How to Write a Damn Good Thriller
Germinal Ideas: High Concepts and Bad Concepts
Types of Thrillers, Plus a Special Note About Psychological Thrillers
The germinal idea is simply the idea that you have that gives the spark to your creative fire. It's something you feel hot about, something you think you can turn into a damn good thriller and hope that the reader or audience will think so, too.
High concept is a Hollywood term. It refers to the germinal idea for a project that excites producers and makes their hearts go thumpety-thump when they hear it. It's usually something fresh, something that you think is original and will have broad appeal to a large audience. Because Hollywood producers can't pay attention to anything for more than 9.4 seconds, a high concept must be expressed in one sentence, and that sentence should never be more than thirteen words long.
I'll give you an example of a high concept from a few years ago, when Bill Clinton was president. You may recall Bill supposedly had a sexual tryst or two while in office. True or not, there were stories floating around that he was, well, a serial skirt chaser. David Baldacci, an unpublished thriller writer at the time, had a great high concept for a story. In his thriller, the presidentnot Bill Clinton, but a fictional presidenthasan affair with a woman, and during a night of passion there's a problem. The president and the woman get into a fight, things get physical, and she gets killed. Oops.
Ordinarily this would not be a huge problem for this sleazy fictional president. His flunkies could dump the body in the Potomac and no one would be any the wiser. But here is what makes Mr. Baldacci's idea a high concept: A burglar dangling from his climbing gear on the side of the building witnesses the murder. So what to do? The president has a dilemma: There's an eyewitness to the crime. No problem. The president and his cronies will blame the murder on the burglar and get the whole police apparatus of the country chasing the poor slob. This is a very high concept indeed. The novel that evolved from that high concept was called Absolute Power. It was first a damn good novel (1996), then a damn good film starring Clint Eastwood (1997).
You'll notice how "impossible" the burglar hero's mission is: Not only must he escape the thousands of law enforcement agents aligned against him, but he has to bring the murderer to justice. You'll also notice that even though there's a murder in it, this story is a thriller and not a murder mystery because there is no mystery. The hero knows and the reader knows who committed the murder right from the start.
The high concept for Absolute Power can be expressed in one sentence: A burglar witnesses the president committing a murder; the burglar gets blamed.
Even the busiestor dimmestof Hollywood producers can get it in less than nine seconds.
Another film that was made from somebody pitching a producer a high conceptat least that's the story I heardwas eventually made into the Mel Gibson film Conspiracy Theory (1997). It's the story of Jerry Fletcher, a nut who publishes a newsletter about conspiracies that are nothing but his paranoid fantasies. And then, by chance, one of his paranoid fantasies turns out to be true ... and it gets him into terrible trouble when the conspirators come after him to shut him up.
Jaws, many in Hollywood say, was an extremely high concept. It was a sort of melding of two other plots that each had held audiences inthrall: Herman Melville's Moby-Dick (1851, film 1956), about a whaleboat chasing a huge white whale around the world; and Henrik Ibsen's classic An Enemy of the People (a play first produced 1882, film 1978), about a town that had a bad water supply and refused to clean it up because the bad publicity would hurt the tourist trade.
What is or what is not a high concept is, of course, somewhat subjective. The term is even sometimes used derogatorily to pan a film with a thin plot and thinner characters, one designed to appeal to a mass audience but with no depth or substance. For that reason, Roger Ebert, the renowned film critic, calls high concepts "low concepts."
Often high concepts have a lot of current cachet in the pop culture. A juicy scandal or lurid tragedy works well. The TV series Law & Order often fashions scripts that echo dramatic situations that have been in the news, and then they manipulate the true story, twisting it so they won't be sued. Look at the headlines of the tabloids at the checkout stand of any supermarket and you'll find out what's currently on the public's mind.
The trouble with high concept germinal ideas is that what is a high concept to you may not be a high concept to a producer. And since a high concept may be hot today and cold tomorrowdepending on the fickle winds of popular tasteyour high concept may quickly seem old hat. Besides, there are always hordes of screenwriters with their fingers in the wind of pop culture who are pitching similar high concepts, so what's current may have legions of competition. There's a lot of bandwagon-jumping-on in Hollywood, my friend. Every hit film has a hundred clones before the first ticket is sold.
