Ripping yarns (or thoughts on the thriller)

The thrill­er is a genre encom­passing lit­er­at­ure (e.g. The Day of the Jackal), film (e.g. The French Connection), tele­vi­sion (e.g. 24), and theatre (e.g. Sleuth). It’s a par­tic­u­larly large genre with many sub-genres, for example the tech­no­thrill­er (Firefox) and the spy thrill­er (The Constant Gardener).

The thrill­er typ­ic­ally employs a num­ber of ‘tropes’ or set meta­phors and ele­ments that appear again and again: the chase, the threat to iden­tity, mis­taken iden­tity, betray­al, the plot reversal, sus­pense and the cliff-hanger.

In terms of settting, the thrill­er is more likely to take place some­where exot­ic or unusu­al — on a sub­mar­ine beneath the polar ice cap in MacLean’s Ice Station Zebra, post-war Berlin in The Spy Who Came In From the Cold, or on board a hijacked air­craft in Executive Decision — and this is usu­ally inten­ded to max­im­ise the dif­fi­culties facing the hero or heroine, height­en their sense of ali­en­a­tion, and play to the escap­ist nature of the genre.

Matt Damon is Moody in Berlin

The form of prot­ag­on­ist is quite cent­ral to the thrill­er. In older examples, like the Homer’s Odyssey, the prot­ag­on­ist is some­what unusu­al, hardy, and pos­sesses extraordin­ary skills. More recent thrillers help to gen­er­ate ten­sion by mak­ing the hero more ordin­ary, either in the sense of a per­son moved from the ‘ordin­ary world’ of their life to the ‘extraordin­ary world’ of the story, or in the sense of giv­ing a char­ac­ter an Achilles heel that takes them to the brink of fail­ure in all the test­ing moments of the story.

In more mod­ern examples, the hero (using this word to mean both men and women, though the genre has a strong male bias) is often more con­cerned with pre­serving a sense of iden­tity. The Hitchcockian device of mis­taken iden­tity, which was used fre­quently in his films, and most mem­or­ably in North by Northwest, is a very power­ful motiv­at­or. Not only is the life of the hero Roger Thornhill threatened, but so too the sense of what it means to be Thornhill. He struggles to main­tain his iden­tity until the point comes where he must assume the man­tel of the viol­ent man for whom he has been mis­taken. By accept­ing this change of iden­tity — and rais­ing (or lower­ing) — him­self to the level of his enemies, he enters into their world, and defeats them. At the cli­max of the film atop Mount Rushmore, Thornhill pulls the char­ac­ter Eve, to safety, and the film ends with the couple on hon­ey­moon — Thornhill has lit­er­ally pulled Eve back into the world of the ordin­ary man, and he has reclaimed his iden­tity.

James Stewart does indeed look down in Alfred Hithcock’s Vertigo

For me, the threat to iden­tity, and the fear of one’s mind becom­ing infec­ted or pos­sessed, is an import­ant part of the thrill­er. In John Le Carré’s books, such as Our Game, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, and A Small Town in Germany, this is rep­res­en­ted by a struggle between one’s human­ity and the ruth­less­ness of the spy game. The hero does not neces­sar­ily win by defeat­ing the vil­lain; the hero wins by passing in and out of the villain’s world with their iden­tity as a human being intact. At the close of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, the char­ac­ter of Alec Leamas (played by Richard Burton in the 1965 film), who faces cer­tain death on the Berlin wall by reach­ing back for his inno­cent girl­friend, has defeated his demons. Even as he is shot in sight of safety, he has won; he has kept his human­ity.

Roy Scheider and Gene Hackman are peck­ish and irrit­able in William Friedkin’s The French Connection

Applying some of this stuff

My nov­el Flashback is a thrill­er with sci­ence fic­tion ele­ments; it involves time travel and people with micro­chips in their head.

As usu­al with a story, you want to cre­ate char­ac­ters with whom the read­er might identi­fy and then put them through Hell — the char­ac­ters, not the read­er. I decided that I wanted to make this story as much psy­cho­lo­gic­al as phys­ic­al — though it does con­tain a lot of action — so I con­cen­trated on the threat to iden­tity.

Saskia Brandt, a char­ac­ter from my first nov­el, is a time trav­el­ler from the year 2023 who is stran­ded in 2003. Loosely speak­ing, she’s the heroine. Cory, a time trav­el­ler from fifty years or so later, is also stran­ded in the past.

Without going into the plot, they both have a prob­lem. They have seen the future and know the form that it takes. They are in a past that, for them, has already happened. Essentially, then, they are both con­fron­ted daily with a demon­stra­tion that they have no free will. They’ve become part of a machine that will move unstop­pably in a par­tic­u­lar dir­ec­tion, and noth­ing they say or do can change things.

This is a dir­ect threat to iden­tity, spe­cific­ally the com­pon­ent that tells us our actions are gen­er­ated by ourselves, and that we must take respons­ib­il­ity for them. This threat is par­tic­u­larly acute for Saskia, because, in my first book, she met her­self as a middle-aged woman, and knows that it is impossible for her to die. However, she man­ages to main­tain her essen­tial human­ity by act­ing as though what she does makes a dif­fer­ence.

Cory reacts quite dif­fer­ently. He can’t accept the evid­ence of his eyes that every­one he meets is an auto­maton, because that means he must be an auto­maton too. He becomes unstable, insane, and grows into the vil­lain of the piece.

Of course, the book employs the stand­ard tricks too: the chase, betray­al, plot twists, sus­pense and cliff-hangers…

Author: Ian Hocking

Writer and psychologist.

2 thoughts on “Ripping yarns (or thoughts on the thriller)”

  1. Really enjoyed this post, Ian. Wish I had some­thing more con­struct­ive to add, but I am full of a cold… You’re par­tic­u­larly on the ball about the threat to iden­tity, I think.

  2. Thanks for stop­ping by, Alex. I’m start­ing to see iden­tity threats everywhere…(in thrillers, that is).

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