Screenwriting : Thriller/building pressure by Winter Lauzon

Winter Lauzon

Thriller/building pressure

Im giving it a shot leaving this comment- not sure how anyone could help me but I figured why not try it ; ) Im having a bit of an issue..Im writing a YA thriller (so not shutter island dark ; ) - The problem is, I feel that all my scenes designed to apply pressure on the hero all feel like thats all they do- they dont advance story or character..but if I took them all out there would be no pressure on my hero....I guess Im wondering if other people experience this in this genre? Does it just feel this way because we know our hero will release the pressure or win in the end? I guess the thrills always feel frivolous to me-but maybe its just because I know the outcome...not sure. Thanks for any responses.

Owen Mowatt

Thriller writing is hard, Winter. Probably one of the hardest behind Horror/comedy IMO. If this is your first attempt at scriptwriting, I have to ask why this genre?

Winter Lauzon

Thanks for answering. Its not my first attempt. Its my first attempt at this genre though. Ironically I did not even set out to write a thriller- but the idea I was so stuck on turned out to be a thriller (I had no idea untl a professional read it : D ) and then I had to adjust some things accordingly because if I wanted to keep my concept I loved I had to follow thriller rules. Also slightly ironically, I dont even love the thriller genre as an audience member- so I was WAY behind the learning curve : D

Winter Lauzon

You know how things come to you best though after you press send? Well after I posted I did realize that even if my hero gets out of the trouble she is in as long as the pressure affected the story line and made the stakes higher than it wont feel as fake - I think- so thats what Im trying now- there just werent enough consequences, almost like fake pressure I was putting on my hero to keep her safe I guess ; )

Owen Mowatt

So are you talking about an action thriller, more than a psychological or political thriller for example?

Winter Lauzon

yes, its a corporate/action thriller - or its suppose to be ; )

Owen Mowatt

So was it just a straight up drama originally?

William E. Spear

How does "pressure on the hero" serve the antagonist?

Frederic Lecamus

I was just reading this quote from Aldous Huxley on FB: "Experience is not what happens to you; it's what you do with what happens to you." Things don't "happen" to your protagonist, she just happens to walk in the direction of a desire and obstacles are, or not, in her way. Sometimes these obstacles are purposely set by an antagonist. Whichever way, jump back into your protagonist's shoes - understand what she wants (within and without) then from her flaws you will create conflict by the simple fact of interaction. If you focus on exterior events, you never refine what makes your hero so unique and you don't allow the spectator to empathise. It's called focalisation and it's a great way to build up drama. Pleasure is a fulfilled expectation. Frustration is an unfulfilled expectation. Create a world where your protagonist learns about her own strengths through frustration and how she overcomes "adversity". But, for that -again-, you need to walk in her shoes...

Winter Lauzon

Thanks so much Frederic! I was going to ask you this question but didn't want to harass you again ; ) I will try and do as you suggest so I may create something genuine instead of fabricated- much more difficult than I ever would have guessed : D

Frederic Lecamus

lol I'm always wondering if I'm making sense. Other people said it better than me: “First, find out what your hero wants, then just follow him.” - Ray Bradbury I guess you just have to change of perspective: follow the progress of your hero through her eyes, not through yours. Get in her skin!

Bill Costantini

Are there moments in your B-story where your hero, in those more quite moments, regroups, tries to understand what's going on, figures things out, and explores the "why's" of how to get what she wants? It's like a post-mortem that follows each thwart. Thrillers are like "here's the action", and "here's where the hero learns about the why's and how's of what's really going on, and counters those moves." It's an elevated game of chess. The Ring did that brilliantly, as did the corporate thrillers Antitrust and The Insider. That B-story...where the hero does the sleuthing...and unearths the clues and trails....and plans their next moves...and re-emerges each time with either more knowledge....or their own faults prevent them from learning that knowledge until they understand those faults and do get smarter, or enlist the aid of others who help them get smarter... are keys to a thriller, and especially as the stakes elevate and the thwarts by the enemy, who may recognize the hero is hot on their trail, and who has to naturally put more landmines in their way...that get bigger and bigger, since the enemy has just as much to lose as the hero has to gain (if not more). Good luck!

Winter Lauzon

Bill- Thanks! Ill just whip that right up here in my rewrite today ; D ha. Do the thrillers you mentioned: Antitrust and the insider also have examples of the main character not being able to learn new knowledge because of their faults? Id like to see that in action to try and let it sink in. Thanks!

Jordan Minter

Hey Winter, when you say "pressure" what are you referring to?

Winter Lauzon

Hi Jordan, Im not sure. John Truby says the most important thing in a thriller is that there is 'constant pressure' on your hero. So I was trying to follow that rule- I think part of the problem is figuring out what that really means. He says the hero 'should get in trouble early and the pressure should never let up' in a good thriller... I have his audio course on it- but listening to it and then making it happen in your script are two different things : D

Jordan Minter

I believe he is referring to Tension. But I may be wrong, it's been a while since I've read Truby. There are a number of ways to do it but if every choice that your protagonist makes ups the danger, then you're on your way. Everyone on this thread has touched on great concepts that should be in all thrillers and your right, if you can keep the tension high your hitting the essence of what a thriller is. The key really is to make sure your protagonist is actually making decisions, sounds silly but it's a mistake everyone makes at one point or another in any genre especially thrillers and horror. You may just be too close to your story and should set it aside for a bit to get some perspective. My personal advice, if you want conflict make sure you have a great antagonist who is after either the exact same goal as the protagonist or the exact opposite.

