Screenwriter Interview – Tripper Clancy

Script Pipeline Winner Tripper Clancy found management through the contest and this year has gone on to sell projects to 20th Century Fox & QED International.  Tripper has kindly agreed to share his experiences with Script Angel.

HM: The script that won the Script Pipeline contest was Henry the Second. I’m guessing that wasn’t the first spec script you’d completed. How many scripts had you written by then and how long had you been writing for?

TC: I can’t tell you an exact number, but I had probably written around a dozen feature-length specs before I wrote Henry. I had been in LA for five years at that point, writing for another two on top of that if you count film school. Most of the work I had done until then was with my writing partner, so Henry was an opportunity for me to stretch my legs in a solo effort and find my voice. I’m glad I wrote it.

HM: Winning the Script Pipeline Screenwriting Contest in 2010 seemed to open lots of doors for you. Was that the first big contest you’d submitted to?

TC: Script Pipeline was the first (and only) big contest I entered. Since I was already a represented writer, I thought, “What good would a screenwriting contest do me?” But my manager at the time didn’t believe in Henry enough to show it to producers, something about it not being commercial enough—which was heart-breaking—so I decided to test the waters myself and submit it. When I won the contest, it validated my work and directly led to my new manager and agents. I’m still with them today.

HM: Have you always written stories? When did you realise you wanted to be a writer/screenwriter and that it could be a career?

TC: I grew up playing classical piano and guitar, so my first love was song writing. I probably wrote 100 songs by the time I was 18, but it was just a hobby, a fun creative outlet. My junior year in college at Wake Forest University, I took an intro screenwriting course. I’ve always loved movies, so I thought it’d be a fun class, but it was more than just fun. It tapped into that same creative outlet in a cathartic way. After that semester, I knew I wanted this to be my career… I just didn’t know how much work was ahead of me. Ignorance is bliss.

HM: What was first full script you wrote? What made you write it?

TC: It was called Tin Stars, about four buddies who decide to write a screenplay together. Holy shit, what a logline that is! It wasn’t Oscar-winning material, but I played around with voice over, dream sequences, and all those other supposed ‘crutches’ you’re never supposed to use. I think I got an A in that intro screenwriting class, but I’m pretty sure anyone who actually finished their script that semester got an A. Like winning a good participant ribbon.

HM: What did you do with it and how did you know what to do with it?

TC: I used it to apply to graduate film schools. I ended up choosing the two-year M.A. program at University of Texas in Austin, which is probably the greatest place on earth to be broke and write screenplays. It’s also where I met my wife, so yeah, I love Austin.

HM: Did you have a plan of where you wanted to be in five years’ time?

TC: I knew I wanted to be in LA and writing for a living. I had no idea how I’d accomplish that. My plan was to take whatever soul-sucking day job I could find that could pay the bills, and then write mornings/nights/weekends until I broke into the industry. And that’s what I did.

HM: Writers often struggle with the catch-22 that producers won’t read scripts by unrepped writers and managers/agents only take on writers if they’ve got a producer interested. What was your experience of trying to get the industry to read your script?

TC: I actually disagree with this theory. You can definitely land representation without a producer attachment. From my experience, I think managers more so than agents are willing to take a shot at an unknown writer if they believe in his/her voice. Managers can develop that voice and help guide it to a commercial place. Then, once a script or two starts to gain traction with producers/studios, your manager can set meetings with potential agents for you. But at the end of the day, managers or agents are only as good as the material you give them, so ultimately it’s up to you to write a great script.

HM: How did you get your first manager/agent?

TC: I wrote query letters. Lots of them. And then finally had a film school friend working at a small agency who was nice enough to push my query letter in front of an agent there, which got me read and eventually signed. But landing an agent or manager doesn’t guarantee you anything. They’ll slip your spec places, but if you don’t get a good initial response from producers, you could be searching for a new rep before you know it. Rejection is simply part of the process. I hopped around several places until I found reps that didn’t just believe in the promise of one spec, but believed in me as a writer. That’s the key, but it often takes a little while years to find that.

HM: Emerging writers often feel that if they could just break in and get that first credit, then it’ll be a full-time paid job where the work just keeps coming in. Is it really like that, can you ever just sit back and watch the work come to you and pick and choose or do you still need to hustle?

