Secrets of the Thriller Genre

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Are you writing a story in the Thriller Genre; a story in which the protagonist is negotiating a complex world, struggling at the limits of human experience, and triumphing (usually) over seemingly overwhelming forces of antagonism?

Maybe you’re confused about the difference between a Thriller story and a Crime, Action, or Horror story. Want to know if you’ve hit all the obligatory scenes and conventions of your genre? 

In this article, I’ll walk you through the fundamentals of the Thriller Genre and compare and contrast it with certain aspects of Horror and Crime. I’ll also go deeper with those comparisons and demonstrate the differing obligatory scenes and conventions of all three of these closely related genres.

Thriller Genre: Step-by-Step Crafting an Exciting Story

First, let’s clear up some misconceptions.

Many writers confuse the Thriller Genre with the Horror or Crime Genres due to the many obligatory scenes and conventions these genres share. According to the Story Grid, the Thriller contains elements of the Horror Genre, although Robert McKee, in Story, disagrees. You might want to read the articles I wrote on CrimeAction, and Horror as a primer for this article.

What is a Thriller?

The Thriller is an arch-plot (Hero’s Journey) external genre combining the primal genres (Action, Horror, and Crime)….The thriller…concerns the individual coping with omnipresent and often difficult to even comprehend antagonism. The external becomes internal, forcing the protagonist to make fundamental choices to unleash critical gifts..” —Shawn Coyne

The Thriller is about excitement and the need to avoid both death and damnation. While Crime stories usually end at justice or injustice, and Horror and Action stories usually end at life or death, the Thriller protagonist is pushed to their limits. Toward damnation.

Global Value of the Thriller Genre

A Thriller need not reach actual damnation, but the potential and the vehicle for damnation must be expressed.

What is the Core Emotion?

Every genre has a core emotion; the reason audiences are attracted to the type of story you’re telling. The Core Emotion in the Thriller is Excitement. People choose a Thriller to experience thrills without risk. Depending on the additional internal genre, the reader is also likely to feel relief or satisfaction as the protagonist learns what is essential in time to avoid disaster.

What is the Controlling Idea?

A story’s controlling idea (sometimes called the theme) is the lesson you want your reader to come away with. It’s the meaning they will assign to your story, usually unconsciously.

A controlling idea can be stated in a single sentence that distills the argument your story attempts to make through narrative. It’s made up of the big value change at the climax of your story, plus the specific cause of that change. 

If your Thriller is a prescriptive or positive story about what we should do, your controlling idea will be something like: Life is preserved when the protagonist unleashes his or her special gift. 

If it’s a cautionary or negative story about what we shouldn’t do, your controlling idea will be something like: Death or damnation triumphs when the protagonist fails to unleash his or her special gift. 

Editor Tip: Don’t worry if the controlling idea of your story is generic as well. Readers will never see this statement. The important thing is that you have a guide for your story. Controlling ideas are your compass. When in doubt about where your story should go next, review your controlling idea. See Chapter 34 in The Story Grid book, or The Big Takeaway.

What are the Obligatory Scenes in the Thriller Genre?

Shawn Coyne describes obligatory scenes as “must-have scenes for paying off readers’ expectations as set up by the conventions of the genre.” In any genre, if you leave out an obligatory scene for that genre, you’ll have a story that doesn’t work.

The obligatory scenes of the Thriller are:

