November 10 – 16: “What lessons can thriller writers learn from the movies?”

thriller-roundtable-logo5The Summer blockbuster season is over, but that won’t stop us from asking: “What lessons can thriller writers learn from the movies?” Join ITW Members Bernard Maestas, Steve P. Vincent, Raymond Benson, C. Hope Clark, F. Paul Wilson, Rick Zahradnik and Joe Gannon for another can’t miss discussion!


????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????C. Hope Clark is author of the award-winning Carolina Slade Mysteries and The Edisto Island Mysteries, four novels published by Bell Bridge Books, the current release being Murder on Edisto. Hope founded, chosen by Writer’s Digest for 101 Best Websites for Writers for 14 years. She’s appeared in The Writer, Writer’s Digest, Writer’s Market, Guide to Literary Agents, and more, and speaks across the country. Member of MENSA, SinC, MWA, SWA, EPIC, and NINC.


godwin_coverBernard Maestas lives in paradise. A police officer patrolling the mean streets of Hawaii, he has a background in contract security and military and civilian law enforcement. When not saving the world, one speeding ticket at a time, and not distracted by video games and the internet, he is usually hard at work on his next book.


BlackStilettoEndingsBeginningsCoverRaymond Benson is the author of over 30 published books. His most recent thriller series is THE BLACK STILETTO; the fifth and final installment, THE BLACK STILETTO: ENDINGS & BEGINNINGS, was published November 2014. Raymond was the fourth—and first American—official author of James Bond novels, and his works are collected in the recent anthologies CHOICE OF WEAPONS and THE UNION TRILOGY.  Raymond also teaches film history and is a working musician.



Rich Zahradnik is writing the Coleridge Taylor Mystery series for Camel Press. The first, LAST WORDS, was published Oct. 1. Before taking up fiction full time, he was a journalist for 30-plus years, working as a reporter and editor in all major news media, including online, newspaper, broadcast, magazine and wire services. In January 2012, he was one of 20 writers selected for the inaugural class of the Crime Fiction Academy, a new program run by New York’s Center for Fiction.

The_Foundation_Cover_150_AWSteve P. Vincent lives in Melbourne, Australia, where he’s forced to write on the couch in front of an obnoxiously large television. He enjoys beer, whiskey, sports and dreaming up ever more elaborate conspiracy theories to write about. He has a degree in Political Science and History. His honours thesis was on the topic of global terrorism. His first book, THE FOUNDATION, was published in September 2014.


jaguarJoe Gannon, writer and spoken word artist, was a freelance journalist in Nicaragua during the Sandinista Revolution. He also covered the civil war in El Salvador and the U.S. invasion of Panama. Since then his writing has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, The Independent (London), The Valley Advocate, and the Daily Hampshire Gazette. He spent three years in the army, graduated from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, and earned his MFA from Pine Manor College. After a stint teaching high school in Abu Dhabi, he now lives in Western MA, at work on his second installment of the Ajax Montoya Series.

TOR-djF. Paul Wilson is the award-winning, NY Times bestselling author of over fifty books and many short stories spanning horror, adventure, medical thrillers, science fiction, and virtually everything between. More than nine million copies of his books are in print in the US and his work has been translated into twenty-four foreign languages. He also has written for the stage, screen, and interactive media. COLD CITY, DARK CITY and FEAR CITY feature the early years of his urban mercenary, Repairman Jack. Paul resides at the Jersey Shore.

  1. Watching how a film director handles the pacing, springs his surprises, and creates tension can help authors working on their story line. Remembering that readers today appreciate visual scenes and action sequences can help writers. Action thrillers like “The Bourne” trilogy or the car chase scene in “Bullitt” are examples of building tension. The visual images of the South of France seen in Alfred Hitchcock’s “To Catch a Thief” influenced my descriptions in “The Riviera Contract.” Sometimes when writing a scene I play it out in my mind as if viewing it on the screen.

  2. I tend to watch old movies – Brief Encounter, The Third Man, A Star is Born, the list goes on and on…. They are all well-crafted and have strong narratives and characters, the main elements of Robert McKee’s Story Structure course, which contained a handout of the shooting script of Casablanca,, or did when I attended it in London twenty years ago. My agent suggested I do it because I’d just received a European Script Fund Award to write a movie. That script has been recycled this year as my latest suspense novel, THE RETREAT, published this September.

  3. Well, the first and most obvious lesson is… if you can’t base your novel on a comic book, then be sure it’s a sequel. The top summer grosser (Guardians of the Galaxy) was based on a comic book and will have a sequel soon. But films 2 thru 10 were ALL sequels (Transformers: Age of Extinction, Maleficent, X-Men: Days of Future Past, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, Amazing Spider-Man 2, Godzilla, 22 Jump Street, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, How to Train your Dragon 2). We know that readers love series as much as moviegoers do.

