All About The Thriller Genre

writing thriller

Below, I list a collection of thought-provoking tips on writing the thriller genre. It’s not that easy to pinpoint what a thriller is, because a lot of descriptions focus on the tone. But this doesn’t help writers much. From a writing point of view, the thriller must contain certain things, otherwise it’s not a thriller.

Thriller is a hybrid genre of mystery and horror with crime and action elements. Each thriller story will have its own balance of these things. This explains why we can still be surprised by a thriller, even though the genre conventions are so strict.

The thriller is difficult to write. You’re writing characters who don’t tend to act as people do in real life, yet the audience has to believe they could behave like that, given the same outlandish circumstances. So when writing a thriller you have to come with all the reasons why the hero doesn’t just call the authorities.



Raison d’être of a Thriller

Thrillers are first and foremost entertaining. Thrillers heighten the audience’s moods, producing anticipation/ultra-heightened expectation, surprise, anxiety and terror. Thrillers tend to be adrenaline raising, gritty and fast paced.

Thrillers are simultaneously terrifying and reassuring because the villain almost always gets killed or arrested. Thrillers uphold surprisingly conservative values, but only if you watch them right until the end. The thriller is basically a Cautionary Tale For Adults

Thriller and Genre

Thrillers are typically the most emotional of the suspense genres. Thrillers focus on the fear, doubt and dread of the main character as they face some form of what Dean Koontz has deemed “terrible trouble.

The thriller shares a literary lineage with the epic and myth. Monsters, terror and peril prevail. Thrillers emphasise the dangerous world we live in, the vulnerability of the average person, and the inherent threat of the unknown.

Thrillers have an atmosphere of menace, violence, crime and murder.

Primary THRILLER Sub-genres 

Different people divide thrillers differently. Here’s how Shawn Coyne divvies them up. The nice thing about Shawn Coyne’s taxonomy is that any thriller can be made to fit into at least one of his categories:

  • SERIAL KILLER THRILLER — About police officers doing their jobs (Silence of the Lambs)
  • LEGAL THRILLER — About lawyers doing their jobs (A lot of John Grisham novels)
  • MEDICAL THRILLER — About doctors doing their jobs
  • MILITARY THRILLER — About army personnel doing their jobs
  • POLITICAL THRILLER — About politicians doing their jobs (The Killing is an interesting blend of political and serial killer thriller). Political thrillers are not as popular with audiences.
  • JOURNALISM/CONSPIRACY THRILLER — About journalists doing their jobs
  • PSYCHOLOGICAL THRILLER — These emphasise the unstable psychological and emotional states of their main characters. There are similarities to Gothic and detective fiction:
    • A dissolving sense of reality.
    • The setting is usually domesticated.
    • The main characters are usually obsessed, tortured or sociopathic.
    • Unreliable narratives are common.  e.g. Psycho, Homeland, pretty much everything by Stephen King, Henry James, Patricia Highsmith.
  • FINANCIAL THRILLER — about investors doing their jobs
  • ESPIONAGE THRILLER — About spies doing their jobs (The Americans)
  • WOMAN IN JEOPARDY THRILLER — From the point of view of a vulnerable woman who must find her way out of a life and death situation
  • CHILD IN JEOPARDY THRILLER — From the point of view of a vulnerable parent (usually a woman) who must risk her life to save her child
  • HITCHCOCK THRILLER — If you’re using many of the same techniques used by Hitchcock, you’re probably writing a Hitchcock thriller. Techniques include: the Macguffin as inciting incident, the sense that you’re a voyeur into someone’s private life, the sense of psychological unease running throughout, and the false ending (or ‘climactic plot twist’).

ROMANTIC SUBPLOTS

Woven through all and any of these, there might be a romantic hook. (Despite using the term, I have a problem with the concept of subplot.) Often, in any of the suspense genres, there’s a romance between a couple which gets ‘suspended’ (amping up the romantic suspense along with the life and death suspense) due to more pressing issues relating to the action, adventure or crime situation of the film, e.g. Speed.

CHECKLIST FOR THRILLERS

Are you writing a thriller or a mystery?

The mystery genre is very wide and encompasses many other genres. In a thriller, the nature of the mystery is quite specific: In creating thrillers, writers do not have to outsmart the reader (as they do in a straight, Agatha Christie style mystery story). In a thriller mystery, the characters have to outsmart each other.

Are you writing thriller or detective genre?

As in the detective genre, thriller involves detection, but in a thriller there are typically far fewer suspects. Just one really terrible villain, usually.

ARE YOU WRITING THRILLER OR HORROR?

In a thriller, the worst that could happen to your main character is death. In horror, the worst that could happen is ‘a fate worse than death‘. The horror genre is heavily based on Christian symbolism, and often, the ‘worse than death’ consequence is damnation, or a version thereof.

In horror, the opponent is way more powerful than the hero. The hero really stands no chance. The opponent is not just a monstrous ‘villain’ — it’s an actual monster, or supernatural. (They might have the body of a human, but they’re not human.)

