Tips for Writers

What I Learned from Movies and TV

In What’s A Hook? The Art of the Pitch, I compared writing a novel to pitching a film or TV show, and I got a little flak for that from some acquaintances. In certain highbrow literary circles, it’s fashionable to pretend not to like blockbuster movies or network television shows. Cambridge, where I used to live and teach, is full of people who will tell you how terrible it is that no one wants to read because everyone just wants to watch “American Idol.”

Well, I watch “American Idol,” too. And “30 Rock.” And “The Office.” And “24” – especially “24.”

I go to blockbuster movies, too, and I think the Bourne movies are some of the best entertainment this century has produced so far. Not only that, but I think they’ve made me a better writer.

Why? Well, as Jack Bauer says, “I don’t have time to explain!”

No, I’m kidding. Movies and TV have fundamentally changed the way we read. Our attention span is much shorter, especially in this multi-tasking Internet age. Movies have to grab the viewer right away, and this is equally true for thrillers on the page. I’m not just competing with other authors, I’m competing with a medium that delivers bright colors and loud noises and extremely attractive people. My job is to deliver those things with equal impact inside a reader’s mind, instead of on a screen.

Critics can argue about whether this is a good thing. I just know that it’s true, and it’s changed the thriller genre accordingly. Pick up an early thriller – Wilkie Collins, for example, or Edgar Allan Poe, or even John Buchan – and you’ll see that they start very slowly. I’m looking at a copy of The 39 Steps right now; the writing’s wonderful, the atmosphere jumps off the page … but the pace is leisurely, almost stately. Here’s part of a paragraph from the first chapter:

“That afternoon I had been worrying my brokers about investments to give my mind something to work on, and on my way home I turned into my club – rather a pot-house, which took in Colonial members. I had a long drink, and read the evening papers. They were full of the row in the Near East, and there was an article about Karolides, the Greek premier. I rather fancied the chap. From all accounts he seemed the one big man in the show…”

The paragraph goes on well into the next page. Don’t get me wrong, I love this. I love the atmosphere, I love the way Buchan disrupts Richard Hannay’s polite, orderly, boring world. But in the 21st century, I don’t have that luxury.

Not only are today’s readers are more impatient than they used to be, but they’re also more used to figuring things out for themselves – and thriller readers, at least, want to. Part of the fun of reading a thriller is figuring out what’s going on – so it’s up to me to keep the action moving, and explain only the bare minimum as we go along. Characters have to do and show instead of telling, and nothing kills momentum faster than what Hollywood types call “Jake the Explainer” – the character who walks onscreen, often apropos of nothing, to tell the viewer or the reader what’s really going on. (The Austin Powers movies make fun of this cliché by calling that character Basil Exposition.)

Chapters are shorter than they used to be, and I have to be creative about ways to keep the pace moving: varying my sentence length, making sure each chapter ends on a note of suspense, keeping excess narration to a minimum. Authors no longer have the luxury of extended (or self-indulgent) descriptions of places or things, and must make the most of the reader’s time and attention span.

Now, you can go too far with this. We’re all familiar with thrillers (naming no names) that are nothing but dialogue and white space, and read like movie novelizations rushed into print. That’s a wasted opportunity. I write novels rather than screenplays because I want that extra space and time, for characterization and backstory and the details that bring a book to life.

Watching HIGH CRIMES become a movie, for example, gave me a new appreciation for the things I could do in the book that the filmmakers, in 120 minutes, didn’t have time for. In HIGH CRIMES the novel, Claire and Tom have a child, and she’s still one of my favorite characters (based on my own daughter at that age). The movie didn’t have room for her. While the film is faithful to the book’s major plot points, I’m grateful to have had the space to develop Claire’s and Tom’s backstories.