TC: If you’re looking to sit back and let work come to you, then screenwriting is not for you. It’s a constant hustle. You’re always being asked to prove yourself over and over again, especially in feature writing. As you move up, studios will contact your agents and bring you source material or see if you’d pitch on an assignment, and maybe they’re only asking you and one or two other writers. That’s a good situation to be in, but even then, you have to pitch your ass off to land the job over the other writer(s) who are probably just as deserving. One thing aspiring writers don’t realize is how important it is to be good in the room. Your previous scripts will get you in the door, but you have to win people over in the room in order to sell the pitch or land the OWA. You have to prove that you’re the only person in the world who could write this script (or at least the best one in their price range). Secondly, that first big check you get won’t be all it’s cracked up to be. Go check out John August’s “Money 101 for Screenwriters” on his website.

HM: What projects are you writing at the moment?

TC: I’m currently writing Stranded, a family adventure comedy starring Kevin James for Sony and I’m about to start work on an action comedy remake for a division of Warner Brothers. I also have a new comedy spec out to talent.

HM: What’s the one piece of advice you’d give to someone starting out?

TC: Write your fuck you script. Don’t think about the marketplace or what studios are buying—by the time you write your script, the landscape will have changed anyway. Sure, it needs structure, compelling characters, etc., but beyond that, just write the most interesting thing to you and don’t worry about its commercial value. With any luck, you’ll find your voice by doing this and if it’s a unique voice, doors will open for you.

Thanks Tripper!

Genre: Writing the Science Fiction Film by Robert Grant

There are a ton of good reasons why you should be writing science fiction. I’ll start with the obvious one – money – because no other genre can match science fiction at the box office. Take a look at the worldwide grosses for 2014 to date, 11 of the top 20 are science fiction (and 3 are fantasy, just saying…) so while it may jar with your art-house sensibilities, if you want get a producer excited, then a great high-concept, science fiction story will appeal to that basest of instincts – profit.

genre-sci-fi-attack-the-blockBut of course there’s a lot more to science fiction than that.

Is It Sci-Fi For The Right Reasons?
Good science fiction isn’t all alien invasions, giant lizards or post-apocalyptic cannibals, and there’s a reason why science-fiction is known as ‘the genre of ideas’, it’s because great science fiction asks big “What if..?” questions, the kind of questions that allow us to examine the day-to-day realities of this world by exploring the different realities of worlds we create. Science fiction lets us examine core social and societal issues and pose difficult and searching questions about subjects that concern all of us – pollution, over-reliance on technology, globalisation, genetic engineering, personal data, global pandemic, overpopulation, government surveillance – the list is endless, but it lets us do it without pointing directly at any individual or group, any particular religion or country, any specific corporation or government.

Science fiction allows us to shine a spotlight on something, bring it to the attention of the world and say, “Look at this! Look what is happening! Look what they’ve done!“, without preaching, and this is especially true if that something is out of our control or something we cannot easily change.

So the key to writing good science fiction is to have something to say. Don’t just use it as an excuse to have giant fighting robots level an entire city. You can do that if you want, but do it for the right reasons.

Are You Really Writing a Sci-Fi?
The next question to ask yourself is are you using science fiction as a genre or just a setting? Unlike other genres, science-fiction comes in all shapes and sizes. Romantic comedies are romantic and funny, horror films are horrifying, dramas are dramatic, and thrillers are thrilling. Science fiction can be all of those things and be science-fictional. Look at some examples:

  • About Time – is a romance and a science fiction film
  • Alien – is a horror movie and a science fiction film
  • ET – is a family adventure and a science fiction film
  • Terminator – is an action movie and a science fiction film
  • Never Let Me Go – is a drama and a science fiction film
  • Total Recall – is a thriller and a science fiction film
  • Sleeper – is a comedy and a science fiction film

Every genre has its particular story beats and you will save yourself a whole lot of grief and aggravation if you figure out your primary genre and then write to the beats of that genre first. So if you’re writing a science fiction revenge thriller then I would suggest that you actually plot a decent revenge thriller first, then as you re-write, build up the science fiction elements slowly, revealing your world through action and character rather than trying to build a ‘cool’ sci-fi world and then shoe-horning a revenge thriller plot into it. You’ll be rewarded with a far better screenplay if you do it that way, believe me.

Have You Thought Your Sci-Fi World Through?
Building a unique world for your characters, putting all the great stuff that’s been in your head on the page, is the most fun you can have while writing. But effective world-building requires the right level of detail to make it work visually, and well thought out, well-connected elements for it to make sense.