In horror, the opponent commits an escalating series of crimes whereas in a thriller there might be just one big crime. In horror, the opponent is on a path of destruction and devastation, whereas the villain in a thriller has a logical (if not empathetic) human reason for wanting the hero dead.

STORYWORLD OF A THRILLER

  • Whether as small as a cottage in the woods or as large as the planet, the arena the hero seeks to protect represents everything she values. The stakes are ultimate.
  • The setting is an outworking of your hero. Detective stories, crime stories, and thrillers often set up a close connection between the hero’s shortcoming — when it exists — and the “mean streets,” or world of slavery in which the hero operates.
  • Thrillers show society as dark, corrupt and dangerous.
  • The setting is atmospheric — the writer gives plenty of detail. Writers also use tricks to make the setting feel like it’s ‘alive’. If you want to know more about those tricks, see: How Can Setting Be A Character?

PLOT AND CHARACTER WEB OF A THRILLER

  • A life and death situation.
  • There’s probably a single main character.
  • The inciting incident will be your main character’s opponent.
  • This devastating crime is about to be committed, or has been committed with the threat of an even worse one to come. (This is why serial killer thrillers are so popular — we know there will be another one.)
  • A thriller has a villain-driven plot. The villain presents obstacles that the hero must overcome.
  • The hero has to solve the puzzle of overcoming the villain, getting one step ahead.
  • Basically, the main character is saving their own life and probably others’ lives by escaping from a person who wants to kill them.
  • Make use of a common storytelling technique known as The Shadow In The Hero.

Shadows are villains in the story. They exist to create threat and conflict, and to give the hero something to struggle against. Like many of the other archetypes, shadows do not have to be characters specifically – the dark side of the force is just as much a shadow for Luke as Darth Vader is.

The shadow is especially effective if it mirrors the hero in some way. It shows the audience the twisted person the hero could become if they head down the wrong path, and highlights the hero’s internal struggle. This, in turn, makes the hero’s success more meaningful. The reveal that Darth Vader is Luke’s father, right after Luke had ignored Yoda’s advice, makes the dark side feel more threatening.

Mythcreants

  • The ‘main character’ will be your typical hero, or ‘the character the audience roots for’. Using terminology proposed by Northrop Frye, they may at first appear to be low mimetic, but then they rise to an incredible challenge and prove themselves high mimetic, or even almost superhero. This allows an audience the wish fulfilment fantasy as we imagine that we, too, might rise to any challenge to save lives.
  • The difference between a hero and a villain: heroes wants to save themselves, others and the world, but villains are motivated by power.

In the simple thriller form the opponent is marked out by their desire to control and dominate the lives of others. They don’t follow the moral codes of the community. More often than not they’re an embodiment of selfishness. They are also, historically, often marked by physical or mental deformity. Le Chiffre’s maladjusted tear duct in the film of Casino Royale is the modern equivalent of Dr No’s missing hands or Scaramanga’s third nipple in the Man With The Golden Gun. In a more politically correct age, the physical flaw (clearly an outer manifestation of inner damage) has been scaled down to a level society finds acceptable. If the antagonist is internal, the same principles apply: the enemy within works in opposition to the host’s better nature — it cripples them. It stands in opposition to everything they might be.

John Yorke, Into The Woods

Tears for Fears wrote a song about your typical desire of a villain.

A Difference Between ‘Internal’ and ‘External’ Thrillers

This is from an episode of The Narrative Breakdown podcast.

Internally Motivated Thrillers

This is really weird when it’s first pointed out (by the Narrative Breakdown podcast, for me), but there’s a type of thriller which maps exactly onto the structure of comedy.

Both thrillers and comedy relies on the ‘mask’. I have written an entire post about Masks in Storytelling.

Matt Bird calls this the Transgression, Noir, or Wrong-Man Thriller. Hitchcock was a fan of these. Its structure looks like this:

  1. Discontent — someone is unhappy about something
  2. Transgression with a mask — peculiar to comedy and thrillers
  3. Transgression without a mask — midpoint disaster when the mask is ripped off
  4. Dealing with consequences
  5. Spiritual Crisis — happens in almost every story
  6. Growth Without a Mask

As you’ll have noticed, this is an ‘internal’ subgenre because it starts with the psychological shortcoming of the hero — the hero’s ‘discontent’. The standout Transgression Thriller is Double Indemnity, from the 1940s.

Externally Motivated Thrillers

This type of thriller is often called the Conspiracy Thriller. (In The Narrative Breakdown podcast this starts at 17.50.)

  1. Injustice (externally motivated)
  2. Overconfident Investigation Begins
  3. Midpoint Disaster
  4. Overconfident Investigative Crusade
  5. Midpoint Disaster
  6. A Series of Betrayals (again, these are external to the hero’s psychology)
  7. Revelation — the conspiracy is exposed or the mystery is solved.

The standout  conspiracy thriller is The Maltese Falcon (also from the 1940s). Other examples include: L.A. Confidential, Crimson Tide, All the President’s Men, China Town.