My savvy editor, Daniela Rapp at St. Martin's Press, tells me that the same sort of bandwagoning happens in New York publishing. With the success of Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code (2003, film 2006), she says, "All of publishing was up to their eyeballs in religious conspiracy thrillers, all with the same concept: enigmatic, ancient scrolls and mind-boggling codes embedded in works of art, historical figures engaged in secret society conspiraciesbut with slightly different angles than Dan Brown's tale. And after 9/11 came a flood of Middle Eastern bad guys thrillers that has yet to recede."
So there you are. Walk the tightrope, my friend. Write what's timely, but stay off the damn bandwagon. How to do that? you ask. Wish I knew.
The Great Hollywood Rip-Off
And then there's always the problem with high concept germinal ideas, that since they cannot be copyrighted, whoever you pitch it to may like it well enough to steal it. That's right, my friend, you could easily be the victim of out-and-out theft by somebody working for the Hollywood dream machine.
A friend of mine once had a great job working for a major studio. She had a nice office and a large desk and windows that got the morning sun, and she had her name on the door in gold lettering with a title something like "assistant acquisitions manager." Her job was gathering high concepts, great lines of dialogue, and fresh, dramatic situations from scripts and treatments that were submitted to the studio. A world-class speed-reader, she would scan the scripts and treatments quickly, then pass the gold she'd mine from these scripts to any producer working for the studio who could use them. She was a hired thief, which did not square well with her self-image. Her conscience bothered her so badly that she wrote a scathing magazine piece about the practice, quit, and moved to Vermont to become a creative writing coach.
One way to protect yourself from getting ripped off is to turn your high concept into a damn good thriller as a novel before you pitch it to Hollywood for a film. That way, you are somewhat protected. Of course, they can still steal your high concept, because high concepts are just ideas and you cannot copyright an idea.
There are some so-called screenwriters and pseudoproducersyou can find their Web sites by Googling "high concept"who give seminars on how to pitch your high concept to harried producers. I don't know how successful the attendees of these seminars are with pitching their high concepts after they get trained, so I can't recommend any of them. My guess is, if you have a high concept that tickles producers' fancies,they will be busy two days later with their own screenwriters who they know can develop your high concept into a damn good thriller. What need do they have of you? Hollywood is a small town where it's who you know that counts.
Some of the best germinal ideas for a thriller might not sound good if presented in thirteen words or fewer anyway. One of the best damn thrillers ever penned, Frederick Forsyth's The Day of the Jackal, sounds idiotic as a concept. The concept is this: A master hit man is hired to kill Charles de Gaulle, who was then president of France. It is the story of how a clever policeman, with the help of every cop in France, stops him.
The reason this sounds idioticand many said so at the timeis that everyone in the audience knows that in fact Charles de Gaulle was not assassinated, and so, the reasoning goes, there would be no suspense.
Besides, the hired assassinthe villain and not the herois cleverly facing the most "impossible" odds. The hero is creating the "impossible" odds for the villain and not the other way around.
But to the skeptics' surprise, vast numbers of people read the sensational novel and even more vast numbers of people saw the Fred Zinnemann film starring Edward Fox as the devilishly clever Jackal and Michael Lonsdale as the hero cop. Apparently, in some perverse way, they identified with the lone assassin hunted by every cop in Franceat least until about a third of the way into the story, when he started murdering sympathetic characters who got in his way. Apparently, people had no problem getting caught up in the story world where the threat to de Gaulle seemed very real, even though in the real world there was no threat. If you have not seen this film, I suggest you rent it today. It's one hell of a damn good thriller.
By the way, there have been a lot of damn poor thrillers made from high concept ideas. One of these was The Jackal (1997), the American version of The Day of the Jackal. It tried to overcome the problem of the audience knowing the target was not assassinated by not revealing the identity of the target, which was ... well ... really, truly, a first-class dumb idea. Fred Zinnemann and Frederick Forsyth both denounced it.
Most of the time, it's not the concept, but the execution of craft that counts, my friend.
Bad Concepts to Be Avoided at All Costs
What is a bad concept? you ask. In an effort to be fresh and original, some writers think they have locked on to a great high concept, which is to make the hero evil or the villain heroic in the beginning and reveal their true nature later. A truly terrible thriller, Hide and Seek (film 2005), with Robert De Niro, had such a concept: The crazed lunatic killer, we discover at the climax, is the guy we thought all along was the hero. The critics savaged the film. Kevin Crust in the Los Angeles Times called it "the year's first laugh-out-loud-funny thriller."
