The Monster Mash Up

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We’ve been working our way down the Foolscap Global Story Grid.  Up today are the spaces to fill in the conventions and obligatory scenes of your chosen genres.  As our big payoff down the road will be a complete creation and analysis of The Story Grid for The Silence of the Lambs, here is the breakdown of conventions and obligatory scenes for the external content genre, The Thriller.

The Thriller is its own genre, but it came to be through a mashing up of three primal genres that came before it: Action, Horror and Crime.

Many place the thriller inside the Action or Crime genres because a large number of the obligatory scenes and conventions of the thriller share elements with both Action and Crime stories. Few (Robert McKee being the very large exception) would associate Thriller with Horror, but the horror element is what puts the cherry on top of the thriller’s three genre mash up sundae.

Here are the other necessities (beyond a supporting value of Justice at stake) in a Thriller that derive from action and crime and stories.

  1. The first convention of a thriller is that there must be a crime. And with a crime, you must have perpetrator/s and victim/s, either corpse/s, the assaulted or hostage/s.
  2. The crime must occur early on in the telling.
  3. The crime must reveal a clue about the villain’s Macguffin.

A Macguffin is the object of desire for the villain. If the villain gets the Macguffin, he will “win.” Some familiar Macguffins are a) the codes to the nuclear warhead, b) 1,000 kilos of heroin, c) microfilm, d) and in the case of The Silence of the Lambs, the final pieces of skin to make a woman-suit. The Macguffin must make sense to the reader. It doesn’t necessarily have to be realistic, just believable. I think Alfred Hitchcock coined the term when asked about the device in North By Northwest. Macguffins are essentially the antagonist/s literal objects of desire.

  1. There must be a brilliant and/or incredibly powerful master criminal, and an equally brilliant and/or powerful investigator/detective/sleuth. But the balance of power between the two is heavily in favor of the villain.
  2. The villain must “make it personal” with regard to the protagonist. The criminal may from the very beginning want to kill/humiliate/destroy/damn the investigator; or he may come to this attitude during the telling. But the crime must escalate and become personal. The protagonist must become a victim.
  3. There must be clues and red herrings in the storytelling. The protagonist investigates and follows leads in order to find and/or trap the criminal. Some of these leads are dead ends, and misdirect the protagonist and the reader.
  4. The value at stake in a crime story can progress from justice to unfairness to injustice to tyranny. Most crime stories end at Injustice…will the detective get his man? He usually does. But in a thriller, the value is often driven to the limit. If the detective/investigator/protagonist does not bring the villain to justice, tyranny will be the result. The protagonist’s failure to get the criminal takes on a universal quality. If our best investigators can’t stop the worst villains, the villains have won. There is no justice. We live in tyranny.

So what does the thriller get from the horror genre?

  1. In the horror genre, like the Action genre, the value at stake is Life. But the value is taken to the end of the line…the fate worse than death, damnation. So while the thriller gets procedural elements from the crime story, its global value comes from horror.
  2. The villain in Horror is far more powerful/intelligent/ supernatural than the protagonist. The balance of power is huge, so large that it’s unrealistic. In the thriller, the balance of power is not as large as Horror but far more than in a crime story. And the thriller is realistic…that is believable, possible to occur in real life. The villain in a thriller is a human monster.
  3. In the horror genre, there is a speech in praise of the villain and/or awesomeness of the supernatural power. So too in the Thriller. There is a speech in praise of the Villain that clearly states how awesome the forces of antagonism are.
  4. Also like the horror genre, there is the hero at the mercy of the villain scene. The protagonist must be put into a position where they are seemingly incapable of overpowering the villain. That is, there is no way the protagonist can free himself. But somehow, the protagonist either outsmarts or overpowers the villain and escapes. This is the real nail biter scene of a thriller, the big moment, and as such it is the most difficult to innovate.
  5. There is a false ending. Like those cheesy but wonderful Friday the Thirteenth movies, the end of a thriller isn’t really the end. Somehow the villain reasserts himself one final time. Just when you think it’s safe to enjoy the resolution of the story, BAM!

Let’s put it all together. Here are the conventions and obligatory scenes for the thriller.

  1. An Inciting crime
  2. A Macguffin
  3. Red herrings
  4. A Speech in Praise of the Villain
  5. The stakes must become personal for the hero. If they fail to stop the villain, they will suffer severe consequences. The hero must become the victim.
  6. There must be a hero at the mercy of the villain scene.
  7. False ending. There must be two endings.

Lastly, many thrillers also have an additional convention that derives from the Action genre, a clock. At a critical point in the story, a time limit is placed on the protagonist to get the villain. If the protagonist does not do so, the villain will get what he wants by default. The clock is one way for the writer to clearly define the end of the limit for the story, the ultimate fate worse than death, Damnation. If the hero dilly dallies like Shakespeare’s Hamlet, his indecisiveness will damn him. It’s his fault that the villain won because he refused to accept his calling. Clocks are not required, but they sure help escalate the stakes. You’ll see how brilliantly Harris uses a clock in the Middle Build of The Silence of the Lambs later on.  The Middle Build is the most challenging section of a story, when a story is most likely to lose its grip on the reader.

If you’ve decided to write a thriller and you know that you have to deliver these conventions and scenes, wouldn’t it be a good place to start your work by mapping out some strategies to do so? That is, if you know you have to write the hero at the mercy of the villain scene, wouldn’t it be a good idea to try to crack it before you dive into fleshing out the rest of the novel? The hero at the mercy scene is the big promise you’re making to a reader when you tell her that you have written a thriller. Nailing it early on will help you immeasurably.

Obligatory scenes are a great way to give you a clear mission. You’ll be surprised at how straightforward it can be to write the rest of the story if you’ve created innovative obligatory scenes.

So this is why it’s a good idea to remind yourself on your Foolscap Global Story Grid about the conventions and obligatory scenes you’ll need to drop into your Story.  Put them at the very top and you’ll have them ever present in your mind.  From first through final draft.

For new subscribers and OCD Story nerds like myself, all of The Story Grid posts are now in order on the right hand side column of the home page beneath the subscription shout-out.


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Shawn Coyne

SHAWN COYNE created, developed, and expanded the story analysis and problem-solving methodology The Story Grid throughout his quarter-century-plus book publishing career. A seasoned story editor, book publisher and ghostwriter, Coyne has also co-authored The Ones Who Hit the Hardest: The Steelers, The Cowboys, the ’70s and the Fight For America’s Soul with Chad Millman and Cognitive Dominance: A Brain Surgeon’s Quest to Out-Think Fear with Mark McLaughlin, M.D. With his friend and editorial client Steven Pressfield, Coyne runs Black Irish Entertainment LLC, publisher of the cult classic book The War of Art. With his friend and editorial client Tim Grahl, Coyne oversees the Story Grid Universe, LLC, which includes Story Grid University and Story Grid Publishing.