There is an Inciting Crime indicative of a master Villain. There must be a victim and a perpetrator (even if they are the same person, as in Fight Club). The victims can be hostages, dead bodies, missing persons, or the assaulted. Editor Tip: Need help writing your villains? Check out Bullies, Bastards, and Bitches.Chuck Wendig has some interesting advice. Fellow Story Grid Editor Leslie Watts does as well. There is a clear “point of no return,” the moment when the protagonist knows they can never go back to the way things used to be. There must be a precise moment when the protagonist’s world is knocked out of alignment. The protagonist’s initial strategy to outmaneuver the antagonist fails. The protagonist discovers and understands the antagonist’s external object of desire, what the antagonist wants. The Protagonist becomes the victim. A scene reveals that the antagonist makes their crimes personal to the protagonist and the protagonist becomes the primary victim. The core event of the Thriller, the All-is-Lost-Moment, is when the Hero is at the Mercy of the Villain in which the protagonist sees the antagonist as unbeatable and the protagonist unleashes their gift. Editor Tip: This is a difficult scene to innovate. Compare as many Thrillers as you can to find new ways of putting the protagonist at the mercy of the antagonist. There is a False Ending. After a scene that seems to mark the resolution, the antagonist rebounds to challenge the protagonist again.

There is a clear “point of no return,” the moment when the protagonist knows they can never go back to the way things used to be. There must be a precise moment when the protagonist’s world is knocked out of alignment. 

The protagonist’s initial strategy to outmaneuver the antagonist fails

The protagonist discovers and understands the antagonist’s external object of desire, what the antagonist wants. 

The Protagonist becomes the victim. A scene reveals that the antagonist makes their crimes personal to the protagonist and the protagonist becomes the primary victim. 

The core event of the Thriller, the All-is-Lost-Moment, is when the Hero is at the Mercy of the Villain in which the protagonist sees the antagonist as unbeatable and the protagonist unleashes their gift. 

Editor Tip: This is a difficult scene to innovate. Compare as many Thrillers as you can to find new ways of putting the protagonist at the mercy of the antagonist. 

There is a False Ending. After a scene that seems to mark the resolution, the antagonist rebounds to challenge the protagonist again.

What are the Conventions of the Thriller Genre?

Coyne explains Conventions as elements in the story that must be there or the reader will be confused, unsettled, or bored. Without them your story won’t work. Conventions, unlike obligatory scenes, are specific requirements for a story’s characters and/or methods of advancing plot. They can be turning points and do not necessarily have to be implemented in any certain order. Derived from the Crime and Action Genres, all conventions in the Thriller need to support the value at stake of Justice and Injustice.

The conventions of a Thriller are:

The atmosphere is portrayed in considerable detail, becoming alive and immediately threatening. 

There is a MacGuffin. This is the antagonist’s object of desire, what they want. 

Editor Tip: The MacGuffin must be plausible and valuable object of desire that will push the characters to obtain and fight for it. This could be nuclear codes, the cache of diamonds, money, etc. The object of desire must tie into the story logic you’ve built be a believable want of the antagonist and relate, in some way, to the protagonist’s internal genre arc (if they have one). As a story driver, the quest for the MacGuffin must create conflict, tension, and emotion. 

The inciting crime must contain a clue about the villain’s MacGuffin. 

The antagonist makes their actions personal to the protagonist: The antagonist must victimize the protagonist in order to get their MacGuffin. 

Derived from the Action Genre, there is a limited time for the protagonist to act (Clock). If the protagonist doesn’t conquer the antagonist, the antagonist will get what they want by default. The clock defines the limits of the story and whether the protagonist will succeed or fail. 

The protagonist actively investigates and chases clues (including false leads/red herrings) in order to find or trap the antagonist. In other words, the protagonist’s goal is to render the antagonist useless by solving a crime or a puzzle.

Editor Tip: Red herrings should be compelling enough to lead the protagonist away from the antagonist, but the protagonist must ultimately identify them as irrelevant. Red herrings are progressive complications that add tension to the story while challenging the reader’s ability to solve the puzzle ahead of the protagonist.

Lives depend on the protagonist defeating of the antagonist

The story contains elements of suspense. Suspense is a form of narrative drive where the audience and the character know the same amount at the same time. The audience is kept in perpetual discomfort because the antagonist seems to attack randomly and never rests. 

The antagonist can’t be reasoned with. They are intent on annihilation, devastation, or power at the expense of others. 

There is a speech in Praise of the Villain: The cunning or brilliance of the antagonist must be praised by one or more characters or shown in a revelation. 