Bill Costantini

Winter - I don't remember the movies that well, but the hero in Antitrust had to figure out that the company he was working for killed his friend and was corrupt, and he had to figure out how to prove it to the world. One of his weaknesses was that he trusted a double-agent who was really working for the villain, almost did him in. The gained knowledges in The Insider are a bit more complex and involve the two protagonists. Read the synopsis for the many ways their knowledge changes. Other films where a protagonist gains knowledge throughout the film are The Conversation, French Connection, Body Double, LA Confidential, Blue Velvet, Seven, Chinatown, Diaboloque, and many of Hitchcock's classic thrillers. Good luck!

Winter Lauzon

Thank you Bill! I will check them out now. Thanks everyone!

Jeff Lyons

Jordan and Bill make great comments and Bill's list is great. Hitchcock is all you need :) Look at all his heroes/heroines ... they all have a twisted love affair in the mix. She's usually the neurotic one, but that's Hitch. Point is... if you want more tension, beyond simple dangers ratcheting up then you need a great love affair, buddy relationship, or core relationship driving the middle of the story. All the "simple dangers" raise stakes around them, but also raise stakes for the relationship. When you do this the pressure is character-based and not just "stuff happening" to get people running down halls, etc. It all comes back to your original premise idea and how well you thought out your moral component and the relationship of the hero/heroine to the antagonist. Always start wit those two things: moral component and core relationship and you will have more meat on the bones. Just sayin.

Winter Lauzon

Great thanks Jeff! This is exactly what I was looking for. Everyones advice together though really took it to the next level, now if I can just pull it off ; D Time to rewatch some classics and figure this shit out ; )

William Martell

Is your story about the character, or are they just pasted on from the outside? It sounds like the real problem is that the character is peripheral to the story - so maybe you have the wrong main character? William's note on how these things serve the antagonist is important - the antagonist is the most important character in almost any genre, but in a thriller they have a plan and the protagonist is the person who gets in the way of that plan. So focusing on the antagonist (even if they are unseen until the end) and figuring out why the protagonist is the one person who gets in the way of their plan will help make the suspense organic. Bill's note about the protagonist actively uncovering information (or whatever) is also right on the money. Story is conflict, and that conflict has to be organic. Think of plotting as a game of tennis: the antagonist does something, the protagonist counters, the antagonist counters that, and back and forth between the two - escalating as it goes along. I'm working on my second Hitchcock book now, MASTERING SUSPENSE, and I'm supposed to be cleaning up my chapters on THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH instead of typing this post... so the advice to watch Hitchcock films is also on the money. Here's a link to a Film Courage interview with me and an accompanying article on creating suspense: http://sex-in-a-sub.blogspot.com/2016/02/film-courage-plus-creating-susp...

Winter Lauzon

Thank you Mr.Martell! Great interview and article. I wish your book was out now, the suspense is killing me! : D I'll check out your other material in the mean time, you are quite the prolific writer! Thanks so much for taking time to comment. Its a long story but ironic that you suggested I may have the wrong main character- I had a different main character the first run around- one that would have naturally had higher stakes etc, but I fell in love with this other character and decided to take a chance and use her instead. The antagonist is at least appropriate and strong (in relation to my writing). I definitely created a conundrum for myself with this main character. I think the original one may have even been better at thwarting the antagonist in an organic way. Ill see what I can do, Im not sure I want to rewrite the whole thing from another POV again. Thanks again.

Dan MaxXx

I have two suggestions. 1 - write backwards. meaning write the ending first and work backwards into your story. 2- let a teenager read your script. Your audience is YA ( I guess high school kids like HUNGER GAMES?), get feedback from teenagers.

Winter Lauzon

Ha thanks Dan, Ill try it, good idea!

Winter Lauzon

William, I don't know if you will get this message as it's so long after the fact. If you get notifications hopefully you will. So, I loved your advice (from your post and your site), used it in my script, and got it through a CE and it's now sitting on a producer's desk, waiting. ; ) BUT, the real reason I'm writing is because I started a new script. Finished the vomit draft. Knew I needed something. A fellow writer posted: YOU NEED THIS BOOK on facebook. I figured, I'd take it as a sign, bought the book. Read it. Was thrilled, amazed, and laughing at myself that I had attempted hours of studying scripts and movies to attempt to find the same info and the author had summed up everything perfectly!! I felt like I had hit the jackpot! Anyway, I went to see if I could send the author a question via email and wound up at your site...it was your book: 'The secrets of Action Screenwriting'. Anyway, thank you so much for publishing the book, thank you for answering questions on a public forum, just thank you. I will be buying all of your books and I will post a review and spread the message about your books. I believe the original questions I was going to ask you, if you have time after reading the novel above, were: 1. With your heartbeat timelining. First, you say to mark every 5 minutes and then circle every ten minutes. I understand the ten minute marks are suppose to be where exciting 'genre juice' happens. Were the 5 minute marks meant to have anything specific? Or it's just a plot beat? While I'm at it, you also do a plot twist every 15 minutes? I had another question but than I got so excited you exist, I forgot what it was. Rewriting now, all based on your suggestions! THANK YOU.

