How to Write a Thriller

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You come out of the cinema having been gripping your armrest in anticipation, or you close a book needing to take a few quiet moments.

Then you wonder: just how do you write that?

The thriller genre has been a famous platform known to keep the audience in awe and expound on familiar themes at the same time. You are not alone in thinking, what are the cogs that make a good thriller tick. There is no one way to write a good thriller. Fortunately for you, there are several.

Let us see what some authors of cinematic thrillers have to say in writing their masterpieces, and how you can work on yours too!


Start with an Autobiography

The best thrillers not only play with unconventional stories, but they also spring from what is already real. Or often, too real. Jordan Peele, writer and director of Get Out (2017) and more recently, Us (2019), emphasizes beginning your thriller with “imagery that means something to you and you have to feel the emotion of the character”. This means looking into the monotony of your daily life and figuring out what part of it is the scariest, the most daunting, and the most thrilling.

Peele’s recent films in the horror-thriller genre add testament to his words. Get Out ultimately focuses on the racism and objectification of African-Americans in a predominantly white society. On the other hand, Us questions the blame and hypocrisy people place on one another. Yes, these are big themes that are socially relevant, yet they are also the daily problems that people of color and lesser power experience; particularly, what Peele himself connects with.

What do you relate to? Or perhaps, who do you relate to?

Describing the people in your life is the approach that writer and director Bong Joon-ho applied in coming up with Parasite (2019). He says, “Reality involves very complicated layers.” And that is often embodied by the people you know. The idea for the Oscar-winning film is from Bong’s own experience of tutoring for an upper-class family who resided in their own mansion, in their own world. His own curiosity of this class division came firsthand. By looking into the people around you, you can examine their complexity and ambiguity, and parallel these traits into an equally mystifying thriller.

Narrate with Limitations

To complement the thriller genre’s taste for the unconventional is telling the story through an unusual point of view. In Memento (2000), writer and director Christopher Nolan, tackles the narrative of Leonard, a man without short-term memory, seeking to understand his world, through a subjective perspective.

In telling the story, Nolan’s approach of “denying the audience the same information that [Leonard] is denied” proved effective. Memento is essentially told backward where in order to move forward with the story, Leonard must investigate how it all began. Peele adds that your audience can empathize with your protagonist by telling the story “behind their eyes”.

It’s important to be conscious of your audience, the horror-thriller writer adds, because it is them you need to convince through your protagonist. Would you rather have smart and investigative characters or those who deliberately, obviously planned, running into threatening situations without reason? Which is more interesting to follow?

The thrill is in understanding that your protagonist has to be in this tough situation where he cannot leave. Leonard of Memento needs to discover why he has a picture of a dead man. Chris of Get Out needs to remain courteous against racist commentary because it is his girlfriend’s family.

Nolan emphasizes the relevance and advantage of determining and committing to a point-of-view in order to tell a good thriller story. In his recent film, Dunkirk (2017), he proceeds to warp the subjective perspective. The narrative is only told from three points-of-view—land, sea, and air—during the war, within the limits of a time frame. The soldiers we follow in the film have no choice but to survive until their evacuation and the audience are forced to endure their circumstance with them.

Set limitations within the story and with how you tell it through a choice in perspective. Information is your power and there is relevance in what you withhold and the timing of when you release it to your audience. Nolan cites the high tension between the subjective truth and objective reality; thriller stories grow in that in-between.

Describe through Interaction

Thrillers often don’t have time for straightforward introductions or chapter-long exposition. Regardless, your audience cannot understand and relate to your protagonist without knowing who he is. Bong cites, “I think all characters are developed through interactions with one another.” The plot for Parasite isn’t distinct from its characters; the director doesn’t bother building years’ worth of backstory. Instead, he lets his characters’ actions and reactions define themselves.

Parasite is a film led by families. The poor family, for instance, is established through their different attitudes during a quiet meal at the beginning. Quickly, the audience is aware of their economic status because of the setting of a half-basement apartment and informed of the members’ personalities through their conversations and reactions to a stranger peeing near their window. Bong states, “So the main characters are developed through the filter of these peripheral characters.” Similarly, we learn to trust Chris’s girlfriend Rose because of her vocalized opinions against her family’s blatant racism during dinner. Yet, Peele uses those interactions to play us by the film’s climax.

Even without direct exposition, you have other elements of the story at your disposal. This involves delivering information to the audience about your characters, discreetly yet naturally. The supporting characters are yours to manipulate.

Design with Creativity

Every thriller has a designing principle that acts as the internal logic of how to tell your story. It defines how your thriller proves unique. “The proper cohesion of theme, designing principle, and story is often what elevates” what you want to tell, Michael Tucker describes. The mystery-thriller film Searching (2018) depicts David Kim, father in search of his daughter told completely through screens. Its co-writer and producer, Sev Ohanian further adds that “every page of your [work] should be unique to that central core.” Searching makes use of their designing principle—technology—as a subjective perspective that encourages the father’s character development which in turn drives the plot while presenting the growing presence of technology in daily communication.