Editor Tip: The speech in praise of the villain is an easily misunderstood convention. I like the way Story Grid Editor, Anne Hawley, clarifies it: “The speech, once the province of the evilly-laughing Bond villain praising himself, has morphed and become much more subtle in modern works.” It can be as small as a secondary character pointing out that the antagonist is far more powerful than the protagonist. Or it might be the protagonist themselves stating, during an all-is-lost moment, that they can’t beat the antagonist for a particular reason.

The protagonist is the final victim. Similar to the Horror Genre. 

There is a clear threat of escalating danger, even if the danger is limited to the psyche of the protagonist, in a cause and effect chain of events. 

There is at least one shapeshifter or hypocrite character capable of directly impacting the protagonist. 

Editor Tip: This is a secondary character who says one thing and does another. Usually, this character first appears as a helper and then becomes a hinderer, but this can be reversed. The shapeshifter’s levels of antagonism can vary greatly between characters and stories.

In a prescriptive Thriller, the antagonist must be brought to justice.

In a cautionary Thriller, injustice prevails.

Editor Tip: Justice can mean death, banishment, or imprisonment. Conversely, the antagonist can get away (injustice), especially in a series, but the protagonist must be either dead or out of immediate danger with some sense of victory (win but lose, win for now).

What are the subgenres of the Thriller Genre?

Thriller subgenres are usually determined by the setting, so there can be a great deal of overlap between one subgenre and another. Don’t get bogged down with this. The more you study these subgenres and analyze their boundaries against contemporary stories, the less distinct they will seem. In time, perhaps, the subgenres will evolve or degrade and render this list antiquated.

I like to think of these as plot devices rather than subgenres: 

  • Serial Killer: Examples of this story are Red Dragon and Silence of the Lambs.
  • Medical: Examples of this story are Coma and The Andromeda Strain.
  • Legal: Examples of this story are And Justice for All, Sleepers, and Mississippi Burning.
  • Psychological: Examples of this story are Primal Fear, Gone Girland Fight Club.
  • Espionage: Examples of this story are The Bourne Identity, Three Days of Condor, and The Hunt for Red October.
  • Person in Jeopardy: Examples of this story are The Client, Ransom, and Sleeping With the Enemy.
  • Erotic: Examples of this story are Basic Instinct, Fatal Attraction, and Twilight.
  • Military: Examples of this story are Seven Days in May and The Jack Ryan Universe Series.
  • Political: An example of this story is Marathon Man.
  • Journalism: Examples of this story are The Scarecrow, The Post, and All the President’s Men.
  • Financial: Examples of this story are Numbered Account, Not a Penny More, Not a Penny Lessand Black Fridays.
  • Hitchcock: Examples of this story are A Coffin for Dimitrios and North by Northwest.Editor Tip: Read and watch the masterworks that use your chosen plot device and analyze them for additional conventions and tropes.

What about audience expectations of the genre?

Remember, you’re writing a story that incorporates aspects of the Action, Crime, and Horror Genres (and, in the case of Erotic Thriller, also includes a Love story). A Thriller need not have much action or many horrific scenes. Don’t be afraid to slow your story down to illuminate the antagonist’s object of desire, to get sidetracked with the false clues, and to let the protagonist make some serious mistakes. Allow tension to ebb and flow. Keep your reader asking questions. In Part Two of this article, I’ll demonstrate how the controlling ideas, global values, obligatory scenes and conventions differ between Thriller, Crime, and Horror.

Additional Notes on Writing the Thriller Genre:

On Characterization:

Show us how your protagonist reacts instead of telling paragraphs of their thoughts. Ground the reader in the scene with the scent, touch, sounds, gut reactions, and dialog. Characterization is not what the protagonist is thinking. It’s demonstrated in their actions. 

Editor Tip: Having trouble with characterization and pacing? Resources worth examining are Writing with Emotion, Tension, and Conflict and The Emotional Craft of Fiction.

Why do internal genres go well with a Thriller?

