages of developing a new story idea. The basic synopsis goes something like this: In the 1970s, a Great Lakes freighter sets sail, but the crew are trapped in a dangerous cycle of deception, manipulation and gaslighting. The only one who's not trapped in a lie is the ship's cook, who is terrified of his deceived shipmates and is desperate to find the root of the situation. A fatal decision is made when the ship is intentionally sailed into a severe storm, and the cook is murdered by the enraged crewmates after he refuses to prepare them a meal. The ship sinks and is never recovered.

I'm just wondering if this is even a compelling idea, and if it is, how would I pull off writing the gaslighting, deception, and manipulation? I've never written anything psychological before.

Feedback is appreciated. Thanks!


Senior Member
Why is the cook terrified if he doesn't know the root of the situation? Not sure it sounds like he has a reason to be that afraid. And if he were that afraid, would he really refuse to cook for the very people he was afraid of?

To intentionally sail the ship into a severe storm, would most likely mean that something truly awful was on board. At least one person would have to know that and for whatever reason, wouldn't want that ship to make it back.

So...what's on the ship?
Why is the cook terrified if he doesn't know the root of the situation? Not sure it sounds like he has a reason to be that afraid. And if he were that afraid, would he really refuse to cook for the very people he was afraid of?

It's pretty clear (from his perspective at least) that something is deeply wrong. He's the new guy on the ship after the previous steward (apparently this is the actual term for a ship's cook) died suddenly. The character (who I've been calling Rainier) has never encountered this kind of situation and naturally, he's freaked out by the odd behavior the other crewmates are displaying.

For the second part, the reason why he declines to make them supper is because he's sick and tired of the crew's bizarre conduct. He's also aware that death is imminent, and thinks that there's no reason to eat if they're going to die. From a more technical standpoint, it's also a bit of a challenge to prepare a meal if the ship is rockin' and rollin' in a storm.

To intentionally sail the ship into a severe storm, would most likely mean that something truly awful was on board. At least one person would have to know that and for whatever reason, wouldn't want that ship to make it back.

Hmm, I like this idea. I'll consider it.

So...what's on the ship?

We're about to find out (hopefully)


Senior Member
I think you would have to develop the idea of the lie. What are they being gaslighted about? Are they being told they need to torpedo innocent Canadian boats and start a war between the USA and Canada? (I’m being silly, but this is why I’m asking.).

Boats are always such a trapped space, submarines even more so, so I think this kind of setting is usually always intriguing to me.

if you didn’t know what the lie is then it could be that a cult might all be sailing and the cult might be something like Flat-Earthers out to prove the “truth” and fall off the edge of the world and hired some outsiders to cook for them? Lol I’m kidding again… although they do seem like a group that is aching to be played around with. Oh my gosh, a satire of this group would be so funny…

OR the cult wants to blow something up and themselves with it and all go to Valhalla together. OR they all took some kind of bath salts or psychedelic ‘shrooms (except the cook or whomever you please) that made them all raving violent lunatics. OR/AND a combo of the above would be interesting, wouldn’t it? Flat Earthers on ‘shrooms and bath salts on a boat… it’s like a metaphor! Eek! But I am having too much fun with your idea! Cue the Love-Boat music! I’m serious— loads of potential if you are asking about a sinister crew on a boat!

Yeah, the potential ideas seem really fun to me when I’m playing with them (sorry if I shared too much of my fun… also, what about this setting for writing about vampires? Okay I realized I really love this setting and just the other day I was trying to think of why The Hunt for the Red October was so compelling to me. Now I know…

Just explore who this group is and what this group wants and is trying to accomplish, imo— unless you’ve already got that part down? In my opinion, there is a lot of potential from this part of your story.

The boat cook refusing to cook? Kind of weak, imo. This is what the cook is hired to do. I would think another idea would pop up once the motivation of the villainous group is more clear. Um.. if they are evil and/or violent or something he doesn’t have to refuse to do his job to get his life threatened, right? They can want to kill him just because he is an outsider. I would think his real task would be to get safely off the boat.
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Senior Member
Two years as a US Merchant Mariner here...
Three basic departments on a freighter: Deck, Engine, & Stewards. While Great Lakes staffing may be different, in the foreign trade we normally carried three in the Steward's department. The senior one was the Steward; he ordered supplies, managed inventory, and helped with cooking. As senior man in the department he normally had extensive prior experience. Junior to him was the cook, who did most of the cooking in the galley. While the cook normally had maritime experience, if not on ships then on oil rig platforms and such, it was not unheard of to hire an experienced restaurant chef off the street...although a sub-par or unwilling cook Didn't Last Long. We also carried a "Steward's Department" man, essentially a trainee and often as green as they get, who would launder sheets and towels and the like, keep officer's cabins and public areas clean, and assist with prep and clean-up work in the kitchen.