    1. Nice find, and a bit depressing. Shows the paucity of new ideas, or at least the ability of any of them to cut through. Guardians was good, and I like a good sequel as much as anyone, but nothing really beats walking out of a cinema going ‘WOW!’

  4. I’m going to take my lessons from “Guardians of the Galaxy,” the movie that topped the U.S. box office this summer. As a fifteen-year-old comic book fan, I read “Marvel Presents: Guardians of the Galaxy” in 1975. The 25-cent copy of No. 3 is on my desk now. That was the kind of thing this teenage thriller fan read. Still, not then, and not before the movie opened 39 years later, would I have predicted the film’s success. I read the comic book because it was different—out of the Marvel mainstream. Which brings me to point one.

    1. Original, different characters will work. “Guardians” was a surprise this summer because few had heard of the comic book. It was neither sequel, nor reboot. To me as a writer, that means create icons, not clichés. Peter Quill is iconic in the same way as Han Solo—not a knock off.

    2. You can thrill and have laughs. Okay, this won’t work for everyone. I like humor, but it’s not appropriate in all stories of suspense and mystery. But humor can be used to release tension for a moment (only to ratchet it up again) and to illuminate characters. Jokes, as much as their adventures, turn the five “Guardians” into a team we root for.

    3. Enough with origin stories, which, for novelists, is to say exposition gets old fast. I was even younger than fifteen when I first read “The Amazing Spider-Man,” yet my eyes glazed over as the 2012 re-boot of the film series did the origin again (and this happens to be a great origin story). “Guardians” introduces its heroes as it moves rapidly along, using their actions and what they say (a line of exposition here, a line there). In seconds, Peter Quill (aka Star-Lord) goes from boy watching his mom die to space pirate scavenging (and dancing) on a planet while listening to “Come and Get Your Love” on his Walkman. Now that’s an origin story.

    4. Yes, those songs! The “Guardians” retro soundtrack, built around Peter’s only memento from his mother (so it carried extra emotional weight), help make the film a success. Song titles, TV shows, clothing styles will trigger memories in readers’ minds and add color and texture to a story.

    Apologies if this sounds more like Comicon than ThrillerFest. I went where memory and expertise took me.

  5. Movies teach us what parts of the story carry their weight and which are secondary. If we watch a movie to learn from it how to write a story, we note the continuity of the storyline, the relatable nature of the character, the swell of emotion, and note what isn’t absolutely necessary. Doesn’t matter what the movie is, we can learn what carries the movie to success or dooms it to a two-star rating. The opening hook and the worthy dialogue versus the boring plot and the ho-hum chat. Movies show a fraction of a book’s tale, showing the distilled, condensed, absolute necessity of the story that could not be left out. From movies we learn how to write tight, keep the tension taut, and make each and every scene count.

    1. Agree. I keep my writing on the leaner side. I think it’s the best way to keep a thriller cranking along. There’s enough political detail I have to cram into my books without loading them up with overly elaborate descriptions of the latest WhoeverandWhatsit Gun.

  6. It took me a while to think about how to approach this question, mostly because I can’t remember the last original blockbuster that blew my mind.

    That realization got me thinking about a couple of the bigger and better movies I’ve seen in the past few months that weren’t original, but instead based on a work of fiction: Gone Girl and A Most Wanted Man. The fact that Hollywood was able to turn the work of Flynn or Le Carre into a hit is no surprise, but it shows the continuing trend of Hollywood looking to thriller writers to find the next hit that wows people.

    So, cynically then, the summer blockbuster season shows me that there are few new ideas in Hollywood amidst superheros, reboots and heart warming romantic comedies that a studio is willing to take a financial risk on. This means, I think, that thriller writers are in many ways the incubator for fantastic content that enchants readers and also has the potential for a big bang on the big screen.

    But that’s not to say that Hollywood has no hope, because it has continually reinvited itself in the last century or so. Films that we now consider classics were revolutionary for their time, but the challenge is on Hollywood to keep finding these gems in an environment I think is tougher than ever. There’s more competition today, with high quality television, some compelling game narratives and the ever-present novel.

    With all that said, it’s also important that thriller writers stay in touch with what’s happening in Hollywood, one of the great social and cultural barometers in the world. We can look to the movies to learn some cool new tricks with structure and point of view, how to imagine a great action sequence (without needing to invest in CGI), what readers are watching and might consider reading.

    Most of all? I think we can learn not to fall into what’s easy and what sells, because down that path lies mediocrity. Keep imagining, keep challenging. Readers will follow.

    Looking forward to the discussion on this contribution and those of other authors/readers over the next week.