The best Thrillers have an internal genre arc for the protagonist. But they aren’t required. 

Editor Tip: Not all of the obligatory scenes and conventions of the internal arc need to be met. Incorporate most of them into the scenes of the Thriller primary story rather than creating scenes stand alone scenes for the secondary genre. 

For your internal genre, choose a conflict important to your characters. A character’s investment in an outcome increases investment from the reader. 

If your protagonist is knowingly doing wrong, consider the Morality Genre for their internal arc. 

If your protagonist is making the wrong choices or assumptions because of their immaturity, lack of knowledge, and/or naivete, consider the Worldview Genre for their internal arc. 

If your protagonist is trying to fit in, gain an improvement in (or maintain) their financial, professional, or social rank, consider the Status Genre for their internal arc. 

If you are writing a series, consider starting your protagonist closer to the bottom of the hierarchy of needs and have them move their way up a notch in each book to keep them moving forward internally.

The Story Grid Gas Gauge has the hierarchy set out by genre.

Gas Gauge of Need in the Thriller Genre

Identify your protagonist’s need on the Story Grid Gas Gauge and narrow your internal genre from there. Determine the want and need of your antagonist. How are they related to the want and need of the protagonist? What’s the MacGuffin?

These wants and needs will drive your story and determine your internal genre. Create dynamic protagonist and antagonist characters with opposing goals.

How does the Thriller Genre differ from Horror Genre?

Arch-plot vs. Mini-plot

Horror can have a mini-plot (multiple victims) or arch-plot (single protagonist). The Thriller typically has a single protagonist.

Controlling Ideas

A story’s controlling idea (sometimes called the theme) is the lesson you want your reader to come away with. It’s the meaning they will assign to your story, usually unconsciously.

A prescriptive or positive story is about what we should do.

A cautionary or negative story is about what we shouldn’t do.

The controlling ideas for Horror are:

  • Prescriptive: Life is preserved when the protagonist overpowers or outwits the monster.
  • Cautionary: Death or a “fate worse than death” results when the protagonist fails to overpower or outwit the monster.

The controlling ideas for the Thriller are:

  • Prescriptive: Life is preserved when the protagonist unleashes his or her special gift.
  • Cautionary: Death or damnation triumphs when the protagonist fails to unleash his or her special gift.

Do they still seem awfully similar? It turns out there is a difference between “unleashing a special gift” and simply “overpowering or outwitting the monster.” Let’s look at some examples provided by Anne Hawley, a fellow Story Grid Editor:

  • In Marathon Man, the protagonist’s special gift is running. He’s fast and he’s fit, and he uses that gift to escape the monster.
  • In Hot Fuzz, the protagonist’s special gift is perfect adherence to the rules of policing, and he outwits the monstrous villain by being a really, really good cop.
  • Whereas the protagonists in Alien and Get Out both outwit their monsters with a little ingenuity, some luck, and sheer determination.

Global Values

The global values at stake describe the protagonist’s primary change from the beginning of the story to the end.

While both the Horror and Thriller Genres have global values of life and death, the value change in Horror goes beyond death to the point where “death would be a mercy.”

The Thriller protagonist is pushed to their limits. Toward damnation. A Thriller need not reach actual damnation, but the potential and the vehicle for damnation must be expressed.

Examples:

  • In Alien, we quickly learn that death IS mercy to the infected crew member, and to each successive crew member attacked by the monster.
  • In Marathon Man, the Jewish protagonist is trying to stop a Nazi war criminal and would face a kind of damnation if he fails.

Core Emotions

The core emotion of a story is what a reader wants to feel without taking real-life risks. It’s the reason they choose a particular type of story.

In Horror, the core emotion is fear. Or, more specifically, terror. Audiences choose Horror stories to experience the thrill of courage against terror in a life and death situation.

The Thriller’s core emotion is excitement. Audiences choose a Thriller to experience thrills.

Antagonists

The Horror antagonist is far more powerful than the protagonist, maybe even supernatural, monstrous, and unrealistic. The Thriller antagonist is more powerful than the protagonist but is human.

