Robert McKee Thriller day – part 1

It was almost a month ago now, but I’ve finally gotten around to posting about the Robert McKee Thriller day. There is quite a deal to summarise, so I’ve decided to divide it into a few sections for ease of digestion. This is part 1.

First off, I should say that I decided to attend the Thriller day, not because I aspire to write thrillers (or indeed anything truly horrific), but of the three seminars offered in Melbourne, Thriller seemed the most relevant and useful to me. The other genres offered were Comedy and Love Story — apparently McKee also does a horror day, which I suspect us spec fic writers would all have attended instead, but it wasn’t offered this time around. I would probably have derived the most benefit from the full four-day ‘Story’ workshop, but that was only offered in Sydney. Next time, I think I will make the effort to get up to Sydney if that’s what it takes.

Anyway, the Thriller day (held on 24 June) was scheduled to start at 9am and finish at 8pm with three 20 minute breaks and one hour-long lunch break — so a really full-on day. It mostly comprised Robert McKee lecturing on a series of thriller-related topics, although it also included a screening of the movie, SE7EN (with Morgan Freeman and Brad Pitt), which was regularly paused and dissected. McKee is an engaging speaker. He doesn’t use many props or notes — and although he must have delivered the same lecture a gazillion times it never felt rehearsed. I took a lot of notes . . .

Definition of a thriller

The lecture began with a short history of the over-arching crime genre, from ancient classics such as Oedipus Rex, through to 14 different modern sub-genres distinguished by variations in texture, style, level of violence and, most importantly (according to McKee), point of view — that is, the specific role of the protagonist in the story.

The defining aspect of a psychological thriller, therefore, is that it is told from the point of view of the victim.

He went on to explore the characteristics of the modern thriller in more detail, examining some of the other defining conventions:

  • The protagonist (the victim) tends to be non-heroic and vulnerable.
  • The antagonist holds the balance of power and tends to be innately powerful, clever and imbued with the spirit of evil. (Throw in a dash of the supernatural and you have a horror story.)
  • The value at stake is usually survival (often of the fate worse than death) and/or justice.
  • The inciting incident is the discovery of a crime.
  • The story climax generally contains irony and could be either positive or negative, thereby upping the suspense (more on this later)
  • The audience reaction should be extreme but rational fear, tempered by suspense and pity.

Thus does a thriller go deeper than other crime genres into the exploration of lawlessness, violence and death.

To cite the course notes: The thriller reaches into the audience’s unconscious mind to arouse the gripping, irrational fear of a fate worse than death, a fate that would make you beg for oblivion.

The greater the imbalance of power between the ruthless spirit of evil (antagonist) and the underdog protagonist, the greater the ‘thrill’ in the thriller.


Subsequent posts will cover (not necessarily in this order): The importance of the antagonist, pushing the thriller protagonist to the edge, creating the crime, the six possible thriller climaxes, the dynamics of story design, deconstruction of the movie SE7EN. Here are the links to part2 and part3.

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