The Science of Thrillers

A week ago, I would have denied liking thrillers.  I never read or watched any thrillers.  They were foreign to me; repulsive, even.  I dislike scaring myself on purpose.  I don’t find a thrill in that.

Nevertheless, it has recently come to my attention that I very much like thrillers.  I realized that one of my favorite TV shows, Fringe, is basically a five-year seminar on writing thrillers.

An episode of the show begins with a death.  Someone spontaneously combusts, grows into a ravenous beast, or loses a piece of their brain.  It rarely fails to be gruesome, but that doesn’t make it a thriller.

Soon after the death, the main characters realize it was a murder and set out to find the killer.  They round up the usual suspects, interview the family of the deceased, and dissect a corpse or two.  After a while, we see an unnamed innocent stepping unwittingly into a trap we recognize to be fatal.  After a commercial break, the main characters find the body.


Their investigation leads them closer and closer to finding the killer, but they still don’t know everything.  They know the killer’s system for choosing his victims, and possibly even his name or face, but they don’t know where he is or where he’ll strike next.  Suddenly they realize; he’s going after one of the main characters, or one of their loved ones.

You can extrapolate the ending.  The murderer is killed or incarcerated, the character in danger is saved, and Walter Bishop (aka Denethor) gets his milkshake.

That’s a rundown of the formula for an episode of Fringe, but is it the formula for a thriller?  No, but the formula is hidden therein.

The first step is the death.  You see the first murder happen and realize why this guy is bad.  Then, once you know the main characters are well on their way to solving this mystery, you see the second one.

It’s like an evil reminder that however fast the good guys work, the bad guy was one step ahead the whole time.  He’s still one step ahead.  He can kill people in droves, and there’s nothing anyone can do.  That’s the difference between a murder mystery and a thriller– not only does the murder have to be solved, but it has to be solved with a time bomb strapped to your chest.

But is that enough?  We’re killing civilians one by one.  That should be enough to get the main characters moving, right?  Wrong.  It sounds callous, but the main characters won’t be motivated quite enough by the deaths of unknowns.  It’s cold motivation.tumblr_lzxmu1aC621r6zq32o1_500

So how do you make them extra motivated?  Kill their loved ones, or themselves.  Give them two deaths to make sure they know what’s going on, then send the murderer after someone they know.

It is a time bomb.  They don’t have the time to activate this life-saving piece of equipment, nor do they have the time to cure the disease.  They just don’t have time.

And that’s the essence of a thriller.  You push the suspense to a fever pitch by showing how someone can kill, then show them preparing to kill someone important.  With a murder mystery, the police force backing the detective is always in a position to arrest whoever the detective points at.  With a thriller, the murderer is at large, with no available way to stop him abruptly.  The detective could keep pointing for hours– often, they’re pointing for half the episode– but they have no way to arrest the murderer easily.

The best thing is, this works for just about anything.  It doesn’t have to be horrific.  Yes, Fringe thrives on creating gory visual effects, but it could work anywhere.  You could feasibly write a thriller based on cheese.  It’s the structure that matters.

Read not what you see, but what is missing.  You know this meme.


58 thoughts on “The Science of Thrillers

  1. Okay. One, I do believe I will be skipping Fringe.
    Two, you stuck pictures in your post. Are you feeling okay, Liam?
    Three, I wish I could think of something intelligent to say that had to do with thrillers.

      1. No, actually. Tempest had no imput whatsoever. Though, it is possible that one of my favorite herbs that I have invented was first mentioned in Tempest’s story… but I’m not sure.

      1. It’s the same actor. I thought you knew that. I was speaking of Walter’s lack of disgusting noises, but tempering that amazing benefit with the fact that he has a cow.

      2. *sighs* As I am being forced to talk about something else, I shall ask you an incredibly girly question: what is your favorite couple in LotR?

      3. With four female characters in the entire trilogy, I believe I have the choice between:
        1) Arwen and Aragorn
        2) Eowyn and Faramir
        3) Rosie and Sam
        4) Galadriel and Celeborn
        With that sort of lineup, who could I possibly choose? Sam, I suppose, because he deserved it.

      4. 1) Eowyn and Aragorn
        2) Denethor and Finduilas (IT IS SO SWEET READ THE APPENDICES)

        Oh my Gollum, I completely forgot about Rosie. I thought you mean Sam and Frodo.

        …Faramir/Eowyn is the best.

        Wow, this is awkward.

        Read anything good lately?

      5. Mwahaha. Why, yes. The Mistborn Trilogy is phenomenal. Variant, by Robison Wells, is quite good. The second book in The Magic Thief series by Sarah Prineas (I mini-reviewed the first) was pretty good. Unfortunately, Cornelia Funke’s new book Ghost Knight wasn’t so great, nor was, more surprisingly, Eoin Colfer’s month-old book, The Reluctant Assassin. You know, you should get a GoodReads account.

      6. I haven’t. My sister left a note under the door asking whether I had heard of it, which, hanging around other teen writers, would be impossible to deny. Unfortunately, I neglected to give her a timely answer and she returned the book to the library. I haven’t seen hide nor hair of it since. Have you read it?