This is a very clear delineation between the two genres. Even if the Horror antagonist is nominally a human being, that human is working for (or in the thrall of) some monstrous force. 

As a rule, though, if you have your genre narrowed down to Horror or Thriller:

  • If the antagonist is a non-human monster (or under the influence of one), the genre is Horror.
  • If the antagonist is a human being, the genre is Thriller.

Conventions

In Horror, the antagonist commits a series of escalating crimes, wherein a Thriller there may be just one. Key distinction. 

In Horror, the protagonist is unable to escape due to their isolated location or situation. The settings are generally dark, claustrophobic, and conceal danger via labyrinth-like effects. In the Thriller, the landscape of the story is broader to allow for the investigative process. The setting is dark and immediately threatening but allows for escape.

The Horror story premise is improbable. The progressive complications and climactic action, especially notable in inciting incident scenes, are highly unlikely to happen. In the Thriller, the story is one in which the audience can imagine happening in real life. See Power Dynamics.

As a rule, though, if you have your genre narrowed down to Horror or Thriller:

  • If your protagonist is trying to solve a puzzle (save a victim) while avoiding death, your genre is Thriller.
  • If your protagonist is simply trying to escape with their own life because the antagonist is on a serialized mission of devastation, your genre is Horror.

Story Structure

In the Thriller, the protagonist accepts the quest at the beginning of the middle build. In Horror, by ignoring the warning that danger is lurking, the protagonist inadvertently accepts the quest in the beginning hook.

While both Horror and Thriller share a convention of a “false ending” which translates to seemingly two endings, that second ending differs by genre. At the end of a Horror story, the writer leaves information for the audience that “proves” or implies that evil still lurks. The monster will return. The thriller may end with more finality, with justice definitively prevailing, or it may end with the death of the protagonist or the victim.

How does the Thriller Genre differ from Crime Genre?

Global Values

In a Crime story, the change in values runs along the spectrum of Justice, Unfairness, Injustice, and Tyranny. That is, if justice does not prevail in any single instance, society may suffer unfairness or injustice, but if most crimes are not investigated and solved, society will lapse into the tyranny of criminals.

In the Thriller, the change in values runs along Life, Death, and Damnation. If the protagonist fails to act to stop the antagonist, the protagonist will suffer a fate worse than death- damnation.

Core Emotions

Audiences are drawn to crime stories in order to experience the intrigue of solving a puzzle and the security of seeing justice done in the end, without facing real crime or real injustice. Thriller’s core emotions are excitement and fear.

Controlling Ideas

The controlling ideas for Crime are:

  • Mystery Prescriptive: Justice prevails when the protagonist overpowers or outwits their antagonist.
  • Mystery Cautionary: Injustice (with the possibility of eventual tyranny) when the antagonist outwits or overpowers the protagonist.
  • Caper and Heist Prescriptive: Crime pays (in other words poetic justice prevails) when people band together to cheat the system but not each other.
  • Caper and Heist Negative: Crime doesn’t pay (in other words poetic justice fails) when people set out to cheat the system together but, instead, cheat each other.

See The Editors’ Roundtable Podcast on Mad Money where these Caper/Heist Controlling Ideas were first introduced by Leslie Watts.

The controlling ideas for the Thriller are:

  • Prescriptive: Life is preserved when the protagonist unleashes his or her special gift.
  • Cautionary: Death or damnation triumphs when the protagonist fails to unleash his or her special gift.

Power Dynamics

While the Thriller antagonist is much more powerful than the protagonist, the Crime antagonist need not be. The Crime antagonist must simply pose a worthy challenge to the protagonist.

For example, quite often in the classic Sherlock Holmes tales, the criminal is not a mastermind, but merely clever or lucky, and the challenge to Holmes is reconstructing a crime that happened some time ago.

Obligatory Scenes

Unlike Crime stories, the Thriller has a False Ending. There must be two endings in the Thriller.

