The word ‘thriller’ in a speculative screenplay means ‘mystery’. If a story has a crime and a mystery, but we know who the culprit is early in the story, then it’s a Crime Thriller. If a story has a crime, no mystery and we know who did it asap, then it’s a Crime Drama. The mystery is from the audience’s point of view. For example, if the audience knows who the killer is asap, but a hero doesn’t, it’s still a Crime Drama because the killer’s identity is NOT a mystery to the audience.
Suspense Thriller is distinguished from a Crime Thriller and Crime Drama because it asks the question, “Who did it and why?”
This primary question and the payoff in a Suspense Thriller is handled in a very specific way that sets the genre apart from other crime stories. Failure to understand the differences between these genres can cause the writer’s efforts to write a Suspense Thriller to fall short of meeting the criteria to sell a motion picture screenplay in the speculative market. It can also create an unmarketable crime story because these genres are specific and each has its own rules.
First, the Suspense Thriller requires a writer to mislead the audience. If the audience guesses who did and why before the writer reveals the culprit, the writer hasn’t done his job. Even though the culprit shouldn’t be revealed until the end, the culprit and his motives should be in the audience’s face the entire time. In addition, subtle hints should be dropped as to the culprit’s real identity, but the hints shouldn’t be so obvious that the audience guesses who did it the moment the hint is dropped.
How does the writer accomplish this? The hint should NOT be out of the ordinary. For example, in the film Along Came a Spider, the female Secret Service agent tells the hero what happened up to the point where the girl was kidnapped. This seemed routine (ordinary), but later we learn that something she said leads him to realize her timing was off. This, in turn, leads him to realize she was the kidnapper. Drop ordinary hints, but make them relevant later to reveal the culprit.
The second trick is to create red herrings. Create suspects that take the focus off the real culprit. Three rules: 1) make sure the red herrings can’t easily be eliminated as suspects by the audience, even if the hero eliminates him 2) Make sure the audience has a number of suspects to keep them busy while the real culprit lurks in the shadows. The writer wants the audience to be surprised when the real culprit is revealed. 3) the real suspect should NOT be a red herring. The audience should NOT suspect this person. This can be difficult to do because the audience is looking for the suspect. It’s a chess game that takes a master screenwriter to pull it off. 4) The hero must figure out who the real culprit is. A supporting role can’t tell the hero who did it. 5) Keep the hero focused on a strong and likely prime suspect in order to keep the focus off the real culprit.
The third trick to this genre is to include lots of reversals! Clues should lead to more mystery, not answer questions. Reveal the answers to the mysteries as close to the end as possible. This will automatically create reversals because the audience will think one thing and the result will be something else. For example, if the police are sure a suspect killed someone and obtain an arrest warrant, then when they arrive to execute the arrest they should discover the suspect died two days earlier and couldn’t possibly be the culprit! These kinds of reversals keep the audience in suspense and on the edge of their seats.
The final trick to this genre is to give the audience a big twist ending. In fact, the best Suspense Thrillers have a double twist ending. Without the twist ending, the Suspense Thriller WILL NOT SELL! Make it shocking! Remember the twist in Saw when the nemesis was the dead body in the room? He was the mastermind behind the suspense and the crime. As noted above, the audience can NOT guess who the real culprit it. It should come as a shocking surprise! Another trick is to make the hero and the audience think they’ve discovered the culprit, but they’re wrong! It was someone else all along.
In Summary, mislead the audience, create red herrings, use lots of reversals and deliver a double twist ending. Note that some Suspense Thrillers even have triple twist endings. This type of Suspense Thriller requires masterful plotting and the writer needs to be a bit of a logistics genius to pull it off or the plot could seem convoluted. The best bet is to stick with a double twist ending that takes the audience by surprise.
Lastly, the Suspense Thriller differs from other thrillers in its depth of mind. This means the story is more about the study of the criminal mind and what makes it tick than external theatrics, like car chases. The audience is more likely to see a car chase in a Crime Drama or a Crime Thriller than in a Suspense Thriller.
The Suspense Thriller can be the most difficult of the crime movies to pull off as a screenwriter, but the writer that succeeds will find it much easier to break into Hollywood. This genre also has a tendency to attract A-list talent who aspire to play a character with a devious criminal mind or the hero who challenges this clever nemesis.