Arguably the two most important world-building elements in any science fiction setting are time and space, but by ‘time’ I don’t mean when your story is set, I mean the social/cultural stage that your world has reached, and by extension when I say ‘space’ I don’t mean the cosmos, I mean the kind of space that your characters inhabit. There are five world stages:

First Stage World
The time of primitive, nomadic peoples with few tools, living in basic dwellings, hunting and gathering to survive.

Second Stage World
The time of settled villages and small towns with permanent houses. Hunting and gathering is supplemented by farming. Taxation means law and order is established.

Third Stage World
The City. Small purpose-built housing means less space but new technology brings new opportunities. People now have leisure time and luxury goods, but there is also crime.

Fourth Stage World
The oppressive, dystopian world of our nightmares. The city is vast. People pay high prices to live in tiny spaces. Unemployment, poverty and crime are rife. Taxes are high but government services are poor, inefficient and corrupt.

Fifth Stage World
The dying world. The environment destroyed, natural resources depleted, and air and water polluted beyond recovery. Food is scarce, disease is rife. Eventually humans will die out, leaving a quiet and desolate planet in their wake.

Whether your story takes place on a newly discovered planet or in London of 1830, the relationship that your characters have to where they live and the tools and technology that surround them will be critical in building your world. Good science fiction rarely sits squarely within a single world stage, more likely it will sit at a point of change between two of the stages, exploring the effect that giant social and cultural change has on the characters as well and on society at large.

Get the science as right as necessary
The science always matters – even if it’s totally made up – but it really matters when you’re depicting things the audience know about. If someone describes a scientific principal, don’t ‘think’ you know it, make sure you know it, and then double-check with someone who does know it to make sure you understood it. And scientific thinking changes regularly with new findings, so make sure you’re up-to-date.

Basing your sci-fi worlds on the real world principals grounds them and makes them seem authentic, but this means knowing a little of what you’re talking about. In the same way that you should understand human and animal physiology when creating alien creatures, you should understand other sciences, arts, skills and trades to successfully create your own versions. If you’re going to have huge buildings then you should understand architectural principles so that you get the scale and proportions right. If you’re going to invent a language then you need to know about lexicons, morphology and syntax. The same goes for your systems of law, banking and commerce, and knowing proper military tactics will lend your armies a credible air of invincibility.

You don’t need to be an expert, just learn enough so that you can write about it convincingly, but above all, be consistent. It doesn’t matter if the physics of your world aren’t real as long as they are consistent and you never break your own rules. If it helps, draw maps and pictures, construct mythologies around your world and its inhabitants – whatever it takes to immerse yourself in your world. There’s a good chance that none of it will make it into your screenplay, but if they’re clear in your own mind it will make your descriptions come alive.

Put down the thesaurus and step away from the dialogue
Jargon and sci-fi go hand-in-hand. Anytime you discuss new technology or scientific principles, complex processes or advanced systems, inevitably the folk that work with them will develop acronyms, technical references and slang that only they will understand. What writers of science fiction must avoid is baffling, nonsensical, faux-technology. If you’re ever tempted to write a line like “They’ve re-interpolated the quantum field transmission data and reverse-engineered the resulting Heisenberg matrix to calculate our vector”, just remember that “They’ve found us!” is a much better line. It’s easier to say, easier to remember, has much greater impact and makes sense to everyone who hears it.

It’s also worth remembering that sci-fi names can be a source of much comedy if you’re not careful. Ixnys Zyxiz may look great on the page but if the reader can’t read it they’ll dump your script in the trash before they get 10 pages in, besides, it’s difficult to take anyone seriously when their name is Ambassador Zorax.

Write something that can be made!
Interstellar space travel and alien creatures usually require vast battalions of sfx people and multi-million dollar budgets to realise, so unless you’re Christopher Nolan or best mates with Will Smith, do yourself a favour and look for the small stories, the ones in single locations, with few actors, no special effects and write those. Explore social issues here on Earth, extrapolate from current technologies in medicine and genetics and find stories there. Explore the big-impact issues that affect all of us – often they’re the stories that are the most interesting, and more importantly, more likely to get made, and isn’t that why we write screenplays in the first place?

genre-sci-fi-WTSFF-Cover-smlRobert Grant is a filmmaker, screenwriter, critic, and script consultant, based in London, with a penchant for science fiction and fantasy. He is one of the core team behind The London International Festival of Science Fiction and Fantastic Film and Literary Editor for SCI-FI-LONDON.com. He has twice served on the jury of the Arthur C. Clarke Award for Science Fiction Literature, the most prestigious science fiction award the UK has to offer, and his book ‘Writing The Science Fiction Film‘ (Pub. MWP), is out now.