The core event of the Crime story is when the criminal is exposed, brought to justice, or gets away with the crime (caper/heist). We might say that this is when either the investigator or the caper/heist criminal leader really display their special gift of cleverness, brilliant deduction, or fast thinking.

The core event of the Thriller is the “Hero at the Mercy of the Villain.” It’s the All is Lost Moment when the protagonist unleashes their inner gift.

Conventions

In the Thriller, the protagonist is actively trying to stay alive by rendering the antagonist useless, whereas, in Crime, the protagonist is either trying to solve a crime or carry one out.

In a Thriller, lives depend on the protagonist’s defeat of the villain. A Crime Story is about bringing the antagonist to justice for a crime already committed or, in the case of the caper or heist type, it’s about the protagonist getting away with a crime. In Crime, justice being served may or may not overtly prevent future crimes.

The Thriller protagonist might not survive, while the Crime protagonist faces manipulation but not necessarily death at the hands of the antagonist.

In the Thriller Genre, there is an All-Is-Lost scene in which the protagonist sees the antagonist as unbeatable. In a Crime story, there may be a speech in praise of the antagonist but they are not necessarily viewed as unbeatable.

In the Thriller Genre, there is a clear “point of no return;” the moment when the protagonist knows they can never go back to the way things used to be because their world has been knocked out of alignmentIn Crime, the protagonist’s life might not be directly impacted.

In the Thriller Genre, the atmosphere is portrayed in considerable detail. It is alive and immediately threatening, and creates excitement and fear for the reader or viewer. This is not always the case in a Crime story. In a Crime story, the setting rather than the mood of the story is often what determines the subgenre. For example, courtroom, newspaper, and prison are all settings that are also crime subgenres.

Crime and Thriller depend on different forms of narrative drive. Suspense, the narrative drive created when the audience/reader and character know the same things at the same time, is the major driver of the Thriller.

On the other hand, while the Crime story may contain elements of suspense, it depends more heavily on mystery, where the character knows more than the reader/viewer, causing us to strain towards finding out. Crime stories also rely more on tension (tension results from the unresolved story events and unfulfilled wants and needs of the protagonist as the result of conflicts.

In a Thriller, the antagonist can’t be reasoned with. They are intent on annihilation, devastation, or power at the expense of others. An example: In Fatal Attraction, when Dan comes to talk Alex pulls a knife). In a Crime story, an antagonist’s reasoning ability is irrelevant. They may even admit to their crimes and express remorse after being exposed. For example, in Double Indemnity, the noir protagonist/criminal begins the story by confessing his crime and he is willing to be arrested in the end.

In the Crime story, the criminal antagonist must be brought to justice or, in the case of the caper/heist, the criminal protagonist must finish carrying out their carefully-planned crime.

In a Thriller, justice can mean death, banishment, or imprisonment rather than the exposure of the criminal. In a Thriller, the antagonist can get away (injustice), especially in a series, but the protagonist must be out of immediate danger with some sense of victory (win but lose, win for now). For example: In Fatal Attraction, Dan and his family are no longer in danger of being murdered by Alex but his marriage is in shambles and his pet rabbit is stew.

On Moving to the Next Level in Your Writing:

Read widely in the Thriller Genre and compare your work to the masterworks and the guidelines here. The best way to move toward innovation is knowing what others have already done. Now you have the basics of the Thriller and are primed to finish that story.  

Need some extra help completing your manuscript? Grab a spot on my calendar for a free half-hour consultation so we can determine how I can best help you meet your story goals.

Interested in other articles I’ve written on genre? Check out these links:

If you would like to continue your study on genre, check out these articles:

For more on the Thriller, see Shawn’s posts on The Monster Mash Up and Casting Your Thriller.

I wish you the best of luck and hard work with your story.

Images credits for the Gas Gauge and Crime Slider infographics to Anne Hawley. Special thanks to Anne Hawley for editing this post.

