Here is part one of my expanded notes from the Soho Screenwriters meeting on elements of the thriller genre.
Thrillers are about ordinary people in a recognisable world. Their jumping off point is the human condition. Of the mainstream genres, it is closest to drama. Despite this realism, in order for the machinations of the plot to work, thrillers are the most contrived sort of film.
The classic thriller
The antagonist has a scheme – they don’t know about the protagonist-to-be. The hero stumbles onto the conspiracy. They try to fix the situation. Their flaw leads them into more and more danger instead of making themselves safer. Eventually the antagonist must kill the hero for their plan to succeed. The audience must identify with the hero’s struggle to stay alive – “It could happen to me!”
The hero doesn’t have any special abilities or powers – more like the audience. They would never kill anyone. Their disbelief drives them into the plot. At the turning point they abandon naiveté and embrace reality. They eventually kill in defence or on behalf of others. Their ‘license to kill’ comes is granted by the audience.
Trapped in modern society. The collapse of the world as the hero knows it. A fish out of water. Isolated physically, isolated psychologically (through betrayal). Greatness is thrust upon them. Needs to sort themselves out (psychologically) before sorting the story.
Story takes place over a specific compressed short period of time. 90 pages is enough – good for budget and scope. Set up a clock: A bomb, an assassination. Further into to the story, the spaces and times contract in each scene. Kyle MacLachlan in Blue Velvet ends up in a closet.
1. Welcome to hero’s ordinary world
2. Event forces them to see dark side of community or institution
3. Seeks help from friend
4. Friend turns to be untrustworthy
5. No-one can be trusted – Hero alone to fix problem
6. The hero fixes themselves
7. Act 3: Antagonist on the back foot
8. Hero wins
Two plots are needed: What appears to be going on – and what is actually going on. Thrillers sometimes let the audience know what the characters don’t know.
North by Northwest: Irony – we know she’s a baddie, Irony – we don’t know that Kaplan doesn’t exist, Irony – we know she hasn’t killed him at the ski resort, Irony – we don’t know that the baddies know about the blanks in the gun.