The best thrillers are about more than thrills.
They are about how and why a character transforms, becomes a different person, a stronger person, through a confrontation with death.
Example: Lethal Weapon is about more than the thrilling takedown of a drug ring run by ex-mercs. It was about the return to humanity of a suicidal cop.
When we first meet Martin Riggs, he is on the brink. Wanting to die because of despair over his wife’s murder, Riggs throws himself into any danger with criminals, hoping he’ll get shot.
His staid, nearly-retired partner, Roger Murtaugh, accuses Riggs of a ruse in order to draw “psycho pay,” Riggs says he thinks every day about eating a bullet, even pulls out a hollow-point he carries around with him to “do the job right.”
Murtaugh hands Riggs his gun and challenges him to pull the trigger. Riggs does, and only Murtaugh’s thumb, shoved between hammer and chamber, averts tragedy.
No ruse going on here. “You really are crazy,” Murtaugh says.
At the midpoint of the film there’s a quiet moment, just after Riggs has had dinner with Murtaugh and his family. Outside the Murtaugh home, knowing there is a major trust issue, Riggs shares something with Murtaugh he has never told another living soul.
“I do it pretty good, you know,” Riggs says. He then describes how, as a nineteen-year-old sniper in Laos, he took out a guy from a thousand yards in a high wind. Virtually no one else could have made that shot. “It’s the only thing I was ever good at.”
Boom. Right there Riggs has looked at his ruptured humanity, his inability to be anything but a killer––with the implication that his final kill will be himself.
That is what Lethal Weapon is really all about. It’s not the houses that blow up or the cars that get chased. It’s not even about Gary Busey’s toothy smile.
It’s about whether Martin Riggs can become human again.
He does, in a step called transformation. Which needs to be shown on the screen (or the page). At the end of Lethal Weapon Riggs hands Murtaugh’s daughter the hollow-point bullet, with a ribbon around it, asking her to give it to her father as a Christmas present. “Tell him I won’t be needing it anymore,” he says.
The resonance of that ending is why the film transcends the genre.
Some time ago I began to notice that the books and movies that move me most have something happening smack dab in the middle of the story. A character is forced to look at himself, confronting his own flaws.
I began to call this a “mirror moment.” It comes in two forms.
The first, as in Lethal Weapon, is about a character needing to become a new person, a better human being. The look in the mirror produces questions like: Who am I? Am I going to stay this way? Do I have any hope of changing? What do I have to do to be fully human and stop hurting those around me?
The second type of mirror moment is a stark realization that there’s no way to survive. The character thinks things like: The odds are too great! I don’t have the resources to fight back! I’m going to die!
This second kind is what happens in the middle of Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games. Katniss finally has a moment to assess her situation, and it’s hopeless. In the very middle of the book she says:
“I know the end is coming. My legs are shaking and my heart is too quick . . . . My fingers stroke the smooth ground, sliding easily across the top. This is an okay place to die, I think.”
Katniss does not need to change her fundamental character. She’s noble, clever, caring. But she must somehow become stronger in order to survive these impossible odds.
Same with Richard Kimble in The Fugitive. He remains the same decent man at the end as he is at the beginning. What he has become is stronger and more resilient.
And wiser, too, about evil.
Many of the best writers find their mirror moment instinctively. What I like to do is “pop the hood” and show all writers how to tap into this power in their own writing.
The great thing about the mirror moment, as I’ve heard now from dozens of writers, is that it can be utilized at any point in the process. Those who love to outline can find the true essence of the story by planning the mirror moment early. Those who love to just go for it (“pantsers”) can brainstorm their mirror moment anytime they feel stuck or lost.
Once you find your mirror moment (and you will, and it will feel right) it illuminates every aspect of your novel, from pre-story to resonant ending. Your scenes will begin to have an organic unity that is like a strong rope made of many strands.
You know who else will notice that? Readers, in that pleasant and subconscious way that turns them into fans.
James Scott Bell is an award-winning thriller writer and the author of several #1 bestselling craft books, including WRITE YOUR NOVEL FROM THE MIDDLE: A New Approach for Plotters, Pantsers and Everyone in Between.
His Plot & Structure (Writer’s Digest Books) is the #1 writing craft book of the last decade. An ITW Awards finalist, Jim’s latest L.A.-based thriller is Romeo’s Rules. He will be teaching a class on dialogue for ITW’s Online Thriller School, March 14th thru April 29th, 2016.
To learn more about James, please visit his website.