The Monster Mash Up

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So what does the thriller get from the horror genre?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


18 comments on “The Monster Mash Up

  1. Joel D Canfield says:

    It’s great seeing how melded genres pick up the DNA of their parents.

    I need to make better use of the clock in my books.

  2. Mary Doyle says:

    This is so helpful, even though I am not writing in the thriller or horror genres. I have to confess that I’ve not considered my WIP in terms of what my obligations to the reader are, and what promises I must be sure to fulfill. I’m learning a lot, and looking forward to more. As always, thanks Shawn!

  3. Stacy says:

    I’m writing a thriller, and post is helpful and fabulous! Thank you!!

  4. Will Douglas says:

    ‘No, Mr Bond, I expect you to die.’

  5. julia says:

    Wasn’t thinking of writing a thriller but having this plan makes it seem really appealing

  6. Steve H. says:

    Inspiring post. You mentioned before that the Thriller genre is made up of Crime, Action, and Horror but it didn’t sink in until now. Now I’m wondering what other genres can be combined for a new type of story.

    My question is, must a Thriller have a crime? I enjoy Thrillers, but in my own writing I don’t have a desire to include a crime in my story.

    1. Shawn Coyne says:

      I think it does Steve. Without a crime, it’s difficult to distinguish between “good” and “evil” and the thing is most people don’t like ambiguity about that in their stories.

      1. Steve H. says:

        Well, then I guess I can just do an Action/Horror mashup. Maybe that’s what I want to write instead.

  7. john Hobson says:

    Interesting checklist. Is there not a danger if this becoming to formulaic? How do you both use the conventions then subvert them?

    1. Shawn Coyne says:

      Hi John,
      Yes there is a danger of them becoming too forumlaic. The trick is to spend a lot of time, I mean a LOT of time hashing out numerous scenarios before settling on the best choice. I would suspect that it took Thomas Harris at least 100 different sketches before he came up with his “Hero at the mercy of the villain” scene. A story must be inevitable (the formulaic element) and surprising (the original art element) in order for it to be cathartic. Ignoring the conventions or the art results in mediocre work.
      All the best,

    2. Joel D Canfield says:

      That’s where artistic talent comes in.

      Consider popular music: 8 notes, as a general rule. Rarely more than 4 chords; sometimes, only two. Definite conventions for lyrical content, rhythmic and rhyming patterns.

      And a billion unique songs, thousands of which are brilliant works of eternal art. Okay, some, not so much, but that’s where the talent lies.

  8. Tina Goodman says:

    What a coincidence. When I was trying to think of a hero at the mercy of the villain scene I came up with a scene from Friday the 13th. The hero was cornered so she pretended to be the villain’s dead mother (or aunt?) and was able to slip away. (I think I saw that in one of the Psycho movies too. The one with Meg Tilly.)

  9. Werner says:

    This series is pure writer’s gold. Thank you!

  10. Kev Gan says:

    Hi Shawn,

    Your website and book are a Godsend. So thank you!

    I just had a query regarding so-called ‘Dark Inversions’ with regards to thrillers: i.e. Michael Corleone, Macbeth, Walter White etc. – the hero who’s journey is inverted so they change from honourable/good at the beginning of the story to bad and achieve their change to a fully ‘evil’ character.

    I was wondering whether a Protagonist in a story can have the following journey: From good to evil, and then finally good again (i.e. redemption)? Or will an audience not identify with that? I’m racking my brain for a film/book where this has happened but can’t think of one (and I’ve seen a lot of films!).

    What I am thinking of is if, for example, (*spoiler alert*) Walter White in Breaking Bad became the fully-formed evil Heisenberg at the end, but at the last moment redeems himself so that he is ‘good’ again (and thus saves himself). Would that work?

    Sorry if that’s confusing! I’m working on what happens to my protagonist in the end 🙂

    Many thanks,


    1. Shawn Coyne says:

      Sure that works great. You’re describing the Redemption Internal Genre plot movement.
      All the best,

      1. Kev Gan says:

        Many thanks Shawn.

        I just didn’t recall ever seeing a character go full circle in that way; usually in the redemption story the protagonist starts off flawed and overcomes his flaw, and thus becomes ‘good’. But, for example with Macbeth, his flaw is actually being honourable in the beginning and by the end he overcomes his ‘flaw’ and becomes fully ‘evil’ (and thus changes). Whereas a protagonist who starts off honourable, goes into darkness/evil, and then ends up being honourable again at the end (and not really changing)…that would work? Perhaps there’s an obvious real world example I’m missing here.

        P.s. sorry for pestering you on this.

        1. Shawn Coyne says:

          Hi Kev,
          A Christmas Carol is a solid example… Dickens plays with time, but the progression is this. SCROOGE is a deprived abandoned young man with an essential goodness who becomes obsessed with money and throws away his chance for familial happiness as a young man…he turns “bad” as a miser until a ripe old age…and then he is redeemed by the end of the Story after the visits from his fellow dead miser Marley and the three ghosts. I’ll get into A Christmas Carol more on the December 23rd podcast. A wonderful, simple internal redemption story. Don’t over think it. If you subscribe to the idea that we’re all born innocent and good then the progression from good to bad to good is essentially the same as bad to good. You’re just eliminating the backstory from innocence to corruption and beginning in medias res with corruption fully established.

          1. Kev Gan says:

            I see exactly what you mean Shawn, many thanks. I didn’t think of it that way, in terms of most stories just eliminating the backstory of innocence and starting in the middle of things.
            Thanks again,

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