Robert McKee Thriller Day – part 3

And now for part 3 of my Thriller Day summary, in which the craft and conventions of writing thrillers are contemplated.

Story design

I mentioned in an earlier post that McKee is famous for his four-day ‘Story’ seminar and accompanying book, both of which sound extremely worthwhile. Most people in the audience were familiar with one or other of these, but he still went over the basics of his ‘story design’ philosophy to facilitate discussions (and particularly the movie breakdown).

Basically, McKee breaks a story down into a series of elements defined by the magnitude of change:

  • Scene—The basic building block, defined as a single event in which meaningful change occurs. On its own, this may be a MINOR change in life situation that comes about through some form of conflict.
  • Sequence—A series of 3-5 scenes that together result in more significant change than a single scene can accomplish; culminates in a sequence climax or turning point that has greater and broader impact; MODERATE change. These moderate turning points are often forgotten, but help with good story pacing.
  • Act—A series of sequences that lead to MAJOR change occurring at the act climax, often known as a major turning point.
  • Story—A series of acts that culminate in the story climax, which sees ABSOLUTE and irreversible change. [NOTE: Some conventions suggest stories traditionally have 3 acts, but this is no longer so; 4 or 5 acts are not uncommon these days.]


And so we come to the end of the story, when the protagonist prevails – or doesn’t. In fact, McKee says there are six possible positive climaxes to a thriller, based on the method by which the protagonist defeats the antagonist:

  • Antagonist overpowered—The protagonist masters the power of the antagonist by becoming as violent or as strong. Essentially the protagonist, pushed to the edge of endurance, has to descend to antagonist’s level… using evil to escape evil. This can either result in a truly positive outcome, or involve irony. (2 possible endings)
  • Antagonist outsmarted—The protagonist discovers a weakness in the antagonist and exploits it. Once again, can be a a truly positive outcome or involve irony. (2 possible endings)
  • Antagonist overpowered and outsmarted, with or without irony. (2 possible endings)

Similarly, there are six possible negative endings, where the roles are reversed and the protagonist is defeated.


Most genres have story conventions and thrillers are no different. Some of the most fundamental, already discussed, include a normally urban setting, the committal and discovery of a crime that leads to damnation, the key roles of protagonist and antagonist, and the primary values at stake of survival and justice.

In addition to these, there are what McKee calls the ‘3 conventions of suspense’:

  • The ‘closed’ thriller/mystery, where the identity of the antagonist is unknown
  • The ‘open’ thriller/suspense, where the identity of the antagonist is known and the crime may have been witnessed.
  • The ‘closed-to-open’ thriller/’mystery-to-suspense’, where the initially unknown antagonist is identified through the course of the story; the focus changes from finding out ‘whodunnit’ to figuring out how to to catch them.

Other thriller conventions include:

  • The moment where the protagonist, at the extreme mercy of the villain, somehow turns the tables on the antagonist to prevail.
  • The cheap surprise, when something pops or moves and basically makes the audience jump
  • The fake ending, when you think it’s all over, but it’s not quite . . .
  • The speech in praise of the villain, where the protagonist finds an occasion to remind everyone just how powerful he is. This is important, as it builds up the power of the antagonist for the audience.
  • Making it personal, when the antagonist finds a way to get at the protagonist and truly make him the victim, but shifting the stakes from professional to personal.

The main point about conventions is to make sure they are present but dealt with in a non-clichéd way.


So that concludes my summary of all the ‘theory’ covered during the Thriller Day seminar, and certainly provides a fantastic starting point for writing a psychological thriller. (I’m not sure at this stage whether I will include a post on deconstructing the movie SE7EN, since it heavily relies on a screening. Basically, the film was screened in ‘sequences’ and analysed taking all the theory into consideration. A very worthwhile exercise, but perhaps not so easy to write and read about.)

Finally I want to note that despite the emphasis on thrillers, I believe much of the content in these three posts will also be of great use for writing stories in general – for in what genre do we not attempt to push the protagonist to the edge, or contemplate how they will rise to defeat their antagonist? On the whole, an extremely worthwhile day of listening and note-taking.

Links to part 1 and part 2 in this series.

12 thoughts on “Robert McKee Thriller Day – part 3

      1. Hey Ellen!!

        Thanks for your expedient response!! Actually watching “Seven” as we speak to see if I can make any sense of it all as it relates to your notes regarding the Thriller genre. (I have attended McKees Basic “Story” Seminar). If there was anything significant that you can recall, I would appreciate any input. After months of research and a relatively solid outline, I am currently in the process, of developing a Crime, Mystery, Thriller in a similar vain to that of “Seven”. Hope you are doing well in the “Land Down Under”.



        1. I can certainly recommend attending the Thriller day to witness the movie breakdown. It was two years ago for me now, so my memories are a little hazy (although I do still have a bunch of notes!) but I remember he dissected everything, from use of music, symbolism in the visuals, body language (ie acting) in addition to the plot points. As I mentioned he paused after every sequence and explained how it worked from a plotting perspective. A very worthwhile exercise!

          I hope my notes are helpful, but they are very brief of course compared with the full seminar by McKee. I’d love to do the 5 day Story seminar. I learn so much better from seminars than merely reading text books. 🙂


  1. Thanks for this wonderful series! I found it via a Google search for “speech in praise of the villain” – how’s THAT for being a story nerd? I attended McKee’s Story seminar in New York in April 2014. It completely changed . . . well, everything! I’m currently working my way through Shawn Coyne’s “Story Grid,” which is an excellent companion to McKee’s teaching. I can’t recommend it highly enough. Coyne is very clear about genre as well, expanding on McKee’s approach.


  2. Hello Ellen, thank you for your great summary. I attended the Story seminar and it was incredible. I was so fascinated by McKee that I also bought a membership for Storylogue. But the Thriller part in Storylogue is incomplete. He starts out to explain the seven logical steps to compose a crime story and then the video ends after point five. The last two points are nowhere to be found! That cliffhanger is a little too much for my taste.
    Can you help me, though? Are the seven steps (1 create perfect crime, 2 turn the tables, 3 break crime into pieces, 4 shuffle clues around, 5 cover clue with another meaning, 6 ???, 7 ???) somewhere in your notes and would you like to share them?

    That would be so nice! Thank you very much,

    Liked by 1 person

    1. From my notes (which I found!):
      1. Create perfect crime (do not build flaw in — too obvious)
      2. Turn it around and stare it from the opposite angle and try to solve it (find the flaw)
      3. Write out all the aspects of the crime (means, motive, execution) and break them down into clues
      4. Distribute the clues into the story out of sequence and conceal connections
      5. Cover the clue with another meaning – a red herring, the second interpretation will be correct
      6. Create additional red herrings when the right meaning of the clue is eventually deciphered
      7. Tell the story in two directions: past (how and why) and future (whodunnit and how will we catch them?) This doubles curiosity.

      Make sure the solution is plausible, but also have an element of surprise (revelation).


      Not sure if this helps? It’s not very detailed.


      1. Thank you very much! It doesn’t matter that it’s not very detailed. You definitely got the important parts. Not knowing the last two points on the list bugged me a lot. You are great!

        Liked by 1 person

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