I think that your idea has possibilities. But do you want to set it in the Great Lakes, where shore is never more than a few dozen miles away? Yes, there are many more opportunities for grounding and collisions, and the storms there can be legendary (see also SS Edmund Fitzgerald), but you might also think about moving it out to deep water. General background here and all true to life: I sailed for Coastal Tankships USA, a division of a now-defunct independent oil company which wanted its own ships to transfer crude and products (specifically asphalt) to, among, and from its refineries and terminals. At the same time, though, they would charter to anyone with a load to move and so, as one of the (then...early 1990s) few remaining US flag "tramp tanker" operations we sailed to destinations as varied as the UK, Morocco, Venezuela, and all through the Caribbean.

Coastal's business plan was to buy up worn-out tankers headed to the scrap yard, give them the bare minimum of maintenance and repair to pass inspection, and squeeze just a bit more life out of them. The two that I sailed on were ex-Esso (Exxon) asphalt carriers (also able to carry crude and heavy refined products such as Diesel and Bunker C, but no gasoline), the Coastal Eagle Point (ex-Esso Baltimore) and Coastal Corpus Christi (ex-Esso Boston). Both were steam-powered island bridge designs with two 900 psi boilers and a single geared steam-turbine driven shaft. In addition to the three in the steward's department we carried 14 in deck department (Captain, three Mates, Radio Officer, 6 Able Seamen, 3 Ordinary Seamen) and 8 in engineering (Chief Engineer, three Assistant Engineers, three Oilers, one Wiper). Those complements, of course, were driven by Coast Guard staffing minimums; I've been out of the industry for nearly 30 years now but I understand that the requirement for an actual radio officer has now been dropped and Diesel ships shave off a few engineers as Diesels can be fully automated and don't need a 'round-the-clock watch on duty. Edit To Add: Left out at least one very important crewman for a tanker; we also carried a Pumpman in the engine department. Between ports he would take care of maintenance on his equipment; in port he would work around the clock loading and unloading cargo and (water) ballast.

Anyhow, just thought I'd give you that as deep background. I think that your first priority needs to be to determine what causes your crew to go rogue: Is it medical (virus?), contamination (food poisoning? dangerous cargo from previous voyage(s)?), supernatural (someone messing around with the 'forbidden arts'?), deliberate attack (possibly some terrorist group or hostile government is testing a psychological weapon on an isolated and unsuspecting target population?), or...well, you name it. But it could be done and done well with a little thought, at least In My Opinion.
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Staff member
Global Moderator
I like the concept of gaslighting. Especially as they are isolated at sea. But you lost me between the cook is murdered by the enraged crewmates after he refuses to prepare them a meal, and the ship sinks and is never recovered. A lot must happen in between.

What is the underlying moral of the story? The ideas you present are more scenes and actions. Who is the protagonist? Who is the antagonist? What do they both want? The ending is good but if the ship is never recovered, then you would have to tell this story going back in time. Why is it important that it was never recovered?

A great start...lots to flush out.


I like the idea of a psychological thriller on board a ship because it's a setting that isolates the characters so that they're stuck with each other...not nice if there is suddenly a problem with crewmates. The thing about psychological thrillers, though, is that usually they're sort of a slow burn. It's less of an all-out assault on a character than the creeping feeling that they might be crazy...and the chilling feeling that either someone else wants them to feel crazy and/or wants to set them up to look crazy and guilty. That requires some motivation and sometimes a pretty Machiavellian plan.

Another common part of a psychological thriller is the 'audience members' in your cast of characters. In other words, depending on the story you're writing, it can be important that it is unclear to the person being made to look/feel crazy whether the people around them are normal or part of the plan being set in motion against them. There should be a sense of the noose tightening around the protagonist, rising desperation, and rampant doubt in themselves and others. They need to be driven into both self-doubt and no idea which way to look for their tormentor before heading into a resolution for the story.

So it sounds like what you've got to work out next is who hates who enough to make them look crazy or think that they're crazy? What does the villain have to gain/lose? What does the protagonist have to gain/lose?

A good novel to check out to see how someone else has done this sort of thing is The Woman in Cabin 10 by Ruth Ware.