Download the Thriller Genre Cheatsheet

About the Author

Rachelle Ramirez helps writers develop their stories and believes stories are our most important catalyst for change. She received an MA in psychology from Goddard College and attended the School of the Art Institute of Chicago's Masters in Creative Writing Program on a merit scholarship. Rachelle served as the executive director for a national writing community before becoming a Story Grid Certified Editor. She is honored to have edited the award-winning fiction of some amazing authors but her favorite work is with first-time novelists and narrative nonfiction writers. She recently edited Shawn Coyne's book, Action Story: The Primal Genre. She is currently writing The Story Grid Guide to Genre with Shawn Coyne and hosting an upcoming season of The Story Grid Podcast. Her forthcoming novel is White Grrrl, Black Sheep. Contact Rachelle to schedule a free 30-minute consultation on your story at rachelleramirez.com.
Comments
Author Rachelle Ramirez

15 Comments

Lea Morris says:

Great article, Rachelle. Thank you!
One question I had about was about MacGuffin. My understanding is that it was something the Protagonist wanted, but didn’t have any significance to the story. Is that just wrong?

Reply
Rachelle Ramirez says:

The MacGuffin is the antagonist’s object of desire. The villain must have a reason for their evil behavior and it must involve the protagonist to the extent that the protagonist becomes a target of the villain. I dislike the term Macguffin because I think it is confusing. Let’s just call it what it is and stop using alienating terms, right? The villain must have a want that motivates them to create victims, including the protagonist. Are you writing a Thriller?

Reply
Lewis Faulkner says:

Rachelle–

Thanks for doing a great job here. Part 1 and Part 2 are the articles I have been waiting for someone there to write, and you did such a good job. I am a long-timer fan of the podcast, and I read the posts,here, pretty regularly, even if they don’t pertain to the novel I’m working on. I am using Scrivener and I have a resources folder where I keep the posts and articles that I think ‘Man, where was that again?’ because I’ll be wanting to read these two again. These two made it to my hard-to-get-on list.There are a lot of great link-to references in here that I really want to check out, too.

Addressing the issue is one thing. Doing a good job of giving the advice and the nitty-gritty, how-to stuff is another. I think you have done a tremendous job of both, here. Thanks, again!t

Lewis Faulkner

Reply
Rachelle Ramirez says:

Thanks. I am going to pith this genre series to Black Irish as a follow-up to the Story Grid book: The Story Grid Guide to Genre. Any feedback on any of the articles will help us improve the next revisions. Your questions and comments welcome and requested. This is tough stuff, trying to encapsulate entire genres into 5k or less. But I think it is important work because this is exactly what I would have paid a thousand bucks for 2 years ago.

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steveb73 says:

Rachelle, That’s really helpful, thanks so much, and the Story Grid Guide to Genre is a fantastic idea.

One specific question: Is it fair to also see the protagonist having a special gift as a convention? By virtue of its role in the generalised controlling theme it seems to be an essential component, even if it’s something as simple as, say, ‘tenacity’. At the same time it’s key to the protagonist’s character and everything that flows from that. It looks like a good place to experiment in the early stages of story development (recognising it could change later). Would you agree?

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Liam says:

Thanks Rachelle. This is very thorough and interesting.

One aspect that I have a bit of trouble with understanding (especially from listening to the story grid podcast) is the classification that a thriller involves elements of horror, crime and action genres. This makes sense when looking at Silence of the Lambs. But surely there are many thrillers that do not borrow from the horror and crime genres?

Eg something like Margin Call – is typically described as a Thriller / Drama. There are probably ways to rationalise this into the format above (eg the villain is the high rollers in wall street and the crime is what they have done to cause the global financial crisis). Is that right? In a movie like the 6th sense, there is an antagonist to the boy at school but from memory he doesn’t have anything to do with the ending of the film and is more a subplot. There’s also (to my memory) no crimes solved in it that are central to the story – they are subplots.

To me a thriller is more about the tension / excitement and having double / unpredictable endings. Is it just a matter of definitions or am I way off? Would love to get your thoughts.