    1. Really good point about novelists being incubators. While we can learn from SOME movies, Hollywood can learn a whole lot about original stories from thriller writers. And isn’t it amazing authors can dream up and bring to life a massive action sequence for the same price as a scene with two people having coffee? That price? Zero.

  7. I was going to say something along the lines of what Steve Vincent said, that there are few new ideas coming out of Hollywood these days. Sequels and remakes are the norm. Hollywood is in this rut because movies have come to cost so much to make. Indie flicks aside, even the modest Hollywood picture is going to cost at least $20 million. Major pictures these days cost anywhere from $60 million to $200 million. That’s a lot of money. I suppose if my job depended on how I was going to spend that money, I would pick the safe path, too. It’s how studio executives think, and it’s because most of them are also very young. I once pitched a novel of mine to some guys running a studio and they were twenty years younger than me. Describing my story, I said it’s “Wait Until Dark” meets “Memento”; and they went, “What’s ‘Wait Until Dark’? Never heard of it.”

    So it’s my opinion that, no, we’re not going to learn anything significant from *most* summer blockbusters. There are exceptions. We might be entertained and we might note how a good one is structured (like “Guardians of the Galaxy,” which was very enjoyable). But that doesn’t mean I want to go and write a “Guardians” knock-off. Frankly, it’s the people behind summer blockbusters who could learn from *us*–pro thriller writers!

    I do believe, though, that we can learn from other films–not necessarily the popcorn megahits. Personally, I will take away much more from an art film, a foreign film, or simply a more adult motion picture. Every now and then the summer blockbuster will get it right. “Raiders of the Lost Ark” is an example. I’m sure every thriller author learned something from that piece of classic cinema.

  8. I’m not sure we have to look at the blockbusters to get ideas as thriller writers. I might watch a movie for the high concept idea or the action scenes. I might go watch a matinee for half the price for no other reason than to dissect it for beats, dialogue, transition, secondary characters, or wrap up.

    1. Totally agree. I can learn more from any of Hitchcock’s films–none of which cost a lot–than 95 percent (98 percent?) of blockbusters. Because they cost $200 million, blockbusters are allowed to run 3 hours. They lose the lean, efficient storytelling of cinema. They are full of CGI spectacle that isn’t really spectacle because there’s no emotional connection.

  9. I think we’re missing a vital point here. We are talking about two completely different media for expressing ideas.

    There’s a marvelous line in ‘Educating Rita’ where Michael Caine is told that the best way to stage an Ibsen play is to ‘do it on the radio’. I paraphrase.
    Essentially, what they meant was that radio is theater for the mind. Books, unlike movies and TV, do not spoon-feed their audience, and the reader is expected to construct their own reality from the descriptions given by the writer. Much like the old parable about the three blind Buddhist monks who bump into an elephant and describe it as different things because they are feeling different parts of it, readers will interpret a scene, a character and a city based on their own preconceptions and experiences.
    Everybody knows what the Millennium Falcon looks like. Before 1939, nobody was exactly sure what Scarlett O’Hara looked like, even though millions had read the book.
    The temptation to write in ‘movie format’ and use explosive scenes and grand gestures or speech usually backfires.
    “Die Hard” was a fun movie, but probably would make a lousy book.
    Similarly, “Starship Troopers” was one of my favourite Science Fiction reads growing up, but became a gorefest as a movie.

    Just my opinion.

  10. Having been in the film business for over 20 years, I’ve been lucky enough to have written for 27 companies, producers and celebrities. We all know that story is king, but so many thrillers that I’ve read get lost in the plot. Structure and pacing are the 2 essentials that we can take from blockbusters, along with the most important element of all, ‘don’t say it if you can show it, and never, ever, say it and show it at the same time.’ I know that with thrillers we have the luxury of expansion, but I still try to limit myself.

    Hollywood, both studio and indie, use the classic 3 act structure, which having learned, I then applied to my novels (all 2 of them). I use minimal exposition and make sure that every scene, every line of dialogue, is moving the story forward, otherwise I get the hook on it. I try to keep it as taut as possible, even in the breather scenes. The jury’s still out on how successful this technique is going to be.

    Lastly, the authors on this thread are vastly experienced and talented and I, by no means, am trying to teach anyone, anything. Or, as me ol’ granny used to say, “Oy, ya little sod, ya can’t teach me how to suck eggs.”

    1. These are great points. I use the three act structure and have never written a screenplay (okay, one, for a TV movie. In Canada. That was never produced.). Every writer has a different approach to structure. This particular one helps me see the bones of my story. The very best extended discussion of novels vs screenplays is William Goldman’s “Adventures in the Screen Trade.” He was good at both.

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