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.
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.