Monday, 28 March 2011

Writing The Thriller # 1: “The Primal Premise”

You don’t have to go far on the internet to discover a lot of industry people believe that reading scripts is mandatory in order to write a good movie. And this makes a lot of sense: *just* watching movies does not cut it, since without the script there is quite literally no movie. The script is the “foundation” if you will, so appreciating what goes into the writing of one is necessary to get one's story off the page and onto the screen. Thriller is a genre that never really goes away, but evolves and changes, taking various elements in: mystery and moments of gore and horror are the most obvious, but from time to time the genre itself will also take in elements of comedy, human drama and even science fiction and fantasy.

So if the script is the foundation of the filmmaking process, the premise is the foundation of the script itself.

The word “premise” is defined in the dictionary as “a proposition supporting or helping to support a conclusion”. If we then apply this notion to Film then, we can view premise as a “starting point” for the story (note: not the WHOLE story), most often phrased as a “What if…?” style question in treatments and other story documents. Let’s look at some premises from really *big* movies of the past twenty years, regardless of genre:

“What if… Dinosaurs were re-created by scientists?” (JURASSIC PARK)

“What if… A child could see dead people?” (THE SIXTH SENSE)

“What if… The Earth stopped spinning on its axis?” (THE CORE)

“What if… You were falsely accused of killing your wife and sentenced to death?” (THE FUGITIVE)

“What if… A bright teenage girl falls pregnant and decides to give her baby up for adoption?” (JUNO)

Yet the premises at the heart of many spec Thrillers just don’t work. This can happen for a number of reasons, though most often for these two:

1) The premise is too convoluted. Easily the top reason for thrillers not working. As a result, scribes tie themselves and the plot in knots, so the reasons for various events happening and characters’ motivations for enacting them just are not clear. The reader ends up with a muddled view of the story world and is unsure what they’ve just read.

Here, a scribe needs to return to his or her premise and really figure out what is at the “heart” of the story – from here, s/he can then clarify how the plot works in relation to that “starting point”. There are lots of ways to do this, but one of the most effective ways of dealing with a lack of story clarity is to write a new treatment or beat sheet.

2) The premise is simply not “thrilling” enough. Sometimes a Scribe wants to create a Thriller, but actually writes what is essentially a human drama. The difference between the two is subtle, but significant: a Thriller is most often a literal triumph over adversity *of some kind*; a Human Drama might involve adversity as well, but very often involves the characters’ REACTIONS to that adversity and how they deal with it. In comparison, the Thriller frequently has an element of “vanquishing the beast” to it: Tom Cruise must bring down the Mafiaso lawyers in THE FIRM; Will Smith must overcome the government secret service in ENEMY OF THE STATE; Jodie Foster must defeat the burglars in PANIC ROOM.

But what does a Scribe do about a lack of “thrill” to their premise? This is where JK’s idea of what he calls “The Primal Premise” can really come into play. A primal premise plays on this element:

The Universal Fear.

A “Universal Fear” is one EVERYONE has – which transcends culture, class, race and even gender. It’s something everyone DOES NOT WANT to happen to them or their loved ones, for whatever reason. Evidence of “Universal Fear” then in the previous three examples:

In THE FIRM, Tom Cruise wants to do the “right thing” – he wants to expose the lawyers and their scam – but he DOES NOT WANT to die (a very real possibility, if he is found out). Universal fear: Who wants to die? No one.

In ENEMY OF THE STATE, Will Smith literally FALLS INTO the conspiracy, “wrong place, wrong time” – and could very well NEVER SEE his family or lead a normal life, EVER AGAIN if he does not resolve the issue. Universal Fear: being alone and on the run forever.

In PANIC ROOM, Jodie Foster’s home is INVADED by burglars, forcing her to wall up in her house with her child - AND during the night, her daughter suffers a diabetic coma from lack of insulin. Universal Fear: Home invasion… AND your child being in danger/dying.

With all the above in mind then, DEVIATION has that “primal premise”:

What if… you were trapped in your car with a madman?

DEVIATION plays on the Universal Fear of being kidnapped by a stranger. Like Will Smith in ENEMY OF THE STATE, Amber in DEVIATION is in the “wrong place, wrong time”, a staple of many Thrillers. Had she left work any earlier or later, she would never have run into the barbarous Frankie. In fact, in the first few moments of the movie – she *almost* turns back, which would have taken her out of Frankie’s range. But because she doesn't, she must deal with his campaign of terror and deal with what comes to her that night.

So if you feel your Thriller is not “thrilling” enough, consider THE PRIMAL PREMISE and what “Universal Fear” it plays on. Unlocking that could very well create the “starting point” that kicks off the action in your script and brings us toward that all-important conclusion.

Join the Deviation journey on Facebook here and on Twitter here.

NEXT: Thriller characters and how they differ from characters in other genres

1 comment:

  1. I'm writing my 1st thriller, so researching, good stuff.