Thriller Writing Challenges

Among other things, I write Medical Thrillers.
And one of the greatest challenges I find is this: HOW TO MAKE THE CONFLICT PERSONAL?
What do I mean by that?
Imagine you have a medical condition or medical disaster- eg. A virus or a bioweapon perhaps, in your story.
The Bioweapon is not a conflict. There is no implicit emotional element in a virus – it is the EFFECT of the virus on a person which creates the conflict.
This is a tool used by an Antagonist as part of his plan to kill people and cause chaos – or perhaps something more creative, such as he actually wants to kill ONE Person and uses the bioweapon as a cover story.
The character of this opponent and his plan drives the action plot – and that is where the challenge lies.
John Truby* wrote an excellent critique of the movie ‘OUTBREAK‘ ** which explains some of the KEY CHALLENGES inherent in creating screenplay for an ‘Action Thriller’. This film came out in 1995 and stared Dustin Hoffman and Kevin Spacey among others .
1. How do you create an ongoing and a building opposition when your opponent is a virus?
You can’t do it. You can’t have a dramatic fight against an invisible bug. So you have to have a personal opposition.
So, the main opponent doesn’t remain the virus, it is General McClintock.
Let’s look at this opponent for a minute. This guy is clearly a villain. In this movie we’re not going to see any subtlety of opposition between hero and main opponent. They’re not going to have a lot of moral fighting about whatever they might fight about. That’s not what this opponent is all about. He is there to provide as heavy an opposition as we can get for our hero.
This guy does have two really great advantages. One is that he provides the source for the conspiracy, where most of the plot comes from. Without him, we really have no plot. Once we hit those virus beats, we’re going to run out of plot. The other great advantage he gives us is that he escalates the story up to the battle. We can’t get to that battle without him.
There’s a second opponent besides McClintock and he’s an opponent ally. This is General Billy Ford.
As an opponent ally, he is somebody who appears to be a friend to the hero but is actually an enemy. General Ford is an in-between character in this sense. He acts fundamentally as an opponent but he also acts as a friend, especially at the end of the story.
Like McClintock, he is crucial for plot because like any opponent ally, he is hidden. The true nature of his opposition is hidden.
2. How do you get a personal line into a fast action story?
Because that personal line is what’s going to make it pay off emotionally for the audience. It’s very difficult to do because you’re moving so fast that you really don’t want to slow down and take that time.
How did the writers of ‘Outbreak – LAWRENCE DWORET & ROBERT ROY POOL- do it?
There are two storylines in this movie ‘Outbreak’.
The action line for the plot, and the personal line for the protagonist hero detective.
In Outbreak the writers take the time to establish a personal track between the husband and the wife. during the Set-Up initial scenes.
This is a crucial step, and is part of building the empathy of the audience with this hard driven scientist who is totally focused and skilled in his work.
He might be the world expert on this virus – but he is also still in love with his wife who he has just divorced. This Personal line holds steady throughout the story, and it grounds the movie, which goes all over the place, as it deals with the scientific details and action scenes. And it just gives a real solid, personal connection in a story that really needs it.
3. How do you focus all the action in a single arena.
Again, this is especially difficult in a film like “Outbreak” where you’re covering epic action, it covers a huge amount of territory. [The film is set in Zaire and at least four key locations in the US.] How did the writers of ‘Outbreak – do it?
By using a ‘Whirlpool’ effect so that the story starts wide, then gradually circles in to a small town in California, where the key players battle it out.
4. A third big problem is how do you create enough plot?
Although we have a lot of action in action stories, we often don’t have very much plot.
How did the writers of ‘Outbreak – do it?
There is a very strong SINGLE desire line.
We have the added advantage that it is a building desire line.
The overall desire line for the character in this story is to find the agent of this disease and to create an antibody to stop it. That pretty much tracks all the way through. Because this virus is so deadly, we have a time element involved in that we’ve got to solve this problem real fast or not just this town is going to go but it will spread throughout the entire country.
The writers take this spine of a plot line and build it, and build it. Increasing stakes. Adding a ticking clock in two places. Adding two foreshadow sections where where the audience knows the virus has already spread and how – but the hero and victims are ignorant, creating tension and excitement.
Plot comes from hidden information and sudden reveals.
Which leads to a very important point.
If you want a lot of plot, you MUST have a very active but hidden opponent. That’s exactly what we get in this script provided by the virus, and provided by McClintock.
In fact, if you were to break this script down, you would find that there are, depending on how you determine reveals, you would find fourteen to sixteen revelations in this script. That is a tremendous amount of reveals giving us a tremendous amount of plot.
*Go here to read the full article: http://www.truby.com/outbreakbd.html*
*Go here to dowload the screenplay for ‘Outbreak’ which was written by LAWRENCE DWORET & ROBERT ROY POOL. This is the December 1993 Draft: http://www.dailyscript.com/scripts/Outbreak.pdf
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