Saturday, March 27, 2010

Genre Considerations - Thrillers

(Spoilers: Collateral, Shutter Island, Rear Window, Chinatown)

Thrillers are movies that get their bang by creating tension in the audience. There are several tools useful to writers in this genre.

The first is suspense. It is critical to ratchet up the sense of impending doom. The set pieces in thrillers are all scenes of suspense – for example the scene in Rear Window (screenplay by John Michael Hayes) when Lisa has broken into the suspicious neighbor’s apartment and he returns while she’s still inside.

A corollary to this is pacing. Thrillers rely on slow, careful escalation of anxiety. Unlike many genres, too fast pacing can ruin a thriller. But slow pacing only works if we’re drawn into the character and the situation. For more on how to build tension in scenes, see my prior post on suspense.

Also important in thrillers are twists and turns in the plot. If the audience can predict what’s going to happen, there won’t be much of a thrill. The best thrillers keep the audience guessing. Most thrillers have some kind of complex mystery at the foundation of the plot.

(Note: I covered Mystery as a genre in a post before I started this series. True mysteries are a unique type of story that works in a completely different way emotionally than the thriller but share some of the plot techniques.)

Some thrillers involve a cop or detective investigating a frightening crime. Silence of the Lambs (screenplay by Ted Tally), Chinatown (written by Robert Towne), Basic Instinct (written by Joe Eszterhas) and Se7en (written by Andrew Kevin Walker) are examples of that kind of thriller. I would also include in this category thrillers where the leads are criminals or others who seek out the dangerous environment of the movie such as Memento (screenplay by Christopher Nolan).

Other thrillers involve an ordinary person caught up in extraordinary circumstances such as in North by Northwest (written by Ernest Lehman), The Third Man (screenplay by Graham Greene) or Collateral (written by Stuart Beattie). We sometimes call these “Hitchcockian” thrillers since Alfred Hitchcock did so many of them (Rear Window, Dial M for Murder, The Man Who Knew Too Much, etc.) These thrillers gain added tension because we identify more strongly with the innocent, under equipped hero.

Regardless of which type of thriller you’re writing, it’s important to be able to answer the question, “why this character for this story?”

This is not a plot question. Sure, the cop takes the case because it’s assigned to him; the private detective is hired for the job; the ordinary man is just in the wrong place at the wrong time. That’s the logic.

But what’s important is that the character has a thematic need to go through this experience. The internal story of the character has to connect to the external story of the plot. The character should learn something from the journey and that something should be important to their lives.

For example in Collateral taxi driver Max is a man who dreams of a better life but never takes any action to achieve it. And he’s able to go along perfectly content living in denial of this fact. But when a hit man hires his cab, Max is forced to make a decision: is he going to continue to avoid risk or take a stand to save someone’s life? There’s a thematic reason that Vincent gets into Max’s cab – Max needs to have his way of life challenged.

In Chinatown, Jake Gittes is a cocky character who believe he has the ability to read people. When he is set up early in the movie it embarrasses him and he sets about to redeem himself. But along the way he learns that he doesn’t know nearly as much as he thought he did. This internal story reflects the thematic elements of the movie about the powerlessness of the average man in a corrupt society. That’s why – on a thematic level – Jake Gittes is the detective that’s hired for this case.

Hitchcock popularized the term MacGuffin which is a key concept in thrillers. A MacGuffin is something that the character cares deeply about but the audience doesn’t inherently care about at all. It’s a device to propel the story, the thing our hero or the antagonists are trying to get that puts them in conflict.

In Collateral the MacGuffin is the list of people Vincent has been hired to kill. Who can remember why he’s killing them – I’m not even sure if the movie ever reveals that. And it doesn’t really matter. What matters is whether Max will find a way to stop Vincent. And it matters that the last person on Vincent’s list is someone that is important to Max. We care about the MacGuffin because the main character cares about it.

Hitchcock liked his MacGuffins to be as simple as possible – secret plans or microfilm. Something that doesn’t require a lot of in depth explanation. I agree with him. It’s really boring when characters have to deliver long expository speeches to explain the MacGuffin.

However that doesn’t mean the MacGuffin can’t be a source of twists. Remember, thrillers thrive on twists. For example, the MacGuffin in Shutter Island (screenplay by Laeta Kalogridis) shifts as the movie goes along. Initially it’s a missing patient. Then we discover our hero, Teddy, is actually on the island to expose a government conspiracy. And at the end of the movie we learn his mission was about something else entirely. But all of this is filtered through Teddy. We care because it affects him.

In a sense, a search for a killer’s identity is also a MacGuffin – and a common one in thrillers. Often the killer is both the MacGuffin and the antagonist. Rear Window is a good example. But consider Silence of the Lambs. The killer's identity is much less memorable than Clarice's battle of wits with Hannibal Lecter.

A good thriller hits the audience on many levels. The twisty plot mystery engages our mind, the character’s internal journey plays on our emotions and the suspense elicits a visceral reaction. This is probably why they’re such a popular genre.

1 comment:

Sanket said...

So, Was the briefcase full of glowing orange stuff the MacGuffin in Pulp Fiction?