The Jack Nicholson character (Jack), who turns into a monster in The Shining (1977, film 1980), works because he's never a hero. He's a writer, a victim, who is driven mad by ghosts and becomes a homicidal maniac. The audience is never misled about Jack's nature.
The audience is misled about the nature of the hero in Roman Polanski's The Ninth Gate (1999). The protagonist is Dean Corso, a total sleazeball, who takes on the villain the way heroes do, even sleazeball heroes. So the audience identifies with him because his goal is to foil evil. But in the end, this protagonist embraces evil himself and walks through the ninth gate, the gate to hell, to join up with the Devil and share his power. I guess the writers thought this waswowreally, really clever, making the hero turn villain in the end, but in my opinion it turns out to be one of the most unsatisfying movie endings ever made. Lisa Nesselson in Variety called the film "rather silly."
Perhaps there are cases where late in the story a villain could change sides, see the evil of his ways, and then act heroically, but I've not seen it done effectively. It was done rather clumsily and ineffectually in both film versions of 3:10 to Yuma (1957, remake 2007) from a short story by Elmore Leonard (1952). That switch robbed the audience of the satisfaction of seeing the hero defeat the villain in the climax, one of the biggest thrills a thriller delivers.
Okay, let's say you have a sudden impulse to make the hero really the villain, or the villain really a hero. No matter how much the idea excites you, take a cold shower, drink a large bourbon smoothie, hit yourself in the head with a hammer, and forget it.
Turning Your Germinal Idea, High Concept or Low, into a Damn Good Thriller
Let's say you're the Greek poet Homer. It's 800 B.C. or so and you've just had a smashing international hit with your first epic, The Iliad, and you're casting around for an idea for your next project. The Iliad was a type of thriller, a war story; the most recent film version was Troy (2004). In it, Paris, prince of Troy, kidnaps Helen, the wife of Menelaus, king of Sparta, and takes her to Troy to be his mistress. The king of Sparta sends out a call to all the Greek city-states for help in getting his wife back. Warriors flock to join in the cause, and the largest fleet ever assembled (until the Normandy invasion, some historians say) heads for Troy. Hence, Helen of Sparta becomes known as "Helen of Troy." She's said to have had "the face that launched a thousand ships."
Anyway, The Iliad relates the battles that ensued between the Greeks and the Trojans: battles involving great warriors, great heroes, gods and goddesses, and a host of common soldiers led to the slaughter. It was a huge hit as an epic poem and had what in the entertainment biz is called "legs." That's lasting powertwo and a half millennia and it's still enchanting readers and audiences.
It would be pretty hard for Homer to top that, eh? But he had to try. So he cast around for a germinal idea he thought might make a story to thrill audiences.
Luckily, the Muses bestowed their blessing again. In case you're not up on your paganism, the Muses were goddesses, who according to the ancient Greeks were the source of all creativity. This blessing was the germinal idea for his next work, and it was a truly damn good idea.
Homer had a wonderful minor character in The Iliad, a Greek warrior who was a good candidate for a thriller hero: Ulysses "the Cunning." Hecarried out various spy missions, fought in many battles, and showed his courage, resourcefulness, and cleverness over and over again. So why not make him the hero of the sequel? Homer must have thought.
Now as to the actions of the story, Homer had to brainstorm a bit.
Ah. The Trojan war is over, so what does the hero do? He does what soldiers do when peace comes: He retires to civilian life. Homer decided Ulysses would journey from Troy to his home in Ithaca.
But what kind of a thriller is that? Is a trip home a mission? A trip home might make a long, boring literary novel full of great poetic descriptions and nice little insights about life, but a thriller? Homer lived in the days when you had to have a gripping storya thrilleror forget it, and there's nothing gripping about a long trip in a boat. I'm a sailor and I know. Unless, of course, there's a whole lot of danger and menaceterrible troubleso that it's not just a trip, but a test of courage and ability, a mythic hero's journey. So if this germinal idea is going to be a high concept for a damn good thriller, it's obvious the mission has to be a difficult one. Not just difficult: "impossible."