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Book Review: The Insider’s Guide to Writing for Television

Guest blog by screenwriter Heather Wallace-Brown.

When I first decided to steal my thoughts from out of the ether to place them onto paper, upsetting the minimalistic look of my front room was the furthest thing from my mind. I’d heard people speaking about this screenwriting book and that screenwriting book, read of authors whose names appeared to be right up there with God and Shakespeare. It seemed as if to be a part of this screenwriters’ club I needed to get purchasing. I bought my first screenwriting book and read it like a novel. Before long, I’d heard of another book. And then another. Followed by…yet another. I didn’t care. I had to have them all. Soon my bookshelf was groaning from the sheer weight of all these screenwriting titles and I had little choice but to purchase another bookshelf. But just before I caught the tram out to IKEA, I opened up Amazon to purchase something quite unrelated to scriptwriting and up popped a book I hadn’t requested yet came in as recommended. (I ain’t runnin’ coz I just know you is gonna find me).

The Insider's Guide to Writing For TelevisionIt took less than thirty seconds to purchase, “The Insider’s Guide to Writing for Television” by Julian Friedmann and Christopher Walker. I had no plans on writing for television but I had once spoken to Julian and he seemed like a nice enough bloke and not only that, this nifty little page turner turned out to be the best I’ve ever read on the subject.

Divided into two halves, Part One of the book is written by Julian Friedmann. Here, he not only explains how to write for television along with tipping you on how to transform yourself from naïve-greener to a hard-nosed negotiator, he also stresses the importance of research and networking, along with presentation and where to submit your work. Does one need an agent? You’re going to have to read the book to find out.

The second half of the book is by Christopher Walker. Here, you find yourself neck deep in a world of rich information as you discover the art in creating a story. He also offers tips on how to kidnap the audience’s attention, guides you on formatting and structuring, genres, writing good dialogue, giving birth to great characters and writing synopses and treatments. TV or Film, it really doesn’t matter the size of the screen you choose to write, as the information found in both sections of the book translates well for either.

This neat little book with its bright coloured cover proved a Holy Grail for me during the early hours of one Friday night/Saturday morning. I shall never forget how it helped me in negotiating an option for my script, as well as helping me to sound like a writer who had been in the business since the Great Flood. Believe me, if I can understand the legal jargon then anyone can.

And as for purchasing that extra bookshelf? I decided to throw out all the other screenwriting books instead.

Heather Wallace-Brown is a screenwriter who splits her day between being a student of psychotherapy and working on what she hopes will be her second option; a 3-part supernatural thriller for tv.

 

Genre: Writing Steampunk Films by Steve Turnbull

Steampunk? What’s that about then?

In the late 1970s and through the 80s, three authors—K.W. Jeter, Tim Powers and James Blaylock—had been publishing science fiction/fantasy created with a Victorian/Edwardian viewpoint which Jeter, in a letter to Locus magazine published in 1985, humorously called “Steam-punk”, a reference to the Cyberpunk genre.

harrietedgbaston - steampunk

Illustration by Darrel Bevan

It took another twenty years for the explosion of what we now call Steampunk to take place. Steampunk is not merely a literary device for the telling of tall tales. It’s a complete sub-culture with groups of people, across the world creating their own characters, equipping themselves (the “maker” part is very important) and taking to the streets. Or, at least, convention halls. There is also steampunk music which can be anything from the world music to true punk to jazz-rock-indian fusion, usually it’s the lyrics that define the Steampunk-ness, and whether the band dress up.

In the 80s and 90s traditional book publishing changed from being about literature to chasing money, in exactly the same way as filmmaking. It became almost impossible to sell anything to an agent/publisher that wasn’t “marketable to an easily targetable audience”. Which meant the niche of Steampunk was a no-no, except to a few established authors.

But the advent of author-publishing (not to be confused with vanity publishing, which is very different) meant that any type of story could be published. And it was.