Winter Lauzon

William, I remembered the last question. What do you think would be considered 'genre juice' for a mystery. One akin to 'The DaVinci Code'. Thanks so much!

Erik Grossman

I always find the most "thrilling" moments are when you leave a character alone somewhere they shouldn't be. Just the fact that they're there is advancing the story, and it gives you an awesome opportunity to really explore their inner-most fears.

William Martell

You are writing the wrong scenes. Suspense scenes in a thriller are thematic and deal with the protag's emotional conflict. So what is their emotional conflict? Now come up with scenes that press those buttons... that force them to deal with the very issues they want to avoid.

Dan Guardino

If you are writing a mystery or a thriller here are a few tips that may help. Thrillers and mysteries should be full of reversals. Settings up a character then have action reverse what is expected of that character. There should be tension throughout the entire story. Tension is sometimes maintained when knowing violence could erupt anytime. Act I is setting the tone of the story. Open with a lot of questions for the audience and then later on provide answers that aren't the true answers to the questions. Act II is uncovering your characters. The audience finds out information that affects the characters, and letting the characters find out information that is affecting s them. The story should develop as layer after layer is stripped away and the true story is revealed even if some of the revelations suggest answers that may not be the truth. This sets up the reversal. Act III should answer all the questions posed in your story. You should hold back answers as long as possible, but when the answers are revealed they need to seem logical. One approach to doing this is to make one of your characters the logical solution to your story and then reverse that expectation. This is just a structure I use to write thrillers so fell free to use it as a guide if you think it will help.

William Martell

From my book on Action Screenwriting (also applies to suspense set pieces in thrillers): Look at the scene from “The Matrix” where Neo is at his office and Agent Smith and a dozen cops come to arrest him. Neo races to the empty office, goes out the window to the ledge, starts climbing around the building... but reaches a point where it becomes difficult and just quits... and gets captured. We learn from that action scene that Neo doesn't believe in himself and when the going gets rough he quits. That is Neo's character arc in “The Matrix”, he must learn to believe in himself. This action scene is critical to the character, to the story, to the character arc and emotional conflict, and it shows the theme. Without that action scene we don't get any of that information: cut out the action scene and the story makes no sense. Later there's a scene where Morpheus fights an army of police while Neo and the others crawl through the inside of the walls to escape. It's a long fight scene - and every minute is critical. Because this is the scene where we *see how much Morpheus believes in Neo - he sacrifices himself. He must keep getting back on his feet and getting knocked down until Neo is safely away... But Neo hesitates. Neo knows he's not the Chosen One - he knows that Morpheus is going to be killed for no reason - because Neo is a fraud and wasn't strong enough to tell Morpheus what the Oracle said. But when Neo hesitates inside the wall... Morpheus has to get back on his feet and get pummeled even more! So Morpheus believes in Neo, but Neo's lack of belief in himself is getting his friend hurt. The more Neo hesitates, the more Morpheus gets beaten up. That's theme and story... in an action scene. You can't remove that without losing critical information that the audience needs. And it's also critical character information. It shows us how much Morpheus believes in Neo. An action scene needs to be more than just a shoot out or car chase or giant explosion – including character arc or thematic material adds depth to your scenes.* I have a thriller that explores communications, and have a suspense scene where one character is unable to tell another about the danger they are in.

Winter Lauzon

Thank you, William. I remember that from your book! I had only written the vomit draft of my action script when I got your book luckily. I am now going through every scene (and as a whole) with your suggestions in mind, including this great example from the matrix you had with the intent of every scene exploring the theme, exposing character, and being critical to plot. I know other books discuss these ideas but your book was packed with much more actual tools than the average book as opposed to theory. For example, many books, when they get to specific genre beats they always say: 'watch as many films in ----genre that you can. Then take example from the beats and structure they use.' This is great and true but when you are starting out it can be hard to pick up on all unique beats and tools for each genre. Your book actually spells it out for you. Which I am very grateful. I will be happy to have all the info for the next script BEFORE I start to write . ; ) As opposed to fixing the holes as I am now. As I mentioned, I edited the thriller that started this post already and it is now on a producers desk, suggested by his creative executive. For me this is a huge step and the closest I've gotten. Even if nothing happens, I am very grateful for your help and for the progress and opportunities. BTW I never just gush about someone's book in posts or comments but I truly felt that your books filled a hole in the screenwriting market that was needed and I'm not going to be quiet about it! : ) As I truly did spend hours trying to extract this info myself. Dan, thank you for commenting! I love the onion plotting technique. I can get carried away with it, but I'm learning to harness it. ; )

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