Homer knew that to make things difficult you have to create obstacles for the hero to be tested against. Homer had Ulysses tested by storms; sirens trying to lure his ship onto the rocks; a cyclops that imprisons him in a cave and uses his men for food; a witch, Circe, who seduces him by looking exactly like his wife, Penelope; and so on. Along the way Ulysses loses his memory, his crew mutinies, he's shipwrecked ... the guy has a hell of a lot of terrible trouble.
Homer knew, too, that the mission the hero is given should be not just for the hero's benefit, but for the benefit of others. That's right, the hero should be self-sacrificing. If he's only out for himself, he can't be a real hero. This tale of Ulysses, The Odyssey, is the kind of thriller called "the hero's journey," and this type of story is very old. I wrote about the hero's journey in The Key: How to Write Damn Good Fiction Using the Power of Myth (2002) to show modern writers how to use this ancient paradigm to make their stories more powerful.
So who is Ulysses going on the mission for? Homer had a problem here, but he solved it by having Penelope in terrible trouble back home.Since Ulysses is thought to have died in the war, Penelope is being courted by a bunch of ill-mannered louts who are eating her out of house and home and bankrupting the little kingdom. The people are suffering. Ulysses must get home and save the day. But how does he even know about Penelope's terrible trouble? There are no cell phones or e-mail or text messaging, not even telegraph or snail mail. Sending a messenger might work, but between storms and pirates there was a pretty good chance the messenger would not make it.
Luckily, Homer had the gods at his beck and call. He simply has the gods tell Ulysses that he has to get home and foil evil. This adds urgency to his mission, another key ingredient of a damn good thriller.
The fundamental pattern, then, of a damn good thriller was started millennia ago. It was probably ages old when Homer used it. As models, he no doubt had other thrilling sagas now lost in the mists of time. To create a damn good thriller, you need to create a clever hero and send him or her on an urgent, "impossible" mission to foil evil for the benefit of others. Do that, my friend, and you will have an unbeatable high concept like The Odyssey, and it won't depend on the fickleness of popular taste.
Now then, is it possible to have a damn good thriller where the hero has a mission to save himself but is not acting for the benefit of others? Well, yes. Certainly Robert Ludlum's The Bourne Identity (1980, TV 1988, film 2002) was a damn good thriller. In it, the hero, Jason Bourne, is acting only to save himself from a vast evil conspiracy against him. He's not self-sacrificing for others.
But myth-based thrillers such as The Odyssey that have the added dimension of other people who will suffer should the mission fail makes a gripping story even more gripping. If the hero wins and others are saved from some terrible trouble, it is deeply satisfying to the audience.
In this book, when I say "audience" I mean it to include readers of the print version.
The film Ronin (1998) with Robert De Niro and Jean Reno is a lesson in what happens when you leave out some important elements. In Ronin, the clever heroes are trying to get their hands on a fancy silver suitcase that contains something that a whole bunch of evil people want. In the hero's journey terminology, this suitcase is called "the prize." Alfred Hitchcock called it "the McGuffin"the thing the heroes are after that is often a central element of a thriller. It's the microfilm in Hitchcock's North by Northwest (1959), the photos of the Allies' fake tanks in Eye of the Needle, the stolen money in Charade (1963).
The problem with Ronin is that the audience is never told what's in the suitcase. In fact, the heroes don't know, either. I suppose the author and director thought they were being creative and were opening a powerful story question, when in fact, I'm sure most people who saw this film found it maddening. If the audience knew what was in there, they might be far more interested in the film. Say it was a nuke, or a bioweapon, or a working model of a mind-reading machine, or a gas that would make armies go crazy. The list of fascinating prizes is endless. Any horrible thing to scare the audience would be infinitely better than nothing.
This is a good example of a widespread fallacy among people who teach the craft of writing: that you create suspense by what you withhold from telling the reader or showing the audience. This is complete and total bullplucky. You create suspense by what you tell the reader and what you show an audience. What you withhold are future events.
Another annoying thing about Ronin that's instructive for thriller writers: The heroes are supposedly on this mission for mercenary reasons. They are not self-sacrificing for others. In fact, we don't even know who they're working for; it could be Islamic terrorists for all we know. Not knowing removes the moral dimension; as a result, viewers are far less involved than they would be otherwise. It's a truly terrible film in my opinion. You might watch it to see what happens when you toss some of the principles out the window.