To take advantage of the designing principle and elevate your thriller, do not use it as a simple gimmick. Nolan states, “the process of the narrative is not so much what happens next as why has this thing happened.” Put meaning behind your designing principle and your audience learns to ask the better question of: why?

Going back to Parasite, Bong specifies, “The structure of the [rich] house is directly tied to the narrative.” Indeed, again and again, the film symbolically portrays the vertical divide of one floor to another, of one family to the other. Your designing principle should be completely complicit to every aspect of your thriller. It conjures a unified image for your audience and adds layers to the themes you want to portray.
Indeed, establishing a designing principle may seem easier visually, but books also have the capacity to tell their story in unconventional ways. Some even better than films.

If We Were Villains by M.L. Rio, a mystery-thriller that follows a group of Shakespeare actors and a murder in their school is divided through acts and scenes that allude to the format of a theatre tragedy. There’s Gillian Flynn’s acclaimed Gone Girl that alternates between the present time and manipulated diary entries about the past; all of which point to the lies spun between its main characters. Non-linear storytelling and the unreliable narrator ties together the events of I’m Thinking of Ending Things by Iain Reid and reflects the psyche of its protagonist.

Maximize your imagination. As with all genres, thrillers have their own rules. The fun and the irony are how testing those practices is as much a requirement. The thriller genre, Peele finds, “is so alluring because you’re almost not doing it right if you’re not pushing the boundaries of good taste and darkness.” Through a solid designing principle, you can tell a story with meaning.

Stake with Reality

Given that thrillers are sourced from what is personal, they are exaggerations of reality. This is ultimately what makes the genre terrifying for the audience, yet they cannot turn away. “It is not a freak show,” Nolan describes Leonard in Memento, rather it is an “extrapolation of all of our lives.” Leonard, and by extension, well-made thriller stories, encourages the audience to think of their own places in the world and their sense of identity. Who are you? What if, you are Leonard? How about Chris? Or Ki-woo and his family? Are you a father, searching?
In the development of Joker (2019), writer and director Todd Philipps ensured to present Arthur Fleck through a realistic lens. Already, this is a different depiction of the high fantasy superhero genre that spins the origins of the supervillain, Joker, into an eerily authentic story. Philipps expounds, “The deliberate choice is to put real-world stakes on violence.”

By interjecting realism into each aspect of your story, you build a world that is not only frightening or frustrating for your protagonist but also, and especially, for your audience.

Remember your power? Realism uses information that everybody already knows. So, when you establish a scene that hints at a realistic and violent ending—imagine the scene in the train with Arthur in his clown uniform—your empathizing audience begins to fear for your protagonist.

With realism, you can play your audience. Peele, even in a story about secret racist societies, heightens the stakes by concluding a highly emotional scene with the distinctly uncomfortable feeling of being trapped in your own body. He describes it as the sudden fall right when you are about to sleep; usually, you instantly wake up and catch yourself. For Chris, however, he fails to catch himself, leaving the audience hanging and eager for more.

Respect the Audience

“I want to entertain and fascinate myself. But I respect the audience,” Bong says. He understands that during the process of creating Parasite, it is impossible to fully know how the audience will react to his work. So, he immerses himself in its writing and its development.
In his words: “I controlled the narrative while rolling in the mud with them. I feel the emotions. The empathy I feel for the characters and their situations was important to me.” Starting with an autobiography—a personal imagery—is not enough. In writing thrillers, a genre that discusses and explores darker themes and sensitive narratives, it’s important that you remain present with your characters and understand the events you put them in, or else, you run the risk of gratuitous writing.

Peele calls back to his origins in comedy where he holds an imaginary audience in his head to check if a joke lands well or not. The success of his writing comes from a desired reaction from the audience. If comedy, therefore, laughter. If thriller, therefore, a dangerous excitement. If gratuitous, therefore, unwanted. As a writer and a human being, it does not hurt to be respectful, particularly in a medium that grants freedom in expression.

From authors who have shaped the thrillers of today, these are several of the many different approaches to writing an effective thriller. Which one works for you?

But even if you follow these writers, step by step, your story will not ever be made the same and that’s absolutely okay. Also, it is totally expected.

At its core, thriller stories, whatever the plot may be, are meant to thrill its audience. In describing Joker, Philipps calls to Cesar Cruz, “Art should comfort the disturbed, and disturb the comfortable.”

What keeps the thrillers alive and disturbing is the constant growth and variety that creators of the genre provide. You are one of them.

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