Where to Mine Ideas for Your Contained Thriller
I wanted to take a break from reviews today, and present an idea that I’ve been wanting to discuss for some time.
Lately, I’ve had quite a few more requests on my most recent script, so now was as good a time as any. You know I’m not that smart, so the genre of it being a contained thriller is a logical solution for the increased traffic.
Most of you know my theory, that given the current economy, Hollywood folks are wary of spending millions of dollars to make a movie, especially if it’s from an unknown writer. With this in mind, we should be making every attempt to write a great story on as limited a budget as possible.
“But Hank,” you say, “I should be writing the story I want to tell.” And that’s true, BUT only if you’re content with being the only one reading it. (Alright, your friends and family will read it too.)
If you want to see it on the big screen, it’s time you realized that you’re selling a product, your script, and it needs to be something a customer, an agent/producer, is interested in or they aren’t buying.
Start with one location.
Are any of the ideas you’re kicking around upstairs able to be set there? Can you pull off your story with just two locations? Is the drama and the suspense enough to encourage interest without the necessity of crazy special effects?
A while back I suggested the “crazy” idea that, as screenwriters on a journey, it would be good practice for us to write a script in a contained setting. Good or bad result, it didn’t matter, this was one more step toward being a better writer.
That idea was met with some resistance.
“That’s a lot of time to invest on practice,” was the general answer.
Aren’t we serious about learning? Are we expecting maximum gains for minimum effort? If the exercise makes us better writers, isn’t that time well spent, regardless of the result?
Focusing on dialogue and conflict, without fancy effects or faraway settings, isn’t a bad thing to try. We need to think outside the box, especially if we’re trying to reduce costs and look more appealing to buyers.
Scared shitless, and not sure where to start?
Don’t worry. Your old pal Hank is here for you, and FINALLY ready to get to the point of this article.
This notion came to me over the Twilight Zone marathon run during New Years.
After watching a few episodes I was fascinated by Rod Serling’s genius.
Most of what I was watching was done with limited budgets, and very few locations. (Hmmm, wasn’t someone just talking about that?)
As I watched those few episodes, my mind started wandering off on tangents. What if the characters did this? That is cool, but what if the reverse happened somewhere else? Nice twist, but could this work better?
Am I saying to watch old episodes and just update the setting? Absolutely not, BUT this is a classic case of “give me the same thing, only different.”
Most ideas can be traced or related to others, especially in storytelling, so what I’m suggesting is do a bit of recreational research, and perhaps some new, contained ideas will blossom in that budding mind of yours.
As you watch, be sure to ask yourself, “Can I take this idea and make it my own WITHOUT it costing over $1 million?”
I’ll go over a few episodes, and give you examples of how to make it your own.
Stopover in a Quiet Town
A married couple wake up in an unknown house. They’re unsure where they are, and the only thing they know is that they drank entirely too much the night before.
They begin to search the house for the owners, but something is off. The house isn’t real, almost like a model home with fake appliances. They’re startled initially, but head out in search of other houses and people.
Outside, everything is quiet, save for a girl’s giggling. They rush to stores, churches, anywhere, but no sign of the girl or anyone else, only the laughing. On top of that, nothing is as real, everything from trees, grass, cars, all of it fake.
In the end they’re driven mad, only to find out that the little girl laughing is really a giant alien who’s father picked up the couple on his last trip to Earth.
So how can we make this our own?
This story in particular really got the wheels turning in my head.
What if the man and woman weren’t a couple? What if they’re two strangers in a strange house? Would they trust each other, or would each misstep only force them further apart? What if their survival depended on each other?
On a different note, what if this wasn’t an entire town? What if they woke up in some random cabin, in the middle of the woods? There’s lots of ways to take that (and some writers probably already have) and make it work in a variety of genres.
Then there’s the final twist. What if, instead of an alien, the couple is being watched behind the scenes, by some sort of studio audience, almost like a thriller version of The Truman Show? (I especially like this one, as who hasn’t wondered from time to time if they’re not part of some studio experiment like that?)
The Midnight Sun
The Earth is drifting closer and closer to the sun.