In the film world Steampunk barely gained a foothold, there are a few stand-out productions like the anime Steamboy, (some argue that many of Miyasaki’s wonderful films are Steampunk) while Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow is strictly Dieselpunk (1930s retro-futurism). The biggest reason for the lack is simply cost: Steampunk is, by definition, “period” so even for a modest production you’re talking prohibitive money. Then there’s the fact that much of the genre depends on outrageous machines—which means CGI, requiring careful production and costly post-production. Of course this is not an issue for animation but if you want live-action you’ve got your work cut-out.

The difficult definition

Wikipedia fails to be definitive, the best it can manage is this:

“Steampunk perhaps most recognisably features anachronistic technologies or retro-futuristic inventions as people in the 19th century might have envisioned them, and is likewise rooted in the era’s perspective on fashion, culture, architectural style, and art.”

A large proportion of Steampunk literature feeds on the popularity of the supernatural with vampires, werewolves and Fae creatures. A smaller selection works only with the “real” although playing with the laws of Physics—perhaps closer to “Scientific Romance”, the original term for science fiction.

If one axis of the Steampunk multi-verse is supernatural versus scientific, the other axis is whether the world adheres closely to the real world of the period, or diverges from it dramatically. Hence you get worlds where the Roman Empire never collapsed and has now entered the Steam Age; or the mini-ice age of the 1600s got worse and displaced the world’s populations; or everything is just as it really was, except for Faraday’s “Principle for the Partial Nullification of Gravity”.

Writing Steampunk

Like all stories if you don’t have good characters the story will fail. There is the risk with something like Steampunk in getting caught up with the technology and forgetting character.

If you can tell your story without a Steampunk setting, do you need it at all? If it’s film or TV, and you actually want to get it produced, you might do better using a cheaper setting.

But there is something that Science Fiction/Fantasy in general, and Steampunk in particular, can do: they allow you to tell stories highlighting modern issues in a framework that avoids the risk of sounding preachy.

If you will excuse me for using my own stories to illustrate the point:

My setting is very close to the real world and, as a result, it’s filled with full-blown and unapologetic sexism, racism and every other bigotry under the sun. Every protagonist I write is female, one is Anglo-Indian, and there’s a female Chinese airship captain. Much of the action in my stories takes place in India, with some in Africa, and Manchester. Plus I write diverse sexual orientations, another problem area.

Many Steampunk writers ignore sexism and miss out on opportunities for adding important and valuable conflict to their stories. And, although less true now, the majority is also Empire-centric which is again very limiting.

Those who attended the London Screenwriters Festival 2014 and saw Pilar Alessandra’s talk on female protagonists will know what I’m talking about: As she said, don’t avoid writing the female experience where it works both for and against the character. In a Steampunk setting this can be amplified a thousand-fold.

