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Genre or Die, pt 3: Thriller


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.

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16 thoughts on “Genre or Die, pt 3: Thriller”

  1. I’ve always known that movies are male dominated but until you point it out here, I had no idea just how much! Wow. Thriller really does neglect the girls bar the woman-in-peril thing, doesn’t it? Perhaps that’s what spec writers should be writing…More conspiracy thrillers with women at the forefront?

  2. There are a few Anya, there’s The Pelican Brief and I think there’s a woman in the lead role of Conspiracy Theory. Though yes, more women in Thriller who AREN’T on the run from men or accused of being crazy ‘cos they see ghosts (why is it always the woman who is “crazy”?) would be welcome in my script pile, defo. Though I must admit to having a very specific penchant for women-in-peril thrillers, I like them when they’re done well ALOT. Wasn’t too keen on Sleeping With The Enemy cos of her chucking her wedding ring down the loo when she was meant to be dead…WTF? Proof that JUST ONE THING can shatter everything, I’d liked it up til that point.

  3. Oh, Jodie. How I love thee. Panic Room is totally aces. Not so keen on Brave One but Damn! Jodie is just hot in general, will watch her in anything. Always hope for sans clothes. Plus she’s a very talented actress.

  4. great series, Lucy.

    you’re so right with most of the thrillers out there: there’s no sense of jeopardy. yes, there’s lots of explosions and gun fights and running and jumping – and if we’re really unlucky, a heap of awful expositional dialogue – but i’d stopped giving a damn the moment the hero does a stupid out-of-character but plot-advancing thing.

  5. Nice one, Luce.

    Just finished watching Charade this afternoon — Rom-com/Thriller — That film is virtually perfect, never sags, slowly builds the tension over about 3 days, etc. The dialogue is perfect. The acting superlative and the plotting is crisp and tight. There are no extraneous scenes everything moves forward smoothly towards the climax in the theatre.

    I read elsewhere recently, another blog, can’t recall where, that the thriller relies on isolation of the protagonist. And I agree that’s the main feature of a thriller, regardless of everything else.

    I know what you mean about scripts mutating into thrillers, there’s a risk of that with my Scriptfrenzy script. It’s tempting but I can steer clear.

  6. Glad you’re enjoying it peeps, I’m enjoying writing this series A LOT.

    Carlo – the mystery genre as a missing section of thriller you mean? Cos I agree now you mention it. I will update the post when I get a chance and have a think about some detective-style thrillers. OR do you mean a mystery GENRE itself, in which case I don’t know if this is specific enough to be on its own unless you mean in the sense of a QUEST? Let me know.

    Steve – Haven’t seen Charade, will check it out since it comes rated so highly. I actually meant that thrillers mutate into dramas in the first half in the specs I read often, but sometimes it can be the other way round, defo. Whatever the case, we must resist the temptation to switch genres – start as you mean to go on and all that.

  7. Another fascinating read Lucy. I like the way you’re breaking these genres down into types, it’s made me see certain films in a new light. For example London to Brighton which I enjoyed loads (though it does something odd at the end imo) is definitely a woman-in-peril thriller. I just hadn’t thought about it like that before.

  8. These are great Lucy, really enjoying reading them (just not finding much time for commenting these days!)

    Hmm, fave thrillers. Don’t Look Now, Heat, Witness, Manhunter, Vertigo, Rear Window, The Night of the Hunter, Hidden, Chinatown, Read My Lips… I’m sure there are more but I can’t think of them now.

    Are you going to be looking at sub-genres and mixing genres in this series? So many successful films are genre mixes but in the specs I read the balance rarely felt right.

  9. Hi Lianne, wondered where you’d got to! : )

    I love all those thrillers too. Witness I think hardly dates because it is structured SO well. Thrillers often have the best titles I think: Read My Lips, Don’t Say A Word, Enemy of The State etc all encapsulate their subject matter really well and give us a “feel” for their story at the same time. Nice.

    I’ll be looking at genre in quite broad strokes – subgenres and mixing have already come up and I will be covering them, though the danger of repetition is quite high, so I probably won’t be covering the smaller genres in MEGA detail because of this issue. Having said that, I’ve already done Rom-com AND Comedy, so if you think a post is warranted for the likes of say, Horror-Comedy or Action-Comedy or whatever (with or without comedy!), let me know and I’ll give it some thought.

  10. Surely the Psychological Thriller is missed here.
    maybe it overlaps in some of the other subgenres

    think- Shutter Island, American Psycho, Momento etc

  11. Hi Lucy, I feel compelled to voice my opinion on a technical note of disagreement with you on your application of the genre term thriller on one or two of your categories.

    The term “thriller” as a genre marker is widely misused, I fear (yes, even by Netflix… badly misused). This is because many people erroneously apply it wherever they simply see tension or personal danger in a film. That’s a mistake. Correctly, the thriller genre is characterized by a protagonist who is running away and trying to survive someone or something, and is NOT on the offensive.

    So when you cite e.g. PAYBACK as a “crime thriller” (which is actually in the revenge genre—yes that is a genre—but could be also considered to be in the crime-revenge-drama hybrid genre), that’s actually quite wrong because in PAYBACK the protagonist is absolutely on the offensive the whole time. He’s out for vengeance, hunting people down and disposing of them. In the thriller genre, the protagonist is running and hiding from a malevolent person, people or force that is out to get him/her.

    In fact, looking again I notice that every single film you cited as “crime thrillers” are actually revenge genre films, which as I said is its own genre in its own right, as long as the throughline of the protagonist’s story is driven by a desire for revenge and they are proactive (on the offensive).

    A true crime thriller would be a film in which the protagonist is being pursued by a criminal or criminal organization much stronger than he or she is and must run for his/her life or otherwise struggle to survive. Usually it would be a story like a cop must protect a federal witness in a mob prosecution and the mob find out and send hitmen after the witness and cop and they must go on the run but still get the witness to the court hearing alive. A perfect example of this would be 16 BLOCKS (dirty NYPD cops being the hunters in that one).

    1. Hi there, yes I’d agree with you six years later after this post – so much so, I wrote an entire book about it! 😉 It’s called WRITING AND SELLING THRILLER SCREENPLAYS and is published as part of the Creative Essentials Range by Kamera Books. Here’s the Kindle Version: The print version is available from Amazon and all good bookshops, incl The Book Depository, which has 26% off and free shipping worldwide. Thanks for the opportunity for the plug – I identified about 25 Thriller subgenres and cross genres in the end, I probably could have done more TBH.

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