Other Writing Techniques Typically Employed In Thrillers

  • A MacGuffin often begins the plot (The MacGuffin must be plausible and valuable object of desire that will push the characters to obtain and fight for it. the quest for the MacGuffin must create conflict, tension, and emotion. Shawn Coyne.) Hitchcock invented the word. If you’ve started with a McGuffin, you may be writing a Hitchcock Thriller.
  • The writer will make use of techniques like reveals.
  • Narrative drive — Characters and setting serve the pace of the narrative rather than the other way round. You still need to texture the pace. Even fast-paced stories need down moments.
  • Deferment. The reader wants to know what happens next but don’t tell them right away. Withhold information for as long as possible without it seeming contrived.
  • In thriller novels, balance on the page tends to be: lots of dialogue plus the occasional two-inch paragraph of narration. For more on that distinction, see Parts of Prose.
  • Ticking Clock technique is most common in action genres (Speed), thrillers (Outbreak), caper stories (where the characters pull off some kind of heist, as in Ocean’s Eleven), and suicide mission stories (The Guns of Navarone, The Dirty Dozen). There are many variations on the ticking clock. Panic Room invents a variation in which the daughter’s watch is a number showing her blood sugar levels. The specifics are meaningless unless you’re familiar with Type 1 diabetes, but any audience gets the idea. The watch is shown in close up when the daughter rolls over to settle down to sleep.

Thrillers Written From The Villain’s Point Of View

Most thrillers are told from the hero’s point of view, but some are told from the point of view of the villain.

  • The whole Ripley series by Patricia Highsmith is an example of this kind of thriller. Tom Ripley is our main character who both solves murders and murders his own people.
  • There’s an Agatha Christie book which does this. (She tried it, but didn’t stick with it.)
  • Dexter — the TV show diverged a lot from the books. He only kills criminals who have gotten away with things. It’s an interesting reverse because we know who’s committed the crime. It’s the process of him working backwards from that and planning the kill.
  • 20 Books With Villain Protagonists from Bustle

Thrillers and Feminism

A lot of [thrillers] have the classic “male cop investigating murdered woman” plot. […] When the women aren’t being “brutally murdered” and raped, they sometimes get to be the main characters. […]

We need to start describing characters and blurbing books better. Seriously. In 100% of books with male and female cops/detectives as co-protagonists, the woman occurs second in the description as such: “Man, with Woman by his side”, or “Man, teamed with Woman”. Karin Slaughter’s Triptych features this gem: “Male veteran cop and Female beautiful vice cop.” In Caleb Carr’s The Alienist, two men set out on a mission but when “they are joined by Sara Howard, a brave and determined woman who works as a secretary in the police department,” their team becomes “unlikely.” Sue Crafton’s M is for Malice, written by a woman and featuring women doesn’t even have GR description.

Let’s talk more about these female protagonists, which either accidentally stumble upon the murder/crime or are unlikely suspects in the plot; they are rarely formally established and celebrated cops or detectives. Sample this description I Let You Go, with a female protagonist: “Desperate to escape, Jenna moves to a remote cottage on the Welsh coast, but she is haunted by her fears, her grief and her memories of a cruel November night that changed her life forever. Slowly, Jenna begins to glimpse the potential for happiness in her future. But her past is about to catch up with her, and the consequences will be devastating.” It is tough to read this, keeping in mind that this is opposed to their male counterparts, who get to be “brilliant geniuses” and “brave” and “veteran”, while women remain “lonely”, “desperate”, or at most “the first in their fields”.

Bookriot

RESOURCES

I’ve mainly learned about thrillers from the following sources:

“Good People” Is A Terrible Film

Good People movie

Good People is a 2014 film with a screenplay written by Kelly Masterson, based on the novel by Marcus Sakey. This is not a quality film. That said, the ideological issues have remained wholly untouched by paid reviewers, who focused on the problems within the action thread of the plot. Good People is an excellent example of why we need more feminist film critics, not to mention women in the writers’ rooms. The human-relationship thread of this plot makes for a faux-feminist story, created in a room full of men.



The Moral Dilemma of Good People

Discovering a stash of cash in their dead tenant’s apartment, a couple in debt take the money and find themselves the target of a deadly adversary – the thief who stole it.

IMDb logline

With a premise like that, the audience is encouraged to scrutinise our own moral code. The story thus begins, with a clear (though contrived) moral dilemma:

  • If you found a stash of dirty money would you hand it in to the cops?
  • What if you were about to lose a house you’d been working on?
  • What if you were about to be evicted from your flat?
  • What if you desperately wanted to procreate but couldn’t afford IVF?
  • How far would you go to keep it?

An Overview of Criticism

It’s a little unfair to criticise the film for its unrealistic action thread. Fans of realism should steer clear, but you could argue equally, a realistic romp into London’s gangland is not what this film is about:

Crime thrillers typically have an advantage over the public in that their depictions of illicit worlds need only to look believable. The vast majority of us who aren’t gangsters and detectives require little to be convinced of the realism. But here, viewers will repeatedly call into question the far-fetched nature of scenes designed to keep the plot moving in a contrived fashion.