Right at the end, alas, we find out the De Niro character (Sam) is actingout of self-sacrificing motives after all and is on a mission to help end the strife in Ireland, a cause the audience would champion if the director had revealed it earlier. This film delivers its thrills via car chase scenes that are so incredible they're silly. You are asked to believe that it's possible to speed for miles going the wrong way on a freeway in moderate traffic and not hit anybody. You might feel at times you're being held prisoner in a video game. The point is, don't try to get creative and deconstruct the thriller paradigm and leave out essential elements. These elements are your bullets; fire them all as straight and true as you can. Be creative with the cleverness of the villain and the hero, not in remodeling the form.
The ancient pattern for the thriller that has not changed in thousands of years is this:
A clever hero has an "impossible" mission to foil evil. The hero is brave; he or she is in terrible trouble; the mission is urgent; the stakes are high; and it's best if the hero is self-sacrificing for others.
Over the years, this prescription for the thriller has held audiences captivated every time. Called "England's national epic," Beowulf (first in the oral tradition for centuries, then written down in the Middle Ages, say about 800 A.D., film 2007) involves a hero, Beowulf, who has a mission to kill first two monsters, then, later, a dragon. The legends of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, with knights going off on all sorts of quests to rescue damsels in distress and kill bad knights and dragons, are thrillers about clever heroes on "impossible" missions to foil evil. These stories are from about the sixth century A.D. or even earlier.
Then there came one of the most enduring thriller heroes of all times: Robin Hood. He supposedly lived at the time of King Richard the Lionheart in the late twelfth century. His tale appeared in print as a ballad entitled "A Gest of Robyn Hode" (1492). The Adventures of Robin Hood (film 1938) is one of the truly great adventure thrillers ever made.
Here's a clever hero indeed, who has the "impossible" mission of foiling Prince John and the Sheriff of Nottingham, as evil a couple of dudes as ever lived. Thrillers have been around a long, long time, and the good news is, they're more popular than ever. And the pattern remains the same: A clever hero has an urgent, "impossible" mission to foil evil.
Okay then, we now know what our goal is. Before we begin crafting our thriller step by step, we'll have to decide what type of thriller we're going to write.
Types of Thrillers
Often you will see thrillers categorized by their formal genre, the way Hollywood sees the world. Examples: sci-fi, horror, political, techno, supernatural, Everyman, mystery-thriller, western, man-against-nature, and so on. The genres are based on the kind of menace the hero is facing. If the hero is up against the spirit world, it's a supernatural thriller; against a monster, it's a horror thriller; against terrorists, it's an espionage thriller; and so on. Sometimes the hero is a professional spy, say, like James Bond, or a cop, but other times he or she is just some ordinary sap who wanders into a bad situation. Alfred Hitchcock's film The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) is an example of the ordinary sap type. Of course it turns out the sap is a clever sap. The basic design of the ordinary sap thriller is the same as any other thriller; a clever hero has an "impossible" mission to foil evil no matter which type it is. The exception, of course, is the comic thriller, where the hero is inept but lucky.
In addition to the formal genres (sci-fi, horror, political, Everyman, slasher, and so on), there are thrillers written in different, let us say, traditions or modes, from campy to cartoon, to serious, to literary. One popular tradition is the thrill-a-minute thriller. These are sort of like Road Runner cartoons, and sometimes they can be very entertaining. They include films such as the recent James Bond thrillers Casino Royale (2006) and Quantum of Solace (2008), which have little to do with the works by the creator of the series, Ian Fleming. Also the Indiana Jones series, Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984), Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989), and Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008). The Lethal Weapon series is of the same type: Lethal Weapon (1987), Lethal Weapon 2 (1989), Lethal Weapon 3 (1992), and Lethal Weapon 4 (1998). These were followed by the Bourne series (based on the novels by Robert Ludlum):The Bourne Identity (2002), The Bourne Supremacy (2004), and The Bourne Ultimatum (2007). The Die Hard series (based on the characters from the novel Nothing Lasts Forever by Roderick Thorp) supposedly inspired them all, beginning with Die Hard (1988), followed by Die Hard 2 (1990), Die Hard: With a Vengeance (1995), and Live Free or Die Hard (2007).
