The Thriller genre is pretty varied: unlike Horror where there are conventions aplenty to pay tribute to (or break), or very specific role functions in Rom-Com that you can use (or not), I would argue that in Thriller the only thing a script really needs to do is be, well, thrilling.
Yet so many of the thriller specs I read are NOT thrilling. Sometimes they don’t make sense, especially if they’re conspiracy thrillers – I will end up questioning a character’s particular motivation usually (along the lines of “Why not go to so-and-so and avoid all this? Or even just WALK AWAY?), though sometimes I just won’t get WHY there’s a cover up or WHY the character has ended up in the situation. Sometimes there are suspension of disbelief issues; police are completely malevolent for no apparent reason or an antagonist has an axe to grind that I just don’t get because the antagonist isn’t supposed to know the protagonist (though having read this story lots of times in lots of different people’s work, that case of “mistaken identity” nearly always appears to be NOT mistaken).
No, the reason a lot of the thrillers I read are not thrilling is down to – you guessed it – structure. Thriller does not just need good, tight structure, it DEMANDS it. It absolutely, 100% must have narrative logic too, since the set up and pay off of those plot points demand impact as well – a moment of clarity, an insight for the audience. Instead, a lot of the thriller specs I read meander: because their protagonists are not on the go 24/7, because they lack urgency, the jeopardy is then sapped. Thrillers are often a case of LITERAL life and death; the stakes should be high and your structure should reflect this. Time scale should reflect this too; there’s a reason why lots of successful Thrillers take place within a 12-24 hour period, some as many as four days, yet I’m struggling to think of any much longer than this. And so often thriller specs switch genres abruptly: they start off as dramas and turn into thrillers halfway through. I’ve even done it myself – and recently. It is so easy to slide out of the thriller genre and into character-based drama by accident, especially when trying to establish back story and/or character motivation.
It’s all about upping the ante, paying attention to genre all the way through and making the notion of Thriller your theme throughout. You need to make sure it’s thrilling on every page, even if it’s the lull before the storm – and that usually means paying more attention to the machinations of plot than you would in say, a drama where character can come to the fore more. Consider your favourite Thrillers. What devices did they use, what images did they use? Thrillers are known to use the fancier devices – dream sequence, flashback, montage, intercut, etc – but don’t use them if you’re not really sure how to, or to cover up an otherwise dull premise. It’s all about construction, using the best resources you have in the best way to tell your story. An audience wants high stakes ergo you really have to concentrate on JEOPARDY, make us really believe the worst *could* happen at any moment.
I’ve always thought research is key too in the genre movie. If you’re writing a Thriller and you haven’t watched many, the likelihood is you’ll run into trouble quickly. Watch as many as you can first, it makes sense. But what is out there? Here’s my take on the plethora of Thrillers I’ve seen over the years:
The Conspiracy Thriller – Conspiracy is what thriller does well. Usually isolating the protagonist from their families and friends, they must go on the run and prove it is a higher power – the government, police or armed forces the most obvious – that are to blame in a certain event, usually undertaken by Big Brother for utilitarian reasons “The Greatest Amount of Good For The Greatest Amount Of People” (ergo bad stuff must happen to the minority), though sometimes cover ups are the reason behind it all too. Movies in this vein include Enemy of The State, No Way Out, The Fugitive and Conspiracy Theory.
The Mob Thriller – Often closely linked to the conspiracy thriller, it’s usually a non-governmental influence that is Behind It All or if governmental, a story about corruption within the ranks (rather than an outsider who is dragged in unwittingly like Will Smith in Enemy of The State). Ironically the media, not higher-up officials, are protagonists’ saviour – but handily journalists and the like all get killed or the protagonist is fingered by the mob first for their own crimes. Interestingly it is often this genre that kills off its protagonist or has an unhappy ending, usually he can’t return to his old life or it has been destroyed completely (not many women seem to turn up here). Think The Departed, Eastern Promises or just about any 90s John Grisham adaptation like The Firm. Not to be forgotten too are the likes of Rapid Fire, a seemingly forgotten Brandon Lee movie circa about 1992, which has him star as a hardcore martial artist against FBI corruption in a similar fashion. The dialogue is appalling and the acting worse still, but its sense of jeopardy and the way it cuts him off from pretty much everyone so he’s no option but to trust vigilante cop Powers Boothe is wick.
The Action Thriller – Enigmatic heroes dominate here courtesy of the likes of Bond and Bourne, though women get a look in from time to time with female protagonists like Lara Croft. The Action Thriller is one of the most hybrid elements of the thriller genre I think, indulging in elements of comedy, romance, sci-fi and horror too: Arnie made a good living in his early career with the likes of The Running Man, Commando, Total Recall et al, as did ol’ Sly with Rambo, Cliffhanger, Daylight etc. There’s of course Bruce Willis with Die Hard too.
The Supernatural Thriller – at stake here can not only be life and death, but a person’s happiness, sense of fulfilment or even their eternal soul, usually with a living person having to protect or fight for a dead spirit. Male protagonists seem to dominate in this area of the genre in such films as Stir of Echoes, Dragonfly, The Sixth Sense or White Noise, though sometimes women play lead roles as in What Lies Beneath or The Grudge.
The Disaster/Invasion Thriller – we had loads of these at the turn of the century with the Millenium Bug around the corner: Deep Impact & Armageddon told us that we would all die… And if we didn’t, only America could save us. The same went for the likes of Independence Day and The Arrival. More recently, with global warming replacing the fear of general explosive death as the clock hit midnight on the eve of 2000 (remember worring about that??), we’ve had The Core, Sunshine and The Day After Tomorrow. This aspect of the genre has a huge legacy however, drawing on the likes of Towering Inferno and other 70s disaster and invasion thrillers, which in turn drew on those from the 1950s.
The Crime Thriller – Inevitably this can incorporate elements of the Conspiracy, Mob and Action thriller, but more crucially the notion of revenge and past deeds coming back to haunt us too, accounting for the likes of Revenge, A History of Violence, Payback, The Brave One, Ransom and Death Sentence being in this section too.
The Woman-In-Peril Thriller – This is the one area of this genre that seems to really put women at the helm with the threat nearly always being inherently male. The story is usually not global (as in the conspiracy thriller), but personal: a woman will escape a lover or husband and have to vanquish his threat once and for all, usually by killing him. Films like this include of course Sleeping With The Enemy and Enough. Sometimes a woman will have vanquish a previously unconnected male threat like the burglars who break into Jodie Foster’s home in Panic Room. Often a child will be involved in these thrillers in some way and the female lead’s maternal instincts are brought into play as well as her desire to personally survive. Sometimes a woman will have to overcome something in addition as well as vanquishing the male threat, like the heroine in Red Eye who must escape not only the psycho Cillian Murphy, but also her previous (unconnected) experience as a rape victim.
Any sections I’ve missed?
What are your favourite thrillers and why?
NEXT IN THIS SERIES: As requested by the lovely Daniel, the many faces of Comedy…Remember, if you have a request for a genre, let me know. Email on this blog at the top on the right hand side.