DVDizzy review

Reviewer Jane Crowther uses the term ‘morally dubious’ to describe the decisions made by the characters, in which ‘cold-blooded murder with DIY tools turns out to be entirely excusable, and strangely in a film ostensibly about consequences goes completely unchallenged.’

Good People reminds reviewers most strongly of Straw Dogs, in which characters played by Dustin Hoffman and Susan George are terrorised in their home by thugs. Unfortunately the madcap sequence reminds others of Home Alone, which undermines its adult action-thriller cred.

Good People reminded me of No Country For Old Men, but only because of its character web.

The Character Web of Good People

  • Both films star the ‘ordinary’ guy who is economically unfortunate. Except Llewellyn lives in a trailer and — let’s be real — Anna and Tom of this film are hardly destitute, and if they are, it’s their own damn fault. (More on that below.)
  • There is a range of ‘evil’ in the opposition web, ranging from common crims right up to a sociopathic, cold-blooded murderer who isn’t in crime for the money anymore, but is propelled forth by his own moral code. He’s in it for vengeance and power. The degrees of bad in the baddies is the best thing about this film, though their evil is completely undermined when they’re proved so easy to trick. (A teacher kills them without using a gun. They have guns.)
  • The husband makes a decision that implicates his wife, all without telling her. But she sticks by her man and goes along with him.
  • Soon she is drawn into the trouble, along with a peripheral woman who is used as collateral damage. In No Country For Old Men it’s the wife’s elderly mother. In this one it’s the wife’s best friend and her baby. The female friendship feels completely unrealistic.  Women aren’t in the habit of saying shit like, “You’re in a bad mood. Are you on your period?” Not if they’re actually friends, that is. These women are meant to be friends, make no bones about it. The strength of their friendship is tested later in the plot. Male writers need to do better when writing women. A good place to start would be this: Treat women as if women are human, without feeling the need to embellish with extra ‘femaleness’ stuff like talking about menstruation in the one scene when men are out of the room. (This awfully written conversation cancels out the passing of the Bechdel test.)
  • Then there’s the track with the cop. The cop in this one has a predictable backstory of a dead daughter, who overdosed on drugs. This can be done well. It’s not done well here. The psychology of the bereft cop remains wholly unexplored, whereas in the much better written Happy Valley, the emotions of the police officer who has lost her daughter are more fully explored, including the psychological toll of grief and trauma. Only then does death of a daughter avoid feeling like a cheap gimmick to satisfy the ‘ghost‘ section of the character. (The cop’s wife only exists to make him look better in her reflection — she, like Anna, supposedly works in a caring role.)

A huge problem with the main characters: They’re not likeable… which is fine. Characters don’t have to be likeable. They just have to be interesting.

The problem here: the storytellers think they have created likeable people. We know this because we can see them pulling out all the writerly tricks. But Tom and Anna are not likeable. Now that is a problem.

Genz does his best to make us like them – they’re grafters in a rough patch who do all those things Hollywood would have us do, like have sushi nights when fertility levels are high or go running along the Thames.

Dog and Wolf review

What Makes Characters Accidentally Unlikeable?

Apart from the obnoxious jogging and expensive sushi and wine nights, that is. It’s worth taking a closer look at why I do not like this couple. Others may feel differently, perhaps because they like the actors. My response went like this:

  • The physical chemistry between Tom and Anna is depicted as great, but this is masking a deeper problem with their relationship — massive, destructive deception. And the deception is wholly one-sided. (More on that below, but this is the huge sinker for me.)
  • We’re meant to feel sorry for this guy because he’s been working so hard on this house. (Anna tells her friend he’s ‘always at the house’.) This is a guy who is a hard worker. We’re meant to respect that. But it turns out they inherited the house. They didn’t work hard for that. I know how much housing costs in London. The minute they inherited that massive reno project, this couple were millionaires. If they’re about to lose their wholly inherited fortune, it’s their own stupid fault. I don’t warm to stupid characters.
  • I don’t like that these are Americans living in London. I feel like this is not their turf. (The book keeps them in America.) I don’t feel they’re part of the landscape. Also, why didn’t they just return to America as soon as shit hit the fan? For them that was always a viable option. They never even discuss it as a possibility.
  • When the detective visits the house, they’re sitting in the kitchen and the wife answers questions on behalf of her husband. This is insufferable. She’s meant to be doing a bad job of masking her anxiety due to having stolen dirty money, but it’s a super annoying conversational tic in general. She also overshares, to the consternation of the husband. This shows how fish-out-of-water this woman is. Generally, Londoners are not known to overshare with strangers.
  • Anna is supposed to be a teacher, which is supposed to mean she’s good with babies and children and all the rest, but we never see her doing her job. I know how busy teachers are. I taught in London. Teachers get home at about 7pm each night. But okay, maybe this is summer holidays. Still, if the writers wanted to imbue Anna with some of that teacherly empathy for humankind, they could’ve included one scene in which she’s with the kids that she teaches. She could have been lovingly preparing lessons. Or something to show she’s also got an actual proper job other than getting herself pregnant. (And she does get herself pregnant. We never see her husband go to the IVF clinic with her, which suggests the writers don’t know how IVF works. Or worse, they’re suddenly meant to have conceived naturally, now that the husband’s manliness — or virility — has been put to the test and he passed?)
  • That scene where we Anna is actually super creepy. Any contemporary audience is used to stories in which an infertile woman steals a baby. This is meant to rely on desperation and grief experienced by women who ‘fail’ to give birth to her own. (In reality, men tend to feel more grief than women when deprived of the chance to become fathers.) When Anna kisses that baby’s head I’m half expecting Anna to steal her friend’s child. That is really not what the writers were going for at all. It takes me a while to get past this possibility in my head.
  • Anna reveals herself as completely unlikable when she turns up to ‘pet’ her best friend’s baby, then declares that the godmother duty does not involve washing. (It totally would. How hard would it be to offer to take a load of washing home?) This is a soon-to-be mother who has no idea how big a deal it is for a washing cycle to halt when there’s a baby to take care of.

