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Thriller and Suspense Skeleton

Last week, we explored Suspense and Thriller subgenres. This week, we look at the building blocks for the Thriller and Suspense skeleton.

The overall story problem is catastrophic danger that must be averted. 

The reader asks: How will they, and by proxy we, survive such an event?

Something comes along to threaten someone or everyone. The protagonist may have brought it upon himself or may be a completely innocent target.

In Thriller & Suspense stories, the protagonist is the person who eventually saves the day.

The antagonist is the person who poses significant threat to the life and limbs of one person or an entire community. It could be a terrorist who plans to blow up the White House. It could be a mad scientist bent on testing an Ion pulse bomb. It could be the leader of a counter espionage team or a rogue soldier.

The audience may or may not know the identity of the antagonist up front, but they are aware of the source of danger. Someone or something is out to get the protagonist and/or her loved ones. The villain may be a virus, a monster or a serial killer, either way it must be strongly developed and truly menacing to one or many to make us fear it. The reader often knows, or thinks they know, what the threat is at the beginning of the tale. The main character is usually in jeopardy. 

Thriller frameworks involve solving crises that lead to bigger, scarier crises. The hero prevents the villain from achieving his goal, but does so at his or her own peril. You really have to convince your audience of the life and death danger or emotional life and death danger. There are twists on the ending of these stories, but the audience prefers the hero to live.

External Conflict scenes escalate the central conflict. The protagonist finds out the terrorists attacked, has a shootout in a shopping mall, finds and detonates the bomb. These are the key turning points in the overall problem and involve the protagonist, often the love interest and the antagonist. The girl is tied down on the tracks and the hero saves her.

Antagonist Conflict scenes can follow the protagonist as he corners the terrorist leader, loses him, and finds him again. They wrestle over the detonator. The doctor confronts the ethically challenged clinic director and prevents him from injecting lethal bacteria into test subjects. Or, these scenes can follow the antagonist scheming with his cohorts depending on the POV. The antagonist should have equally valid reasons for his actions. It is best to avoid cardboard villains.

Interpersonal Conflict scenes show the friends and foes interfering and taking sides in the central conflict. The protagonist is caught by the henchmen. He is seduced by the pretty spy who really wants to search his house. A kooky scientist tells him crazy theories about aliens. A waitress slips him a note telling him where to find the key to the deposit box with the money in it. If you are following their points of view, you can explore their agendas and side stories.

Internal Conflict scenes explore the hero’s dark night of the soul. He wonders if he should tell his partner about his AIDS. The doctor struggles with pulling the plug on his comatose father. The heroine struggles with her deep wound or dark secret that complicates the external situation. Stay or go? Fight or flee?

Do I have what it takes to do what needs to be done? Is it ethical? Do I care? Do the ends justify the means?

Check out the newly released Thriller Build A Plot Workbook in print and e-book.

For more about how to craft plots using conflict check out, Story Building Blocks: The Four Layers of Conflict available in print and e-book and check out the free tools and information about the series on my website.

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