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Writing a Thriller: Things to Keep in Mind

Whether you’re talking about classics like North by Northwest (1959) or 21st-century films like Zodiac (2007), who doesn’t love a good thriller? The twist-oriented tension-building genre has been around for years, with it being an attractive genre for novice screenwriters to pursue.

As easy as it seems for a thriller to generate suspense or excitement, all of that comes down to the writer behind the script. Thus, knowing what makes a thriller a thriller, the various thriller subgenres, and what to keep in mind while writing your script is vital.

Still from 'Zodiac (2007)'. Photo credit: FilmAffinity

What is a Thriller?

Thrillers are a sort of fiction that has various, frequently covering subgenres. The genre is described and characterized by the temperaments they cause, giving watchers increased sensations of tension, energy, shock, expectation, and uneasiness.

Nobody does thrillers better than Alfred Hitchcock, with his best films keeping the audience on the edge of their seats as the plot reaches a peak. The concealment of the main plot points is a typical element. Literary gadgets, for example, distractions, unexpected developments, untrustworthy narrators, and cliffhangers, are utilized broadly.

Types of Thriller

● Psychological Thriller

● Crime Thriller

● Political Thriller

● Mystery Thriller

● Action Thriller

● Spy Thriller

● Legal Thriller

● Science Fiction Thriller

What to Keep in Mind

Though most people can grasp the basics of a thriller, there’s a lot more to it writing-wise. It’s essential to know the foundation of what makes a great thriller and how to execute that foundation properly. Nevertheless, let’s consider what you should keep in mind.

Captivating Characters (Especially Your Protagonist)

A thriller can’t be done without having a slew of compelling characters, especially your protagonist. Many associate a thriller with the good vs. bad guy trope. Although there is some leveling with that trope, there’s much more to it than the basic foundation of two people against each other.

First and foremost, start with your protagonist. Before you even begin writing, conceptualize components of your protagonist’s story. Come up with any abilities they have (skills, job history, etc.) and write down their shortcomings and deformities. The same method should apply to other characters. Once you have a general sense of your characters, you can insert them into the story better.

Have a Great Antagonist

The number one rule for writing a villain or antagonist is that they’re not evil for the sake of being evil. Though it might not seem evident initially, great thrillers have a reason why the antagonist is the reason they are. In my opinion, the best thrillers make the audience sympathetic to the antagonist, making us wonder who we should root for, at least for a scene.

For example, look at a film like Prisoners. We feel sympathetic to the initial antagonist in Paul Dano’s character because he has a learning disability. No matter how awful we view the character’s actions, that bit of humanity shines through and makes us question what’s going on.

Grab Your Audience Early

Though some argue this should apply to any genre, grabbing your audience early is especially imperative in a thriller. The initial scene of a thriller ought to present the wrongdoing, struggle, or stakes as fast as possible. Try not to stress over character history or development just yet.

The best thrillers grab the audience early, then, at that point, fill in the essential character and storyline data later. However, remember not to neglect the characterization. The opening scene shouldn’t drag on too long and instead be a taste of what’s to come. Get creative and see what you can come up with.

Create Many Bouts of Conflict and Obstacles

Any script can’t be done with many bouts of conflict and obstacles for the main character. Your main character should encounter anxiety, injury, and tension throughout the story. Once in a while, the best obstruction is a ticking clock or severe time-breaking point to finish their task. Still, that trope is heavily utilized, so see what you can do differently.

Utilize Plot Twists and Turning Points

As you can imagine with the genre, thrillers are known for plot twists and turning points. Now, it doesn’t mean you should rely on an M. Night Shyamalan-level twist. All it means is you should develop unexpected plot points that keep the audience engaged with the story. See what works and be honest with yourself.

Analyze Other Thrillers and Don’t Forget About Screenwriting Rules

The last point to make with writing a thriller is to analyze other thrillers to see what works and doesn’t work. Remember not to neglect screenwriting rules while analyzing other works. As great as your story may be, none of it matters if you don’t know how to format a script. Regardless, get studying and take notes while watching and reading other thrillers. Studying other pieces of work will help you get the most out of your script.


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