Problems With The ‘Strong Female Character’ Archetype

Good People is an excellent example of why the phrase ‘strong female character’ has fallen out of favour. At first glance it may seem Anna makes for a more feminist film because the writers have afforded her agency. Llewellyn’s wife (whose name I’d have to look up) accepts her fate with grace but she makes no decisions of her own, caught up in a web of male greed and violence. In Good People, Anna is soon revealed to be just as scheming and dangerous as her husband when put to the test. Anna becomes a trickster character, who manages to kill experienced murderers through wit and planning alone.

But female agency alone does not make for satisfying feminist entertainment. There is another huge problem with this film, to do with the underlying ideology.

At the beginning of the film the audience follows Tom and we learn information Anna doesn’t have. This ‘good’ husband tells his work partner that he’s gone over budget (by double!) on the house renovations but he hasn’t told his wife. Then he goes home and is served with an eviction notice. When Anna comes in smiling and happy, ready to have sex with him, he slides the eviction notice under a pile of papers and avoids telling her about any of this.

Clearly, Tom is not a good husband. In real life, this would count as economic abuse.

Partway through the movie, Anna reveals that she knows more about their financial situation than Tom realised. Wives are commonly portrayed in stories as all-seeing, all-knowing — as if women have some animalistic extra sensory perception. Cute. Tom refuses to admit their imminent eviction, however. He hasn’t yet admitted it to himself, you see. We’re supposed to admire his fortitude: He tells his wife that he has some jobs coming up and she doesn’t need to worry. The main issue — the relationship-crumbling issue — is that Tom lied to his wife… so that she wouldn’t worry. This is a man who not only loses their joint fortune, but who infantilises his life partner.

Anna is the ‘cool girl’ archetype. Any self-respecting woman would confront her partner about his enormous deceit. This never happens. Instead she matches her husband in his masculine bravado, and the audience is encouraged to conclude that, wherever our own morals lie, the wife is just as bad as the husband. This aspect is very Gone Girl, which is where the cool girl archetype entered popular culture as a trope. 2014 was also the year Gone Girl hit cinemas. But rather than critique the trope, the writers of Good People are oblivious to it.

Men always say that as the defining compliment, don’t they? She’s a cool girl. Being the Cool Girl means I am a hot, brilliant, funny woman who adores football, poker, dirty jokes, and burping, who plays video games, drinks cheap beer, loves threesomes and anal sex, and jams hot dogs and hamburgers into her mouth like she’s hosting the world’s biggest culinary gang bang while somehow maintaining a size 2, because Cool Girls are above all hot. Hot and understanding. Cool Girls never get angry; they only smile in a chagrined, loving manner and let their men do whatever they want. Go ahead, shit on me, I don’t mind, I’m the Cool Girl.

the Cool Girl monologue from Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

Good People is clearly a wish fulfilment thriller, in which (supposedly) relatable characters get to go on an adventure without leaving home. They get to exact vengeance on some truly terrible baddies, making London into a (supposedly) better place. They don’t get to keep the huge bag of money, but they come out with what they wanted most of all: a pregnancy.

Clearly, the writers have aimed for a fleshed-out human angle to run alongside the wish-fulfilment action plot. But as so often happens in action thrillers written by a room full of men, the human angle has been completely mucked up. They failed to subvert a sexist trope, instead reinforcing it. They failed to show a healthy relationship, despite their best intentions. In genuinely healthy relationships the partners are economic equals. They speak to each other with honesty. Yet here they are, freshly pregnant, about to drive into the sunset to outro music which suggests this is a woman who will stick by her lying, economically abusive husband no matter what.

More than that, the film has ‘proven’ her to be ‘just as bad(-ass)’ as he is.

Stephen King’s IT Storytelling Techniques

IT 2017 movie poster

IT is a 1986 horror novel by Stephen King, first adapted for screen in 1990, and most recently in 2017. This blog post is about the storytelling of the 2017 film.