I think that the roots of these films go deeper than just the Die Hard series. They harken back to the serials shown at Saturday movie matinees in the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s called "cliff-hangers," because every week they'd end with somebody dangling over a pit of tigers or trapped in a burning building or tied to the railroad tracks as the train was just around the bend and coming fast ... .
Thrill-a-minute thrillers are cartoons you wouldn't want your six-year-old to watch; the characters are action figures rather than traditional fictional characters with any flesh on their bones. When you're watching them, your heart might beat fast, but the only thing you're likely to remember is the special effects.
There are no novel or short story versions of such films; they are an overpowering visual and auditory assault that can be made only on a screen. The heroes are supermen who can walk through a hailstorm of bullets, fall off buildings, get blown up, and come through with nary a scratch. These films often make enormous amounts of money, but they're usually written on assignment. It's extremely difficult to crack this market if you're not a Hollywood insider and on what they call "the white list."
I asked a Hollywood insider once if there really was a white list. When pressed, he reluctantly indicated the affirmative. So I asked how you get on the white list, and he said sagely, "Nobody knows."
There are other, more realistic, less cartoonish thrillers where the heroes are not indestructible. Of course, the heroes are larger than life, theatrical, extremely cleverstill, they're believably human. The early James Bond stories, particularly From Russia with Love (1957, film 1963), and Len Deighton stories such as The Ipcress File (1963, film 1965) are realistic thrillers. So is Single White Female (1992). Frederick Forsyth'sThe Day of the Jackal, as mentioned earlier, is a wonderful realistic thriller. By the way, The Bourne Identity TV film (1988) was not quite as cartoonish as the later Bourne films; in some ways, because the hero was not so superduper, it was a superior film. There are some great man-against-nature films in this genre. The Snow Walker (2003), a small-budget Canadian film based on Farley Mowat's short story "Walk Well, My Brother" (1975), is a great example of a realistic thriller. This is a must-see film for thriller writers who'd like to see how much can be done with few special effects.
Even more serious than the realistic thriller is the literary thriller. The literary thriller is not just realistic; it is frequently grim, and often the hero dies in the end. The "impossible" mission in the literary thriller is often not quite as "impossible" as in other thrillers. In How to Write a Damn Good Novel, I discussed a literary thriller at length, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963, film 1965), by John le Carré. It is a terrific literary thriller that was later named "the best spy thriller of all time" by Publishers Weekly. It's about a spy sent behind the Iron Curtain during the cold war, pretending to be a turncoat in order to give false information to the enemy. The threat and menace and moral dilemmas are wonderful. The hero, Leamas, chooses to join his girlfriend in death in the end. Now how grim can you get?
Ernest Hemingway's For Whom the Bell Tolls is a wonderful literary thriller. Robert Jordan is behind the lines fighting for the Fascists during the Spanish Civil War. His mission is to blow up a bridge. Jordan dies in the end as well. Hemingway's novella The Old Man and the Sea (1951, film 1958) is also a literary thriller. Santiago, the clever hero, has an "impossible" mission to go into the deepest part of the Gulf Stream to catch a big fish. Of course, since this is a literary work, the fish gets eaten on the way home by sharks and Santiago is left with nothing but bones. Sad, but at least he gets to the end of the story alive.
Then there's the comic thriller. There are two types: the light comic thriller and the broad comic thriller. The film Romancing the Stone (1984) is one damn good example of a light comic thriller; its sequel, Jewel of the Nile (1985), is another. Joan Wilder, the hero in both of thesecomic thrillers, is clever but bungles from time to time and gets lucky from time to time. In other types of thrillers that aren't comic, letting the hero get lucky is regarded as bad storytelling. The villainous characters and other antagonists in light comic thrillers are often bunglers, too; this is unacceptable in more serious thrillers.
The film Midnight Run (1988) is another example of a damn good light comic thriller. It's a buddy film about a tough bounty hunter and a sensitive criminal up against bungling FBI agents and bungling competing bounty hunters.
In a broad comic thriller, everything is upside down. Rather than clever, the broadly comic thriller hero is totally inept. La Chèvre (1981), a hilarious French film, has such a hero: an accident-prone boob who is sent on a mission to recover a kidnapped girl in Mexico, who is also accident-prone. The American version titled Pure Luck (1991) is a bad imitation.