Things are hot, and becoming unbearable. The story centers around two women, one of which is a painter, who continues to paint pictures of the city on fire. As the only two left in their building, and tensions increasing, the older woman asks her to paint something else, something cool.
She does, but they’re interrupted by an intruder. He forces his way in and drinks what little water they have left. He then goes on to explain how hard things are outside, how he lost his family, and that he isn’t really a bad guy. They ask him to leave, and as the heat crescendos everything melts.
The twist is that the painter has been dreaming during an extreme fever which has finally broke. She should be okay, but outside the world is headed in the wrong direction and things are getting colder and colder as the distance to the sun increases.
Make it our own
This one’s easy.
Instead of heat, what if it’s a plague, famine, natural disaster, etc. Anything that would cause a mass evacuation of a city, or greatly reduce the population.
Then instead of two women, what if we used a married couple? Better yet, we can take it from an angle similar to the looter. Show characters doing what they need to, to survive.
Or perhaps the married couple lost a child, and now one wants to go on, and the other doesn’t.
Lastly, the twist. Finding an idea that can be the exact opposite of what is happening earns extra credit with readers. For instance, taking that last example of having one character give up. Just as all hope is lost and the deed done, an army truck rolls in ready to administer some sort of cure and end everyone’s suffering.
Time Enough at Last
I mention this episode as it stars Burgess Meredith. (Not to mention it was also referenced in a Family Guy episode of Peter’s last brain cell.)
A bookworm of a man has trouble relating to people. All he wants to do is read.
One day, during lunch, he shuts himself in the bank vault so he won’t be disturbed as he reads. A loud explosion erupts outside knocking him unconscious.
He awakes and find everything and everyone either dead or gone, due to a nuclear blast. He’s completely alone, and that fact begins to take his toll on him.
Just when he’s ready to check out, he discovers the public library is still intact. Oh what joy! He has everything he’s ever wanted.
Then the twist. He breaks his glasses which he is practically blind without. Just like that, his dreams are dashed to shouts of, “It’s not fair!”
Make it our own
Similar to the last example, we can easily sub in a different disaster. We can even give the character a different dream or desire that is fulfilled, albeit for only a short time. Personally I think this is too close, and borderline being a copycat.
Solution? Make the plot more complex. Put an obstacle in the way. Maybe some digging needs to be done to reach the objective. Maybe there’s another person guarding the only source of food require to live.
The addition of one more character isn’t the same as adding a location. Not to mention the plot possibilities increase exponentially. Movies of just one character are hard to keep interesting, and luckily Burgess is only alone for around half the episode.
Can you come up with a disaster where one character tries to get everything they’ve ever wanted?
Being one of the better known episodes, a woman is coming out of surgery. Her face is covered by gauze, and the doctors are obscured in the shadows.
She keeps asking how the surgery went, as she is “not normal,” and when the gauze is removed the doctors and nurses are appalled.
She’s attractive, even by today’s standards, so we’re confused.
Then the doctors and nurses turn around. They have pig faces, and her being unlike them is why she’s shunned.
The twist at the end has her go away with another man afflicted with the “not normal” condition, where they live in a community of outcasts.
(This even spawned a Saturday Night Live spoof with Pam Anderson.)
Make it our own
Why did I bring up this one? Essentially I just wanted to include the Pam Anderson skit.
Just kidding, sort of, but this is a GREAT example of drawing out tension with just conflict and dialogue. The suspense of the woman not being normal, only to show us she is normal, but it’s the world’s that’s different, that’s what this whole exercise should be about.
If you’re not sold on devoting an entire screenplay to just a writing exercise, that’s your call.
What I would suggest however is watch a few episodes of The Twilight Zone and see what your creative mind can come up with. If not a contained thriller, it might give you your next great idea, or break “the block” and give you a scene that connects that plot you’ve been stuck on allowing you to finally complete your screenplay.
Lastly, and I saved the best for alst, over 100+ episodes are available on Netflix via their streaming service. That’s 100+ opportunities to discover the low budget idea that will break you into the big time.
And really, if you don’t have a Netflix membership as a screenwriter by now, what are you waiting for?