      7. Tell your sister she has good taste in books.

        I have. Or rather, I am. I’m reading lots of fairy tales lately. Have you read Ash?

        My, my, we’re being almost civil to each other. This can’t last.

      8. I knew that much. I’ll check it out in more depth later on.

        I suggest you go to your recommendations page or wherever you can rate books and start clicking around.

      1. Of course. My first comment wasn’t very well thought out. I don’t really remember the structure of Unstoppable, though, other than “okay, the audience thinks these are the stakes and consequences, let’s make them worse!”

  2. Thrillers are not my thing, but since I read this and it’s talking about formula, I’ve got to ask for your opinion on something that’s been nagging me for a while.

    While formula and technique is a good thing, is it wise to use the same generic outline in every story you write?

    I know that having these structures is quite useful, especially for aspiring writers testing out new terrain (I, for one, would choose to use this formula if I were to write a filler, because my knowledge of this genre isn’t something to brag about). But it can’t possibly be helpful to use the same trick for every story, right?

    Sooner or later, the reader would pick up on the pattern themselves. They’re not stupid. And if the plot is predictable, then that’s half the joy of reading gone. Thrillers, especially. You can’t re-read a thriller and experience the same drama and suspense that you did when you read it the first time. Add to that a predictable plot…

    I know you talk about formulas and stuff quite a bit, so I’d like to hear your opinion on this. ^_^

    1. Yes. And no. And yes again.

      Yes, formulas can become boring and be picked up on by the readers. No, it isn’t good to have a generic outline for every story you write. However, yes, I think it’s useful to know the formula that works.

      There’s always a distinction that must be made between using a formula and using a checklist. These formulas I give, they are not checklists. The circumstances are always different. The formula you use to make the story might be the same, but the ingredients you use are different. It doesn’t make the same story all the time, although yes, with this formula for thrillers, it often does.

      See, with the Fringe TV show, they didn’t care about plot. They had plot holes all over the place. They took a single plot– the thriller plot outlined above– and plugged different circumstances into it. Different concepts, different sympathetic characters, different scales of destruction as each thing got nasty. No one watched the show for the plot, just for the concepts and interesting premise. That’s how I got the formula, because it was the same each time.

      Now, if you’re looking to make an original thriller, don’t use the Fringe formula. If you’re looking to show off imaginative concepts and special effects, however, go for it.

      However, you’re never going to only write stories like that. You’re obviously asking because you wonder about original plots, and whether they fit in with this.

      And the answer is yes and no. No, if you treat the formula as a checklist– yes, if you treat the story as more general guidelines. For instance, the novel I’m writing at the moment has a plot I really enjoy– yet I’m using the Save the Cat beat sheet, linked to in one of my recent posts (A Perfunctory Post). Yes, it’s a formula, but I don’t treat it as a checklist– if I miss something on there, I’m not going to obsess about it until it shows up.

      Personally, I enjoy studying formulas because they show how a story can be told to its greatest emotional effect. That doesn’t mean that all stories have to be told in that way, nor that any story without that formula cannot be emotional. Treat these formulas as guidelines for when they’re convenient, not laws.

      1. It’s like the Pirate Code. I see. That makes sense, I suppose.

        I like reading about formulas because it helps me understand how to plot better. But I can’t stick to them. I dislike the Hollywood Formula intensely. Which is not to say that I get irked when I see it in movies and stuff. I don’t. It’s just that when I try to use it, I feel confined to this step-by-step approach towards plotting a story.

        The low point gets to me the most. I just don’t plot my stories with low points. There are abrupt twists and the characters’ plans do fail spectacularly, but I wouldn’t call it a low point. I don’t know if that’s a good thing or a bad thing, but it doesn’t work for me.

      2. Hmm. You definitely shouldn’t feel like it’s confining, or step-by-step, or anything like that. However, low points are really important. I’m not going to say you have to have them– I know a few books that have really ambiguous low points– but the best stories tend to have the best reversal of fortune right at the end, where the main character fights back against impossible odds. Personally, I love low points, seeing how low characters can go before they break, but if it doesn’t work for you, it doesn’t work. Don’t sweat it.

  3. I know what you mean. The odds need to be against the characters at all points in the story except for the very end. In that respect, low points are vital.

    In the movie Bedtime Stories (Adam Sandler, you amazing human being), the low point is brilliantly done. It’s a fourth-wall breaking scene where the character who convinces the MC (Adam Sandler) to get out of his funk and save the day is really the narrator of the story, the disembodied voice of his father. Every time I think of low points, I immediately associate them to this film, because I think it’s just so well done.

    In comparison to that, my story’s low-points don’t ever seem to be 1) that well-defined and b) that powerful. I’m struggling to fit one into the story but I just don’t see it happening. It makes me a bit nervous.

    1. Another important thing about the low point is the emotion– I kind of botched my emotion in my latest novel and almost wrote my “official” midpoint at ninety thousand words. I wrote a post on this once– the emotional low point actually happens at the midpoint, where the main character despairs of everything, and then realizes that what’s happened is actually incentive to go on. Then it still gets worse from there, but the emotion, while present, is never that strong.

      Hopefully it works out for you. Low points are really cool.

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