THE TERRIBLE MONSTER OF IT

I liked what one reviewer had to say about IT: The monster in this film is whatever the story requires him to be for the scene. Indeed, this monster is the ultimate shapeshifter, sometimes calm, sometimes unleashed. This monster is a writer’s dream — he seems to have no rules. Why doesn’t every horror writer create a monster like this? He’s awesome.

He’s also one-dimensional.



Here’s the golden rule about movie-length (or novel-length) stories about unpredictable monster villains with no redeeming features: Villain versus hero cannot, in itself, sustain a story. The character web is simply not interesting enough. Alongside the monstrous villain the writer must create a very human web of opposition. We see this time and time again in popular storytelling:

  • In Twister we have man versus tornado, but the human opposition comes from a couple of professional storm-chasers on the brink of divorce as well as an entire band of rival storm-chasers who aim to beat our heroes in their storm-chasing game.
  • In Jaws we have man versus shark, but the interest comes once again from the human opposition. Sheriff Martin Brody wants to close the beach, but this is opposed by local businessmen. Then there’s the most subtle, macho opposition between manly-man Quint and the others on his boat.
  • In Jurassic Park we have man versus velociraptor, but a park employee attempts to steal Hammond’s dinosaur embryos, among other interpersonal opposition.

And in IT, we have the evil outside villain (the shapeshifting clown), but there is a very strong human gang of bullies who are just as scary. The gang of bully kids is a common way to flesh out a web of opposition, especially in stories about children. Suzie Templeton used the bully opposition web for her short film adaptation of Peter and the Wolf.

IT: MODERN MONSTER

IT is very explicit about the symbolism of the clown, and why it is a shapeshifter. But this is the typical modern horror monster. I have written previously: What is the horror genre for? IT is a modern horror, having moved away from Christian symbolism and into psychological symbolism. The monster is a representation of whatever terrible thing happens to be in your own life.

STORYWORLD OF IT

Realism interpretation of the IT setting: There is no clown. Georgie Denbrough drowns while trying to retrieve his paper boat from a drain. The body is never found. Bill bonds with the others in his vicinity who each have their own significant trauma: incest, Munchausen syndrome by proxy and so on. The monster is different depending on who sees him. This is like the Mirror of Erised in Harry Potter. Whoever looks into it sees their own unfulfilled desire. The Mirror of Erised is a descendent of an old fairy tale device, such as the mirror in stories such as Snow White.

Horror is one of the three most symbolic genres in existence. (The other two are science fiction and Western.) Much has already been said about the symbolism and, frankly, if you’ve seen a lot of horror, it doesn’t need saying.

CHILDHOOD REALISTICALLY DEPICTED IN A STORY FOR ADULTS

One thing that struck me while watching IT: The smart aleck dialogue, especially the crass sexual jokes in the dialogue of Richie Tozier, felt realistic. The irony is that this dialogue would never be acceptable in books for children of that age. These kids are meant to be 13, which upper middle grade, lower young adult. In children’s literature you never read dialogue such as:

Richie Tozier : You punched me, made me walk through shitty water, dragged me through a crackhouse… and now I’m gonna have to kill this fucking clown.

Richie Tozier : I hear the list is longer than my wang.
Stanley Uris : That’s not saying much.

Richie Tozier : Hey Eddie, are these your birth control pills?
Eddie Kaspbrak : Yeah, I’m saving them for your sister!

I have known adolescent boys who talk very much like this. Another difference between stories for adults and stories for children: Children in stories for children must function, to some extent, as role models. Child characters in children’s stories are more naive and wholesome than many real-life counterparts.

It’s not just the horror elements of this film which keep this movie out of children’s hands. The clown, all told, isn’t that scary for many kids. The clown is clearly a monster. But the stone throwing, the chase, the fat shaming, the mutilation on a boy’s belly — those elements all feel uncomfortably real.

CHILDHOOD SONGS SECONDED FOR ADULT HORROR

Listen to the IT soundtrack (composed and arranged by Benjamin Wallfisch) and you’ll hear a very creepy, echoey version of Oranges and Lemons, music box inspired atmospheric tunes and children singing, slowly and without instrumental accompaniment.

This technique is common across horror and thriller films. Quentin Tarantino understood the creepiness of Shivaree’s 2000 song entitled ‘Goodnight Moon‘ when he chose for the soundtrack of Kill Bill Vol. 2.

There’s a nail in the door
And there’s glass on the lawn
Tacks on the floor
And the TV is on
And I always sleep with my guns
When you’re gone

There’s a blade by the bed
And a phone in my hand
A dog on the floor
And some cash on the nightstand
When I’m all alone the dreaming stops
And I just can’t stand

On it goes. Fans of child literature, however, are more likely to think of the eponymous but innocent story by Margaret Wise Brown.

That link to the well-known picture book is part of what makes for the creepiness of the song. There’s something about the admixture of horror and childhood familiarities such as songs, clowns, circuses and picture books which intensifies the creepiness of the creepy bit. This is how the folk at TV Tropes put it:

If a program or film wants to add fear to a scene one of the most creepy ways is to have a Creepy Child, or a whole creepy choir, singing somewhere in the distance or background, usually the tune is a mournful nursery rhyme. Sometimes it will seem like the characters can hear it and they may even call out, asking if anyone is there.