Five Lessons Thriller Writers Can Learn from the Movies:

1. The audience must identify with the main character, no matter what. As much as I’d like to convince my wife otherwise, Jack Bauer is not a role model. I wouldn’t want to be him (well, not most of the time), and I’m not even sure he’s a good guy – but man, I want him to survive, I want him to succeed, and I want him to annihilate the opposition. How does “24” do this? By keeping the focus on Jack, and keeping the stakes as high as possible: a life-and-death situation, compressed into the smallest possible window of time. Jack has no time for introspection or meetings, so neither does the audience; survival is the imperative, and we all identify with that. Making him the odd man out – facing skeptics, bosses who want him fired, Senators who want him jailed – gives us additional grounds for empathy. We know he’s right, but it’s even more pleasurable when we see him confounded and frustrated at every turn by people whom we know are wrong. It makes us root for him all the more.

2. Drop the audience into the action as late as possible, and take them out as early as possible. Think about how many thrillers you’ve seen that start with the hero on the run, already in jeopardy, although the audience has no idea why. The James Bond movies have made this into a tradition, upping the ante with every new opening sequence. It doesn’t matter why James Bond is running for his life, but you’re glued to the screen before the opening credits roll. Likewise, once the bad guys are defeated, the story is over. Rewards and punishments are implied — and if you give too much away, you’re limiting your options for a sequel.

3. Backstory should come up as the audience needs to know it, not in one big lump. If you start with your hero in peril (see Lesson #1), how the hero survives is more important than how the hero landed in peril – but the audience will still want to know why it happened. A good movie thriller will dole this information out in carefully rationed pieces, as part of the action, rather than stopping the action to deliver one big flashback.

4. Show, don’t tell. It’s a cliché, but this is what the movies are for. In fact, it’s one reason screenwriting instructors advise against voiceovers; the audience needs to be able to figure out what’s going on from the action on the screen, not by having someone explain it. (See “Jake the Explainer,” above.) This applies to character, as well as to action. Think about how much we learn about Indiana Jones just from seeing him risk his life to save his hat.

5. Don’t overexplain. This is not exactly the same as #4, as what I’m talking about here is your story’s resolution – what screenwriters call “Act III,” when good triumphs over evil (or not, depending on what kind of book you’re writing). Someone I know refers to this as “the Scooby-Doo ending,” and you want to avoid it. The days in which Sherlock Holmes explained it all to Watson (and to the reader) are gone, at least from the thriller genre; the reader wants to be able to figure it out for him or herself, and needs only a minimum of confirmation that his or her deductions were correct. Let the reader connect the dots himself – but give her the dots to connect.

I’ll be fascinated to see how PARANOIA and KILLER INSTINCT evolve from page to screen. I’ve seen two different screenplays for PARANOIA, and assume that further changes will be made as the movie is filmed and edited. The inevitable cuts from the books will cause me some pangs – after all, I created those characters, and I wrote those stories – but I’m confident that the movies will stand on their own, not only for people new to Paranoia and Killer Instinct but also for those who love the books as I do.

Raymond Chandler, one of the genre’s pioneers, understood the synergy of books and movies, and moved between them with equal facility. Discussing his early experience in writing detective short stories, he might just as easily been talking about his screenwriting career.

“The demand was for constant action; if you stopped to think you were lost,” he wrote in The Simple Art of Murder. “When in doubt, have a man come through a door with a gun in his hand.”

I can’t add much to that…

Films for Thriller Writers, A Survey Course

Thrillers on film and TV are research for me. Here are a dozen that taught me a lot:

The Third Man (1949). Old school. Joseph Cotten has no idea what he’s gotten into, and neither have we, except that we all know that nothing is what it appears to be. The Third Man is also among the original, and still one of the best, sources of that time-honored convention of thrillers — the major character we never see until the very end, when his presence and influence is suddenly obvious throughout the whole story.

The Day of the Jackal (1973). Another great book, another great movie. The clock is ticking, literally; throughout the film, the director keeps showing us shots of clocks, to increase our sense of urgency as the Jackal stalks DeGaulle. Also, this movie has no soundtrack music, after the first five minutes. We’re in the Jackal’s world, not in movie-world. We know nothing about the Jackal, and it doesn’t matter; what matters is what he’s doing now.

