Tuesday, 26 April 2011

Writing the Thriller # 5: Keeping Going (Structure, Part 2)

Jason Robinson, sound recordist for DEVIATION
In the last post we considered the notion of "dramatic context" within genre films, focusing on how the Thriller has "Flight and then Fight": in direct contrast to other genres, the Thriller protagonist will attempt NOT to engage with the antagonist's mission in the first instance, preferring instead to exhaust other avenues before realising that ONLY s/he can "vanquish the beast" and save him/herself.

We've mentioned before several times that Thrillers too often become dramas "with a bit of killing/fighting in". Another big issue affecting Thriller scripts in the spec pile is the fact they "run on the spot". In other words, the story does not feel as if it PROGRESSES: events may happen, but they do little to ADVANCE THE STORY.

Think again about that all-important *classic* Thriller movie poster, with the running protagonist.  If Comedy is about the "funny" and Horror is about the "spills", then Thriller is very much about THE CHASE.

Question: if you are being CHASED and your life (literally or figuratively) is actively in danger, what is the best thing to do -- stop? No, of course not:


But now let's consider actual running in real life. In sprints, the running itself must be fast - and is over relatively quickly, sometimes in just seconds. We cannot compare a movie to a sprint; it would be difficult to apply the notion even to a short film (outside of the "micro short" category).

Instead, a movie is more like a marathon. Runners must "limber up" and start off usually at a fairly steady pace. In The London Marathon (and other high profile running events), there will be a "pace setter" who will run the first five-to ten miles, before dropping out. In the same way, the writer of ANY film - genre or drama - needs to "set the pace" from the offset.

In the Thriller and Horror then, the pace needs to be fairly quick from the offset and they need to get faster: these two genres are the "elite" professional runners in the Marathon, whereas there is some leeway for Comedies, Dramas and sometimes even Science Fiction to be the amateurs in fancy dress running or even walking at the back of the race.

And of course, in the marathon, the more you run, THE HARDER IT GETS - and this should be the case for movies, too. The reason many films "run on the spot" is because they do not challenge their characters ENOUGH. Instead, writers shy away from inflicting the WORST they can possibly imagine... Why? It's difficult to say. Sometimes writers fall in love with their protagonists or antagonists and don't want to "put them through" the conflict - but that's at the heart of any narrative, not just Thrillers. Other times writers confess to feeling "daunted" by Act Two, saying it feels like a huge wasteland that needs filling.

In Deviation, there are no flashbacks; we are asked to invest in Amber as the protagonist and Frankie as the antagonist through their actions in "present time" alone. Sometimes though, writers may feel they must include lots more back story to "fill up the space" and "give" their characters motivation, via multiple flashbacks,  montages and other storytelling devices.

However, the Thriller is one of the most LINEAR narratives - even when it is non-linear. Consider two VERY famous non-linear Thrillers: Memento and The Bourne Supremacy:

MEMENTO: The main plot goes backwards; the sub plot - "Sammy Jankis" - goes forwards and both "tie up" in Leonard Shelby's realisation at the end.

THE BOURNE SUPREMACY: Jason Bourne is haunted throughout his main mission (ergo the main plot) by fragments of a memory of a door in a hotel. In each flashback, the memory gains more information - for him AND the viewer - until Bourne realises (again, at the end) what happened in *that* hotel room.

Note that these flashbacks are PLOT-BASED, not character-based, in the Thriller.  We do not see long flashbacks of Leonard and Bourne's lives as children;  their parents, siblings or friends; or what happened to them at school as we might in a drama or a comedy. Instead the audience is asked to consider PIVOTAL MOMENTS in their lives that *made* them the men they are today, via THEIR ACTIONS AT THAT MOMENT. The character learns about himself through what he DID, hence the old screenwriting mantra, "characters are not what they say, but WHAT THEY DO" - and the same goes for flashbacks in the Thriller.