Besides the pure thriller, there's the cross-genre mystery/thriller, which is becoming ever more popular. The mystery/thriller starts off as a mysterythe hero has to find a murdererbut along the way, it's discovered that the murderer or some other character is up to something really evil and must be stopped. Robin Cook is famous for this kind of book: Coma (1977) is an example. It starts as a murder mystery, but the heroes soon find themselves up to their necks in a creepy medical research conspiracy. Cara Black has thriller elements in several of her Aimée Leduc mysteries; Murder in the Rue de Paradis (2008), with an underlying terrorist angle, is an example.
A Special Note About the Psychological Thriller
You may be wondering why I have not included the psychological thriller as a subgenre of thriller. As I see it, a psychological thriller is one that is written with a psychological focus and might be of any typesci-fi, horror, Everyman, political, any kindbut in itself, it is not a subgenre. What is called the psychological thriller is more a matter of style and substance, and since all damn good thrillers spring from thecharacter of the villain and his dark mission, all damn good thrillers are in some sense psychological thrillers.
The "cat and mouse" or "chess game" aspect of a thriller is often considered psychological. Perhaps the granddaddy of all cat-and-mouse thrillers is Baroness Emmuska Orczy's novel The League of the Scarlet Pimpernel (English-language version 1919, filmed as The Scarlet Pimpernel 1934). It was a primo example of the chess game, played with cunning, wit, charm, and daring and chock-full of delightful surprises. It was tried as a play in London in 1903 and flopped, but with a tune-up it was a smash hit two years later. It opened almost a hundred years later as a Broadway musical in New York in 1997 and had 772 performances. Amazing, isn't it, how thrillers capture the imagination generation after generation. They never grow old.
The Scarlet Pimpernel, the clever hero, is an effete English aristocrat who leads rescue missions to France to save "innocent" aristocrats from the guillotine during the Terror in the late 1790s. He's playing the chess game with wily Citizen Chauvelin, the head of the revolutionary government's intelligence corps. This wonderful and exciting story prefigures the other great stories of the seeming weakling who is actually a superheroZorro, Superman, Batman, Spider-Man, Plastic Man, Wonder Woman, and a host of others.
Sometimes the cat-and-mouse game is not quite as good swashbuckling fun as The Scarlet Pimpernel. The cat-and-mouse game can be horrific. One really great example is Shirley Jackson's brilliant The Haunting of Hill House (1959), made into the film The Haunting (1963, 1999). There is not a single drop of blood in the entire film, yet it is one of the most frightening films ever made because of the psychological mind game being played. It's about a group of folks invited to a spooky house to investigate a haunting. One of the folks is Eleanor, a lonely spinster who is being seduced step by step by the ghosts in the house, who want her to join them in death. It's not clear whether she's bonkers or she's become possessed. Before the others can get her out of there, she dies. The ghosts may have gotten her or she may have committed suicide; we never know. The ambiguity makes the death even more horrific. StephenKing in his study of the horror genre, Danse Macabre (1981), cited it as one of the greatest horror stories of the twentieth century, and indeed it is.
Often in thrillers the critics call psychological, suspense is built slowly, by indirection. There's a lot of ambiguity, fogginess, eeriness. The reader or audience doesn't quite know what's going on, but whatever it is, it's not good. Things are going bump in the night, doors open and close by themselves, chains are rattling in the basement, mysterious moaning is heard. The Gothic thriller genre relies heavily on these kinds of creepy techniques that drive the charactersand the audienceinsane. Maybe that's why they're thought of as psychological.
Recently, because of the ability of moviemakers to create absolutely dazzling special effects, a type of psychological thriller is emerging that blurs the edges of what is real and what is delusionfilms like Jacob's Ladder (1990) and more recently The Matrix (1999), which question the nature of reality. In Jacob's Ladder, the mission of the hero is to find his sanity. In The Matrix, it is to save humanity from computers who have created the delusional reality in which we've been living for some time now.
Sometimes when the head game between the villain and the other characters is exploited, the critics will call that psychological. John D. MacDonald's The Executioners (1958), later titled Cape Fear (film 1962, remake 1991), is considered to be a psychological thriller by many critics. It's a domestic, Everyman thriller, the story of a family menaced by a maniac. Each of the films handled the situation differently (in the early version the family is happy, well-adjusted; in the second, dysfunctional), but both versions are damn gripping.