I refer to Steampunk as a setting, rather than a genre because you can take any genre—thriller, mystery, action-adventure, or romance—and equip it with a pair of goggles. Regardless of what position on the grid you choose, writing Steampunk can be a fascinating and thoroughly enjoyable adventure into an effective new world of storytelling.

~~~

Steve Turnbull is a novelist and screenwriter of SF, Fantasy and especially Steampunk. His Steampunk works, all in the same setting, now encompass a web-series (thriller, Manchester 1911); a Steampunk feature (action-adventure, London 1909); three Steampunk novellas (murder mysteries, India 1908-1909, novel-length fourth on the way); a Firefly-style novella series (India 1908-1909); and a girls-own adventure series (East Africa, 1895). Plus one horror short story (Berlin, 1933, Dieselpunk). He has far more ideas than he has time for.

Find out more at his website: http://steveturnbull.me

Genre: Writing Fantasy And Supernatural Drama by Debbie Moon

Fantasy and supernatural drama has gone from being ignored and derided to the genre of the moment. Twilight, Once Upon A Time, Sleepy Hollow, Game Of Thrones, (and dare I mention my own show, CBBC’s Wolfblood…?), and the massive market for young-adult fantasy and supernatural romance novels have made the genre more visible and respectable than ever before.

So what is it like to write?

wolfblood - genre - fantasy - supernaturalLike any non-naturalistic genre, fantasy is both liberating and difficult. If you can change the basic rules of nature – vampires exist, magic is real, faery tale characters can come to our world – then you can reshape reality in any way you like. But the way you reshape it has to make sense, to be internally consistent, and above all, to be relatable. The basic rule is – the world may be ‘unreal’, but the characters must still feel real. The reason Game Of Thrones is so immensely popular is probably not that it has dragons and White Walkers, but that it shows human greed, ambition, lust and family ties in a way that the audience can empathize with.

Fantasy also comes laden with expectations. Well, all genres do. Detective fiction has red herrings, false suspects and locked-room mysteries, rom-coms have the meet-cute and ‘the bit where someone runs’.

But the supposed rules of fantasy – magic, orcs, swords and prophecies – are so much a part of the public perception of the genre that it can be difficult to break free from them.

In the initial development period for Wolfblood, we spent a lot of time sorting through the tropes of werewolf stories and deciding which ones we wanted to keep and which we didn’t. For example, the narrative problem with most werewolf movies is that the werewolf can only ‘turn’ at the full moon. I was adamant our Wolfbloods had to be capable of transforming whenever they wanted. And that not only made the timescale of the series easier, it opened up new story possibilities – like the idea that they could lose control and transform involuntarily if angry or scared. Increasing the danger of discovery…

Then you have to get these new rules across to the audience. We chose to create a character new to the Wolfblood world, giving everyone someone to explain things to. And in the first few episodes, there’s an insistence that “We’re Wolfbloods, not werewolves”, pointing out that the rules were going to be different.

And fantasy is a fantastic genre for exploring social issues and philosophical issues through metaphor. Vampires have been a metaphor for alternative sexualities since their first appearance in fiction, werewolves are about the anger and violence in all of us. The current crop of fantasy fiction and drama has given people, especially teenagers, metaphors through which to examine and explore their own sexuality, insecurities, fears and hopes. That’s what really attracts me to the genre, and what makes it so much fun to write…

Despite recent successes, fantasy is still difficult to sell in television and particularly in film. Producers worry about the cost, and about selling the intricacy of the world to a casual audience. There’s definitely more openness to fantasy and the supernatural in children’s television than mainstream programming, though, and adult shows like Being Human and In The Flesh have won awards and become ‘talking-point’ series.

So if you want to write about the human experience from an unusual angle, and create a rich new world for your characters, try fantasy…

Debbie Moon is the creator and lead writer of the award-winning CBBC drama ‘Wolfblood’. She also has original projects in development with Ruby Films and Working Title and also writes the popular blog Never Get Off The Bus.

Book Review – Writing for Television Series, Serials, Soaps by Yvonne Grace

There might be a ton of books on screenwriting but most of them focus on the glamorous world of writing film. Film talent is making the move to television – even Steven Soderbergh’s got in on the act (The Knick) –  and so too are the publishers of screenwriting books. In her no-nonsense book experienced television producer Yvonne Grace guides you through the world of writing for television series.

Book Review - Writing for Television Series, Serials, Soap by Yvonne GraceLike all good producers and script editors, Yvonne has a passion for writers and storytelling, married to a pragmatic approach to the industry and writers’ place in it. Her wealth of experience, her passion for the storytelling power of television and her admiration for the writers who deliver those stories is infused through every page. While she doesn’t shy away from the truth of how tough it is (the deadlines she mentions might make your eyes water!) you always feel she’s on the writer’s side.

Writing For Television Series, Serials and Soaps walks you through the reality of writing on established series. It outlines the skills you’ll need to master in order to make a living (and it can be a good living) from writing on long-running dramas. She lets you peek inside the story document to which your commissioned script might have to adhere and gives you a fly-on-the-wall look at how the Story Conference on a drama series works.

The book also has some terrific interviews with the writers who have made the journey from aspiring to professional. Their stories of breaking in and writing on established series is both a practical ‘how-to’ and an inspiration.