So think on... Structure in the Thriller needn't be daunting. Taking the marathon analogy again, it could be broken down like this:

ACT ONE - SET UP - The pace setter (the writer) brings the characters and story in, hand in hand; the world of the story is established and the characters' motivations are made clear.

ACT TWO - CONFLICT - The pace setter "drops out", because the story and the characters are running on their own. This is when it starts to get more difficult... and more... and more... Don't EVER let up; the  characters might feel like their lungs are burning, but they're not dead yet, there's *still* some effort left for --

ACT THREE - RESOLUTION. Here in the Thriller, quite possibly all is lost for the protagonist. They're staring ruin or even death in the face. But there's the finish line in the distance! They get their last bit of effort together and race for it... or crash and burn. 

Concluding then, if you find *your* Thriller "running on the spot", consider the following in finding out why:

- How have I set my pace at the beginning?
- How does my pace develop throughout the narrative? (ie. does it get more difficult?)
- What does the character learn about the situation and/or himself/herself throughout the narrative?
- How does that character make that realisation at the end of the story - and what impact does it have on him/her and the other characters?

NEXT: Arena - "the feel of the piece"

Thursday, 21 April 2011

Writing The Thriller # 4: Dramatic Context, "Flight & Fight" (Structure, Part 1)

DEVIATION'S Director of Photography, Oliver Downey

In the previous articles we explored how secondary characters can support the protagonist or antagonist (or not!) in the Thriller genre and what this means to whomever is driving the action.

Thrillers are supposed to be by their very nature, thrilling. The clue is in the genre's title. Many people - writers and viewers alike - confess to not being "very sure" what separates Thriller from its close relative, Horror. In answer, it is very much about context.

In Horror films, a group of people is very frequently involved at the offset - these people are then picked off, one by one and often in bloody and extreme ways. Very often, the threat is not immediately identified UNTIL the first death or even beyond. In creature feature Horrors, there is frequently a character in league with the monster - as in the ALIEN franchise, starting with Ash and Burke - who will stop at nothing to ensure the alien is transported back to Earth, "crew expendable". In other types of Horror, particularly slasher Horror, there will often be a "weakest link" character who causes the deaths of other characters and themselves, either directly or indirectly. Sometimes Horrors have both of these.

All of the above can be thrilling for gore-hungry Horror fans, but it does not automatically qualify the film as an actual Thriller. As with all genre films, there are specific "markers" that distinguish one genre from the next. Those markers that differentiate Thriller from Horror then do not include lack of body count (action Thrillers often kill peripheral characters in particular indiscriminately); nor do they have a bias towards male or female characters, either; even the nature of the films can be similar - basically, both can be tense and even scary!

Instead, the Thriller includes an emphasis on the antagonist's actions driving the narrative (as already mentioned in the second article) and the reliance on the LONE protagonist who must make a series of decisions throughout the narrative in order to save his/her life and/or reputation. Instead of appealing to the group ("safety in numbers" - no matter how untrue), the Thriller protagonist must GO IT ALONE.

But what does this mean, in terms of Thriller structure?

Very often, Thriller movie posters have their heroes and heroines RUNNING on them. This is no accident. In terms of context, Thrillers are frequently about RUNNING OUT OF TIME - usually before the protagonist dies, literally or figuratively, depending on the *type* of Thriller. In conspiracy Thrillers, the (usually male) protagonist must fight the Evil Corporation before he is "spirited away" to certain death or lifelong imprisonment. In Action Thrillers, the (usually male) protagonist must rescue a wife, daughter or friend before a deadline or lose that person in question forever. In women-in-peril Thrillers like Deviation, Panic Room or Red Eye, the female heroine must escape the clutches of the (usually male) antagonist or she is doomed.

But remember that protagonist is frequently DRAWN INTO the mission of the antagonist/s: the protagonist infrequently initiates the mission him or herself. Instead, they find themselves in a waking nightmare, usually for at least the first half of the movie, reacting instead to what is happening to them in the first instance.