Creepy Children Singing

The Wire is a TV series for adults, creepy because of its uncomfortable realism. The character Omar Comin is particularly interesting, due to his role as sometime-comic relief, for his incongruous same-sex attraction in an overwhelmingly macho environment, and for his sociopathic ability to kill. Regular viewers of the show will soon learn that when Omar Comin starts to whistle Farmer In The Dell, bad stuff is going to happen. In this clip, bystanders realise from the whistle that Omar is up to very bad business.

Why Farmer In The Dell? Because viewers familiar with the tune will associate it with innocence, childlike naivete and comfort. The tune works well in the story because Omar is probably using one of his own childhood favourites for dual purpose: To set up a nonchalant persona for himself in the eyes of others, and also to steady his own nerves. The words themselves may also have thematic significance, though The Wire is not known for its ham-handed metaphors in the manner of Mad Men, so this may be an overanalysis.

The tinkle of bells, the fast-to-slow tune of a music box, the call of the ice-cream van — all make for excellent horror soundtracks and IT makes use of it too.

RELATED

10 Things You Might Not Know About Stephen King’s IT from Mental Floss

How IT handles the book’s most controversial scene from Entertainment Weekly

Somersault Film Storytelling Techniques

Somersault_movie_poster

Last month I wrote about the film American Honey, set in America but written and directed by Andrea Arnold, who is English. If there’s an Australian equivalent of American Honey, Somersault is it. Somersault is a 2004 film written and directed by another (all-too-rare) female filmmaker, Cate Shortland.



SIMILARITIES BETWEEN AMERICAN HONEY AND SOMERSAULT

  • Both are written from a female point-of-view, with a feminine sensibility
  • Male characters are often the cause of the downfall, and definitely the cause of the downfall at the beginning. In both we have a step-father figure sexually assaulting the young woman supposed to be in his care.
  • The older women in these young women’s lives are hugely problematic and can’t see past the system which pits young women in sexual opposition to older women, seeing themselves not as mentors but as opponents.
  • The young woman — the hero — sets out on a mythic journey of her own, pushed out of what sufficed for a home by her wicked step-mother archetype.
  • Along the journey she meets a range of opponents and allies — her challenge is to understand who is a true opponent and who is a true ally. This is not an easy task, because the people she meets are problematic characters in their own right, with dishonesties of their own. More complicated than that, problematic people can prove allies in their own warped way, by offering a lesson in how not to lead a good life.

THE ENDING

The major difference between Somersault and American Honey is the ending, but it’s only a surface difference: In American Honey, Star never returns home. She has found a new home, on the road. But Heidi of Somersault returns home to her mother, in a presentation of a happy ending. I don’t see this as a happy ending. It depends on whether the  mother has undergone some sort of revelation in Heidi’s absence. Heidi may be better to stay away from her mother. But this is left off the screen.

STORYWORLD OF SOMERSAULT

The setting is different, of course. Somersault is set in Jindabyne, or ‘The Australian Alps’ — probably not the image of Australia most non-Australian audiences would associate with this country. The narrative takes place at the end of winter, as work for itinerant workers is winding down. Abbie Cornish (who plays Heidi) spends about half the film wrapped up in winter gear and the other half naked as a baby (which I think is partly the point).

Behind closed doors, Heidi reveals her childlike side, conducting imaginary romantic dialogues with Joe in the mirror and poring over her scrapbook. Ms. Cornish, who suggests a teenage Naomi Watts, evokes the full spectrum, from vulnerable child to self-assured young woman, of Heidi’s personality.

NYT

See also: The Seasons Of Storytelling

Jindabyne feels like a heterotopia even to Australian audiences. There’s a creepy-as-all-get-out crime film, also set in Jindabyne. (The film is called Jindabyne., because that’s all that’s required for a creepy title.) Jindabyne is cold when the rest of Australia remains warm. Three hours from Canberra, even Canberra feels removed to the major cities of Australia, so that’s saying something. (I live near Canberra myself.) As a ski town, Jindabyne is busy at some times of the year. The snow melts and it quickly returns to its semi-deserted state. Horripilation is inherent to such places, which is why Stephen King knew to set a story in a resort town at its deserted time of year. Birds, humans, any kind of wildlife know, instinctively, that when a place clears out, something feels horribly off. It’s probably primal.

The Shining movie poster

There has been heavy post-processing with Somersault, with the blues and whites as a symbol for emotional detachment.

CHARACTERS OF SOMERSAULT

Australian filmmakers are often good at writing authentically naiive dialogue. Their young characters are not mini-adults. They are authentically young. Another excellent example is Warwick Thornton’s Samson and Delilah (2009). It’s pretty painful to watch, actually. If only the characters could communicate better, they could live happily ever after. But we talked exactly like this at their age. We didn’t know what we wanted. We certainly did not know how to get it, and neither does Heidi. Nor does Joe, played by Sam Worthington.