After reading this book you’ll have a clear idea of what it’s like to write for a television drama series. You’ll also come away reminded of just how powerful a storytelling medium television series can be and hopefully be inspired to write for them.

Genre: Writing a Gripping Thriller by Charles Harris

Let me keep you in suspense for a little while. In my view, a thriller is a film in any genre but with added fear. Fear and suspense dominate the thriller – an almost constant sense that something frightening is about to happen – or is happening right now. This contrasts with a classic action-adventure, where the dominant emotion is fast-moving excitement.

collateral - thriller genreThe most common thrillers are crime stories (Collateral, Cape Fear, Psycho), though there are many spy thrillers (The Spy Who Came In From The Cold), psychological thrillers (Side Effects) and comedy thrillers (Charade). For obvious reasons, it’s more difficult to create thrillers from certain genres, such as sports, though I know of at least one – Rollerball. And the 2011 movie Margin Call is a gripping financial drama thriller. All good stories contain suspense – however in a thriller the suspense is cranked up (for you fans of Spinal Tap) to number 11.

Emotion

Genre starts with emotion, and as we’ve seen a thriller is all about fear. However, other genres in the film will demand their own emotions too. If your thriller is also a crime story, for example, you also need the emotions that audiences expect from a crime story – primarily injustice and/or mystery.

In Collateral the story centres on an innocent taxi driver who is hired by a man to drive him round LA, only to find that he’s chauffeuring a ruthless hitman conducting a series of hits. Worse, the cops think he’s the killer. Miss out the injustice of his plight, and the mystery of who the final victim is to be, and you miss a large part of what the audience needs.

Establish your villain

The second step is to identify your antagonist. To build up the fear that must run through the story, the villain of your thriller will need to be powerful and ruthless. Like the hitman in Collateral, he must be ready and able to inflict harm at a moment’s notice.

The threat must be seen as early as possible. Most often, that threat will be violent – hence the dominance of crime stories as thrillers. The current BBC 4 Australian thriller series The Code combines both crime and spy genres. The first episode opens with a dead body and a politician betraying a colleague. We are in no doubt from the start as to where the danger lies.

(The 2013 movie Side Effects is a rare example where the threat is not so much one of violence or death as the destruction of a man’s career and marriage).

Despite resembling the monster in a horror movie, a thriller antagonist shouldn’t be all-powerful. He must be human. In the best thrillers, we understand the antagonist’s motivations, even if we don’t sympathise – making the danger feel all the more real.

This also adds to the suspense by both making the villain less predictable and also offering a greater amount of hope. Like a light that shows up the darkness, the possibility of hope ironically serves to highlight the fear.

Thriller protagonist

At the same time, a thriller needs a particular kind of central character. As we’ve seen, there are parallels with horror, but in a horror story the protagonist is very much a victim, with only his wits to save him. In a thriller, the central character normally has more than that. She has skills she can, and does, draw on.

In the gripping 1967 film Wait Until Dark, the protagonist, Susy, is blind and being terrorised by vicious criminals. But despite her disability she has intelligence and resources to fall back on. For example, she manages to black-out the lights so as to even up the odds. Of course, the villains find a way round that, and the suspense mounts.

In The Code, Ned, a journalist investigates a suspected cover-up. The forces against him are vicious and unpleasant, but unlike in a horror movie, he has people he can call on, investigative skills he can use. Even his brother, who seems to have autistic tendencies, is relatively high functioning, especially when it comes to hacking computers.

Moments of terror

All thrillers need moments of sheer terror. The best kind of terror scenes combine unpleasant violence with sudden surprise. However, not too often – in this genre having too many big moments will reduce their effect. Stephen Spielberg tells how test audiences responded well to a shock moment in Jaws. But as soon as he tried to repeat the effect, the original stopped working!

In Wait Until Dark there are only thee major shock/terror moments in the entire film – but they are brilliantly effective. Thus a thriller concentrates on building tension, giving the audience few moments of release.

The problem with developing thriller characters

For all this, it’s crucial that we have reasons to care about the protagonist – which means she must be rounded and credible. However, in thriller so much emphasis goes on raising the stakes and developing the fear factor, that there is considerably less screen time available for developing character. Other films can use complex subplots to enhance characters, showing different traits and moods. But spend too much time away from the suspense and a thriller begins to droop.

This probably presents you with your biggest challenge – balancing the needs of the plot with finding time to evolve characters who are credible and three-dimensional. There’s no easy answer, you have to examine every single moment to see what you can squeeze out of it.

Thriller is a deceptively challenging genre. It takes energy, focus and enormous attention to detail. But it’s also a very popular genre, and if you get it right the rewards can be enormous – not only in financial terms but also artistic satisfaction.

Charles Harris is an award-winning writer-director and a director of Euroscript. His new book Complete Screenwriting Course is being launched this week, published by John Murray Learning. He’s also going to be at London Screenwriters’ Festival, Friday 24 to Sunday 26 October 2014, in the Euroscript Room. Find out more about this, his blog on screenwriting and his book at http://www.charles-harris.co.uk