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Rachelle Ramirez says:

All good questions. It does get really confusing, especially when there are both marketing categories and content genres. The marketing categories are the descriptions publishing houses or movie producers would use to give the audience a general idea of what kind of story to expect, how it will make them feel. A Thriller in marketing terms usually means it promises excitement (action), intrigue (crime), and terror (horror). The content genres are what I call the story paths for writers. Those paths keep us from veering too far from audience expectations so that we can create a story that resonates with the audience and provides enough fresh material to innovate within our genres. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen the movie but let me take a shot at The Sixth Sense for the purpose of illuminating an example you chose. In The Sixth Sense, the protagonist is not the boy, it’s the Bruce Willis character. So the Story Grid content Genre for The Sixth Sense reflects his primary change from the beginning to the end. His change is based on a huge revelation that changes his worldview and frees him. So while the Sixth Sense might be marketed as a Thriller because Bruce’s objective was to save the victim (action) who was trying to gain justice (crime) for deceased a child in a world filled with terrifying ghosts (horror), Bruce wasn’t the one trying to solve the crime, he was wasn’t a victim of the ghosts, his life was not in danger after the first scene or for the duration of the plot. The big reveal is that he is a ghost and didn’t know it. Now, imagine if the writer of Sixth Sense didn’t know he was writing a Worldview/Revelation story. The rest of the story would fall a bit flat and fail to innovate. The success of that movie rode on the big secret/reveal. You go in expecting a Thriller from the marketing and the writer throws you a huge left hook with the content genre. I can’t say they did a disservice to the movie by marketing it that way, can you? Otherwise, what would we have for marketing, “A ghost psychologist helps a boy who sees mostly benign ghosts gain justice for a murdered child without much conflict?” Ho-hum. but once the writer understood that Bruce’s lack of knowledge was more the antagonist than the ghosts, he had a recipe for success. When a writer comes to me with trouble with their Thriller story, I almost always say, “Yes. Thriller is a combination of Crime, Horror, and Action, and it requires an internal genre. But that’s trying to write an early draft with 4 genre directions. No wonder you are struggling. Which way to go? The good news is that every Thriller can be broken down into one of those four core genres for its primary genre. For Silence of the Lambs, the primary genre used to build the Thriller was Crime. It centered around an investigator investigating a crime. The primary emotion was intrigue. And the climactic event is when the protagonist solves the riddle and brings the antagonist to justice. Yes, there were aspects of Horror and Action but primarily it best fits a Crime story. If my client was writing something like Silence of the Lambs, I’d say, let’s work through the first draft as a Crime story and make sure you meet all the essential elements of the Crime story before we try and weave the less important genres in. Those other genres are there to support the primary genre. We’ll use them only as needed to flesh out the story. If a Thriller writer came to me and said, “I have a Thriller and it’s similar to The Sixth Sense but I can’t seem to make it work with the Story Grid stuff I’m learning.” I’d say, “Of course you’re struggling. Let’s take these 4 genres you’re trying to accomplish all at once and narrow down to the primary genre. You actually have a revelation story. Let’s first focus on your Worldview arc and then we can use these other genres to support it. The supporting genres serve the primary. Thriller is just a story type we’ve come to recognize over time as a particular combination of genres.” If you are writing a Thriller, I encourage you to consider which genre (Action, Horror, Crime, Worldview, Status, or Morality) is your lead. In the early drafts, focus on that genre to keep you out of the weeds. A Thriller comes together after MANY drafts and MANY layers. And this is why some of these layers are invisibly supporting the primary genre. If you’re not sure what your primary genre within the Thriller combination is, please grab a free consultation call on my calendar and we can figure it out pretty quickly. I’d be happy to help you solve any story problem you are up against.

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Liam Dixon says:

Thanks very much for your detailed reply! Very helpful. I’ve sent through a form for a consultation on your site.

L

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Ronald DeMitchell says:

What thriller books would you recommend if I were to write an action thriller? I’ve read The Thresshing–great story by the way.

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