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

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