The Dramatic Context can be summed up here as "Flight". The protagonist will do all s/he to try and get away and NOT engage with the antagonist. This is frequently the half of the movie where the protagonist may appeal to authority figures, particularly the army, government or secret service, in trying to help them. These authority figures will often misunderstand the protagonist in some way during the "Flight" period - either on purpose or accidentally - leaving the Protagonist with a greater problem than they had before *for some reason*. The second half of the movie then can be summed up as "Fight". This is when the protagonist has realised they CANNOT appeal to anyone else to help them; they can rely only on themselves. This may mean the difference between survival and dying.

Sometimes protagonists in the Thriller die regardless, but *how* they die depends wholly on the decisions they have made in the "Fight" period. In other words, who will win - the protagonist or the antagonist? A win for the protagonist can mean death to the antagonist, even if it means the protagonist's own death. A win for the antagonist might not leave them alive to enjoy it too, but as long as they kill the protagonist by their own hand, the antagonist is the victor.

Too many spec scripts call themselves Thrillers when *really* they are dramas with a little bit of fighting or killing in. "Flight and then fight" is key in the Dramatic Context and is vital in setting the tone for your Thriller, especially when it comes to pitting your protagonist against your antagonist.

NEXT: Structure, Part 2 - Keeping going

Tuesday, 12 April 2011

Writing The Thriller # 3: Secondary Characters

In the previous article we looked at the protagonist and antagonist in the Thriller: in direct contrast to many other genres, it's often the antagonist who drives the action in the Thriller, instead pulling the protagonist into their orbit, rather than vice versa. Similarly, notions of "good versus evil" often come into play in their characterisation, though it would be unwise to draw this in too broad strokes.  The various shades of grey often play a part in protagonist and antagonist characterisation in the best produced Thrillers: antagonists aren't "just good people", any more than antagonists are "comic book villains".

However, secondary characters are similarly important, as with all genre films. Even in Thrillers with small casts like Deviation - a film which concentrates mainly on Frankie and Amber, on their own, in the car - other characters must come into play.  Each secondary character must offer something to the narrative and "pull their weight"; they are not there for the sake of it, however interesting they might be. Yet how can we, as writers, choose the "right" secondary character?

Basically, we must look to the notion of ROLE FUNCTION in picking the "right" secondary character. Every character in Deviation - and indeed all good thrillers and genre movies - must make that all-important CONTRIBUTION to the narrative in terms of pushing it forward. It is no good *just* to have a "wise cracking friend" or "mentor figure" who does not perform a specific FUNCTION in keeping the story going. In other words, good characterisation is not just about about how "cool" or "memorable" that character is, but what the character DOES in the story.

Remember too Frankie drives the action in this Thriller (though it is important to remember this does not automatically mean Amber is a PASSIVE protagonist who just "accepts" whatever comes to her... She does not. Amber must come to a number of decisions in the course of the narrative pertaining to her own survival). WHO drives the narrative makes a direct impact on your secondary characters' role functions.

In addition to the above characters, there are also other peripheral characters such as "The Hoodies", "The Van Driver" and "The Mini-Cab Driver". These parts, somewhat smaller than those above, are usually present to demonstrate a specific element of another character (such as Frankie's ruthlessness) or a single moment in the narrative that drives home the overall theme of the story.

Concluding: when writers are told secondary characters must "pull their weight", they're essentially being told secondary must contribute that all-important ROLE FUNCTION. What this means:

*What* can this character GIVE or TAKE AWAY from the character driving the action - be it protagonist or antagonist? And what does this MEAN to the overall story? 

NEXT: Structure, part one: Dramatic Context, "Flight then Fight"

Monday, 4 April 2011

Writing The Thriller # 2: Characters - Protagonist & Antagonist

Last time we considered the “Primal Premise” and how the notion of The Universal Fear – that "something" *everyone* does NOT want to happen to them – is at the root of all good Thrillers.

Now it is time to consider the characters within Thrillers and how they differ not only to each other in terms of traits, but in terms of characters in OTHER genres.