Three Days of the Condor (1975). Here’s something I didn’t realize until I looked this movie up on IMDb: the average shot length of this film is 5.8 seconds. No wonder it makes viewers breathless. It never lets you settle down, just as Robert Redford doesn’t get to stop moving. It’s remarkable how well this movie holds up, and the fact that much of it is set in and around the World Trade Center gives it special resonance.

Marathon Man (1976). Once Babe Levy (Dustin Hoffman) realizes how little he knew about his brother and his brother’s world, his own world is transformed into a menacing, sinister place. We’re dropped into the action with Babe, given only as much information as he has, and forced to run with him. (And who can forget those immortal words, “Is it safe?”)

No Way Out (1987). Surprise, reverse, reveal; it doesn’t matter how unrealistic a plot is, if you keep the action moving fast enough and you give the audience a reason to root for the hero. No Way Out is actually a remake of a classic 1948 noir film called The Big Clock, starring Ray Milland and Charles Laughton, except that No Way Out adds a great Cold War-era framing device, and one last astounding twist at the end. No Way Out is also an excellent example of how you don’t need to get the research right if the story is compelling enough: one key scene finds Kevin Costner fleeing his pursuers in the Georgetown Metro station, when everyone familiar with DC knows that Georgetown has no Metro station, and the station in the movie is actually one of Baltimore’s.

Fatal Attraction (1987). An example of how little you need to make a thriller – one man, two women, a child – and an example of how much we can learn about characters from small details: Alex Forrest’s hair, Dan Gallagher’s open-necked shirt, and need I even mention the little girl’s pet bunny?

The Vanishing (1988). The Dutch original, not the American remake. A couple stops at a gas station, and the woman disappears. Three years later, her baffled and grieving boyfriend starts to get letters offering to tell him what happened to her. We see the story almost exclusively from the boyfriend’s point of view, and learn the woman’s fate as he does – with one of the most terrifying final moments I’ve ever seen. The audience’s imagination is often more powerful than anything you can put on the page or the screen.

The Silence of the Lambs (1991). I’d put this on a list of top ten film adaptations. Like the book, the movie gives the audience only as much information as it needs, and – except for the scenes involving Catherine Martin’s kidnapping – keeps narrowly on Clarice’s point of view. It also gives us one of the most memorable villains in any genre, in Hannibal Lecter. I’ve watched this movie just to try to identify exactly what makes Anthony Hopkins so frightening. It’s his elegance, his politeness, his complete detachment and immunity from the squalor of his surroundings, and more … I’m still trying to figure it out.

The Fugitive (1993). Nonstop action, and our hero’s adversary isn’t a bad guy – he’s just a man doing his job. This is Man against the System, done perfectly. The Fugitive ups the tension by allowing us to root for the hero while we admire and sympathize with his adversary. Is any film scene better than the one where Harrison Ford says, “I’m innocent,” and Tommy Lee Jones says, “I don’t care”?

The Usual Suspects (1995). It’s hard to say too much about this movie without revealing its secrets to anyone who hasn’t seen it – but if you haven’t seen it, you need to. It is a quintessential tour-de-force, in which the villain – Keyser Soze – winds up being the central character, although we never see him onscreen (or do we…?).

Runaway Jury (2003). We don’t know until fairly late in the movie whether the main character, played by John Cusack, is a good guy or a bad guy; we’re just sucked into trying to figure out why he’s doing what he’s doing. When we do find out his motive, we learn it with a series of images and a bare minimum of narration. We also have more than one protagonist – Dustin Hoffman, as well as John Cusack – who may or may not be at cross purposes, and a terrific showdown of adversaries (Hoffman and Gene Hackman in the courthouse men’s room) that is not in the original source material. In fact, the driving issue of the movie – gun liability – is completely different from the driving issue of the book – cigarette liability – which makes last month’s point about story being much more important than the background details.

The Bourne Ultimatum (2007). Arguably the best thriller of the decade so far. What’s so great is how it moves non-stop, and carries us along even though we barely know what’s going on. We identify with Matt Damon’s character from the first frame, racing with him from one heart-pounding scene to another, picking up information as he does, and just enough to understand what’s going on. This movie is a stripped-down, efficient machine, a model of showing rather than telling.