Cate Shortland’s Somersault reminds me of Sally Wainwright’s Happy Valley. Both are stories about sexual violence against women. Both writers have been careful to include a wide spectrum of men, each representing an archetype. In Somersault we have a lot of bad men, but each is bad in his own way:

  • The mother’s boyfriend sees nothing wrong with doing sex to his teenage step-daughter when he gets the opportunity. The opportunistic, unthinking, but still very damaging man.
  • Joe is a product of a masculine culture in which being manly is the only option. His same-sex kiss gives the audience insight into how Joe must be struggling to conform to this role. Joe steps in to be the hero when Heidi is in danger of being raped. Punching a guy in the face is the only tool he has.
  • Joe’s father is no help to him. We see him briefly, reading the paper, doggedly avoiding any sort of emotional connection with his son, even though the son is desperately seeking that with him. ‘Don’t wake your mother.’ This is a man who fulfils the role of husband and father, but probably only on the surface. He goes through the motions of being a good man but his head is down the whole time.
  • Joe’s friends exist to show the masculine friend dynamics. Their bonding is done via women, exchanging information about who is sleeping with who, treating sex like a conquest and boast-worthy achievement. Screenwriting gurus will tell you the hero needs a big argument with an ally at some point. The friend will interrogate the hero’s decisions. Heidi has no friends in Jindabyne, so as proxy, it is Joe who has the big argument with one of his friends about how he is living his life. Joe definitely has his own character arc in this film.
  • Off-screen, we have Irene’s son who has murdered a man. This guy is your ultimate, clear-cut villain. But he’s not interesting. We never meet him. The shades of grey are far more interesting for women writing stories about rape, the male gaze and everything in between.
  • The guy credited only as ‘staring man’ represents the male gaze in general, and foreshadows something even more creepy when Heidi asks for a job at the ski supplies shop.
  • Turns out this creepy guy (revealed later to be Bianca’s father figure) is another opportunistic type. At first I thought he was a replica of Heidi’s mother’s boyfriend, only in another town. But unlike Heidi’s mother’s boyfriend, this guy is older and knows exactly what he’s doing. Bianca’s father is deliberately (rather than stupidly, inadvertently) destroying the relationships women have with each other. He goes home and lies to Bianca that Heidi made a pass at him. He is disgusted by his own aroused response to Heidi and turns it outward.
  • Likewise, Cate Shortland takes the storytelling opportunity to make a distinction between the two men who Heidi ‘invites’ back to her room. One of them suggests they leave, knowing that sex with a stoned person can never be consensual. But when his friend goes ahead with it, he collapses into laughter, prioritising the friendship with his mate over the safety of the young woman. Both are bad; one is slightly worse. On the other hand, is one really worse? Neither of them pull back from the situation.

Heidi is invited back to Bianca’s house and we are introduced to Bianca’s little brother. Bianca’s mother is training him with flashcards to read faces. (An ineffective exercise, by the way, since a description of the expression is written right below the face itself. Presumably the kid can read words if not faces.) Bianca explains to Heidi later that her brother is autistic. In an outdated, 2004 explanation of autism, she explains that her brother lacks ’empathy’, unable to read other people. This is completely inaccurate — we know that now. Bianca describes not empathy (which autistic people have in spades), but social-emotional agnosia.

With increasing autism awareness, storytellers are now making use of autistic characters to say something deeper about their themes. I believe Cate Shortland has written these characters to show us all the different ways in which people misunderstand each other. The autistic boy shows us an exaggerated form of misunderstanding, which means the theme is hammered home strong for the audience.

THEMES OF SOMERSAULT

Stephen Holden, writing for the New York Times, describes this story as ‘a movie about the looks on people’s faces and the disparity between the surface and the roiling chaos beneath.’ People are different underneath. People are hard to read, even without their clothes. People tell lies. They leave things out.

The anagnorisis for Heidi is not made clear to the audience. What, exactly, has she learned from this experience? She tells her problematic proxy boyfriend she’s glad they met. She’s definitely meant to have learned something from this guy. But what? I believe this is left to audience imagination. I don’t believe she’s learned much about boyfriends, unfortunately.

Here’s what she has definitely learned: She cannot be her authentic self if she goes through life telling lies. Irene has learnt this too. They learn it together. The Battle scene which leads to this anagnorisis is the argument between Irene and Heidi in which Irene evicts Heidi for inviting young men in the middle of the night. These boys create a scene. (The attempted rape and punch to the face is the first stage of the Battle scene, but is not the part that leads to the anagnorisis.) Only then does Heidi’s mask come off. (Masks are very important in storytelling, especially in certain genres, especially at the Anagnorisis stage of a story.) Heidi admits to Irene that her mother is not dead. In turn, Heidi reveals to Irene that she knows Irene’s son is in prison, and demands to know exactly why. Only when the two women are completely honest with each other are they able to find temporary peace. Although I suspect Heidi went on to have many more terrible boyfriends, I imagine she’s more truthful with herself and to them. This alone will have helped her a bit.