Saturday, June 26, 2010

The thrill of a thriller.

I have a new writing contract. Yippie. It's to write a low budget action/thriller. Which is wicked cool, except I realized that I wasn't really sure how to do that. I work in big budget visual effects. It seems to be the modern day way of creating those thrilling moments in a big budget movie. Or is it? Do they just provide the moments, but not the constant undercurrent of suspense? There's been a lot of proof of big effects in wretched movies. I asked myself what exactly makes a thriller thrilling? I came up short.

So I did some research. Watched some flicks. Read some blogs (I want to be like John August when I grow up!), articles (William Noble has some great things to say about thrilling dialogue) and scripts of action/thrillers (Bourne, The Godfather, The Game). What I discovered was illuminating for me. It will change how I write not just thrillers, but everything.

First let me say, that although the 70's and 80's were jam-packed with action/thrillers, it seems to me that these don't quite hold up to the modern day thriller anymore. I know I know... sacrilege! Everyone has a few faves from that time that they swear are still awesome. And I'm happy for you. BUT the fact is, that the pacing just isn't what we've come to accept in this fast cutting, insane onslaught of the senses that modern movies have become. We just aren't held in suspense as easily or as slowly as we used to be. Well, I'm not. They bore me. I'm sorry. They do.

So let it be noted that although I'm sure the oldies used the same tricks to have us sitting on the edge of our seats back then, they weren't the ones that helped me come up with this list. (I am not including horror. There's a big difference between horror and thriller. I don't do horror.)

I've made a list of the tricks and tips I've come up with, which I thought I'd post. They are in no particular order. Some are specific for thrillers. Some are obvious for all stories.


Set the tone early, and stick to it. How violent? How evil? How high are the stakes?

Keep the pacing going, tension building; don’t let up. If there’s a reprise in the tension, make it brief, and make the next thing much worse than the last.

Always force the audience to think, “What’s going to happen next.” Make everything point to the grim/tense future that’s ahead. This will create a script that’s a page-turner.

Answer nothing. Keep the audience guessing. Don’t answer any question with a straight answer. Don’t solve any problems or make anything clear. Dialogue should always point to the future or more questions.

Keep things unexpected. Keep the reader on the hook for what’s next.

Hold onto the tension until the last possible minute in every conflict. Even the small ones. Don’t give the audience what they want until the end.

Every relationship or action should have conflict. Villain vs hero, hero vs his own team, hero vs himself. Everything has to be against the hero.

Make the audience think they’re getting what they want, then take it away at the last second.

Always show the hero’s character, specially when he’s being defeated, and he’s losing hope. Know who he is, where his weaknesses are, and exploit them. Hero’s are more endearing when they have a weakness. We will care more about them, and care when they are being hurt where it counts.

Explain any technical details quickly and without any fuss. For example, why there is no communication to the outside world available. Don’t dwell on this. Be brief, and move on. Focus on accepting that this is the case, and we’re on our own.

Keep action descriptions short and punchy. Don’t explain everything. Just enough to get the jist. Keep the action moving. Keep the tension in the flow of the read.

Keep hope alive, despite all odds being against us. If we loose hope, we loose the tension that hope keeps alive. Keep the reason for hope, and the fear of loosing it, pressing. New hope adds tension; crushed hope releases tension. Keep the cycle going.

Be aware of what is motivating the hero, even if he isn’t sure himself. Don’t switch motivations half way through.

Be aware of what’s motivating the audience. It should be the same as what’s motivating the hero. If it’s to save another person, don’t kill them. If it’s revenge, then make sure the audience feels the same need for revenge.

Make sure the pay off is as great for the audience as it is for the hero. If you take away everything the hero cares about, then there’s not much for the audience to be invested in for his success. If it’s only the hero that we care about, then make sure his living is more than just about one person surviving; that it has basic human rights and principles at steak.

Dunk the hero in it. Over and Over. By the end of the script, the hero should hate you for putting him through hell.

Put the Hero in situations that you don’t even know how he’s going to get out of, caught, beaten, lost for dead, then figure out how he escapes. Once he escapes, have him run right into the next impossible situation.

Don’t loose the sense of danger. Always have someone in the shadows. Someone waiting round the corner with a knife. It’s never safe. Keep the state of constant fear.

Make the villain even more despicable than he thought he could be. Make him complex and interesting, although horrific. If the villain isn't worthy of the hero, then you will cheapen your hero, and loose the audience. Put as much (if not more) time and effort into developing the villain than the hero. He will be the catalyst of the suspense. The more you fear and hate him, the more suspense you'll be able to create.