The Thriller protagonist can be male OR female, much like in the Horror genre (and in comparison to say, the Comedy genre, which focuses very much on the male protagonist, even in the Rom-Com post Frat Pack/Judd Apatow). The first thing to consider in your Thriller’s protagonist then is not their gender, but rather their “goodness”.

In comparison to many other genres that may offer us a protagonist who is deeply flawed and even has unlikable character traits, the Thriller protagonist is frequently what can be described as a “good person” or “upstanding citizen”. This is not to say they have never made mistakes in their lives, but rather, in their hearts, they have something “good” that drives them – an uncompromising sense of right/wrong; formidable self preservation skills; or the ceaseless protection of an innocent or even society itself.

The Thriller protagonist needs this “good” element to them to make an audience believe not only in them as a character, but in their journey within the plot: what is the point of a Thriller protagonist going up against a sinister organisation to expose their shady practices, if we think he is a cynical and pessimistic person? How can we believe a Thriller protagonist will fight burglars, violent partners or strangers, if we think of her as a victim who is more likely to roll over and die instead?

Amber in DEVIATION has this “good” quality: she is a young wife and mother, keen to get back to her family after a long shift at the hospital where she works as a nurse. It’s important to note however Amber is no whiter-than-white saint and her life is far from “rosy”: like many working Mums, she has a lot of pressure on her, not least her partner Joe’s depression which she references in the film later when antagonist Frankie quizzes her. Amber is a three–dimensional character and no victim. She does not fall back on limited Hollywood stereotypes either: she HATES the situation she finds herself in and never once starts to empathise with her abductor Frankie. She does all she can to get away, he is “The Enemy”.

It's basic screenwriting to suppose every protagonist needs an antagonist, regardless of the story a writer is telling. However, what differs in the Thriller is HOW these characters relate to each other. In many genres, the protagonist has a goal they want to fulfill by the end of the movie and the antagonist's counter goal is to stop the protagonist achieving it by whatever means possible.

Conversely, protagonists in Thrillers are very often living their *ordinary* lives and are "pulled in" to the orbit of the antagonist's mission instead. If you recall, Amber in DEVIATION is in the "wrong place, wrong time" when it comes to running into our antagonist Frankie. In other words, it is wise to think of the antagonist's mission FIRST and *then* work out how the protagonist fits in.

The antagonist in the Thriller genre is predictably as “bad” as the protagonist is “good” - and Frankie is in lots of ways Amber's polar opposite. There are fewer shades of grey to Thriller antagonists than in other genres, like Horror or Action Adventure which often suggests “the road to Hell is paved with good intentions” when it comes to antagonists’ motivations. In ALIEN and ALIENS, first Ash and then Burke are “only” following company orders; in JURASSIC PARK, Hammond wanted to create something wonderful, but instead creates a living nightmare.

Thriller antagonists then are frequently much darker, with much simpler and more selfish motivations. The sinister organisation wants to protect their own interests and will do anything – including murder – to silence whistle-blowers; home invaders want money or goods in the house. Frankie in DEVIATION snatches Amber because *he* wants to evade the authorities and escape the country; he doesn’t care about her, her life & the people in it or what she wants. He has no remorse for his previous crimes and little empathy for Amber or her fear. She is “just” the hostage.

Crucially however it is also important to recognise Frankie and his ilk are not “comic book villains”. None of them wake up in the morning with an EVIL PLAN and none look in the mirror and see “the antagonist”: instead, they all believe THEY are the protagonist! Frankie insists to Amber throughout their nightmare journey none of it is his fault and her abduction is “nothing personal”. In the same way, the Boss of the sinister organisation may express regret certain people “had” to be killed during the cover up in conspiracy Thrillers, or burglars rail against the fact the protagonist moved just days earlier into the previously empty building where the money or contraband is stored.

In short, when it comes to the protagonist and antagonist, we’re broadly speaking “good versus evil”… But whilst Thriller protagonists and antagonists may well be more “good” or more “evil” than other genres’ leading characters, it’s not wise to consider their role functions as simply “black and white” either.

NEXT: Secondary characters in the Thriller