John Katzenbach's novel The Wrong Man (2006) is also damn gripping. Katzenbach is often called a modern master of the psychological thriller. In this one, a woman has a one-night stand with a charming psychopath who stalks her afterward. As in Cape Fear, the woman's whole family gets involved in the cat-and-mouse game with the psychopath.
Alfred Hitchcock's film Psycho (1960), from the novel by Robert Bloch (1959), is often called a psychological thriller. It's the shocker with the knifing in the shower scene, about a killer who appears to be a friendlyand helpful motel proprietor. But evil villains pretending to be someone else is pretty much the stock-in-trade of the thriller writer. One brilliant example is Bunny Lake Is Missing, a novel by Merriam Modell writing as Evelyn Piper (1957, film 1965), where it turns out Bunny's uncle has snatched Bunny and is fixing to kill the tyke.
Another of this type of thriller is Alfred Hitchcock's Suspicion (1941). This film was based on the novel Before the Fact (1932) by Francis Illes (a pseudonym for British author Anthony Berkeley Cox, often cited as "the father of the psychological suspense novel"). It's the story of a rich but somewhat frumpy heiress, Lina McLaidlaw, who is courted by Johnnie Aysgarth, a petty thief and fortune hunter. They marry. Gradually it's revealed what a lowlife Aysgarth is: a crook, adulterer, and so on. Ah, but she loves the mutt and can't bear to leave him. In the book, her suspicions prove true and he kills her in a wonderfully horrific and terrifying ending. Unfortunately, the film studio did not want to show Cary Grant as a murderer, so in the film it turns out he's really in love with her, has no intention of doing her in, and all ends happily. So Hollywood once again destroys a great story with a heavy sugarcoating.
Many damn good thrillers center on the hero's efforts to figure out the mind of the villain in order to catch him, and that makes it, I suppose, psychological. Thomas Harris's damn good The Silence of the Lambs (1988, film 1991) has the puzzle as to how the killer's mind functions at the core of the story, as an example.
One type of psychological thriller is about psychology itselfsay, a shrink's efforts to jump-start the memories of an amnesiac, as in Alfred Hitchcock's Spellbound (1945), based on Francis Beeding's novel The House of Dr. Edwardes (1927). Another great film about treating a mental abnormality is the brilliant and gripping The Sixth Sense (1999), guaranteed to give you a bad case of the creeps. I loved it so much that when it was over, I bought a ticket and went back into the theater to watch it again.
Psychology gone amuck is the subject of Das Experiment (2001), the German film made from the novel Das Experiment: Black Box by Mario Giordano (2001), a fictionalized account of an actual psychology experimentdone at Stanford University, where volunteer students were randomly assigned the role of guard or prisoner. The guards quickly became masochistic (gee, what a surprise), and their oppression became so severe that the experiment was halted. This is certainly a psychological thriller. The fictional version has been denounced by the folks who did the experiment, saying most of the violence, torture, and other good stuff in the film never happened. Oh well.
The king of all psychological thrillers is, of course, Gaslight (1944). The impact of this film is so great that the title has entered the language as a verb ("gaslighting") meaning to drive someone nuts by making him think he's losing his mind. It was adapted from the play Angel Street (1938) by Patrick Hamilton.
A recent, really wonderful comic thriller, Carl Hiaasen's Skinny Dip (2004), reverses the usual situation where the villain is driving someone nuts: Here the heroes are driving the villain nuts. The villain, Chaz Perrone, is polluting the Everglades for profit, and when his wife finds out, he tosses her off his yacht; but, alas, she survives and teams up with ex-cop Mick Stranahan to get even by driving him insane. It works well. It's a great read if you like your characters a bit on the wacky side, and I do.
Critics will often label a film such as Hitchcock's Rear Window (1954) a psychological thriller, but to me, it's a mystery/thriller. There's a lot of gray area surrounding the borders of the psychological thriller. If you write a thriller and people call it a psychological thriller, well, that's not a bad thing. Psychological thrillers are considered by critics to be a cut above the standard thriller. Psychological thrillers are considered more literary and so have a snob appeal. People who read The New York Times Book Review are more likely to read them. So when you pitch your story to an agent, call it a psychological thriller even if it ain't.
HOW TO WRITE A DAMN GOOD THRILLER. Copyright © 2010 by James N. Frey. All rights reserved. For information, address St. Martin's Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.