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Anatomy of a Contained Thriller


After my Buried review I wanted to take a look at what goes into creating suspense in genres similar to the contained thriller. THEN I remember Roy’s forum post on “How to create suspense in films” and thought these ideas should make for a helpful article.

As always, this isn’t the ONLY LIST of devices to use for the thriller genre, but it should help you as write. If a device or trick is called something else, please don’t think we’re trying to start a new trend, just that the idea is more important than what we call it.

1. Imaginary information

Showing alternate versions of the truth, or just part of it.

Our characters need certain parts of the truth to venture on their quest, but they should never have all of it.

A voicemail message laced with static, a torn photo, etc. all give us part of the story but not all of it. This is important because if the main character is led to believe someone or something is guilty, we’ll believe it, and will judge that character accordingly.

When you throw us for a loop at the end, finding out the true reason behind what happened, that’s when we’re surprised and more often than not, entertained. “How to Write a Damn Good Thriller: A Step-by-Step Guide for Novelists and Screenwriters” was very helpful to me on this particular point.

2. Necessary information

Giving a character something that needs doing and allowing him/her not to do it.

A ticking timebomb.

This made me think of that overdone of all thriller brands, Saw. The set up is people hurting themselves or others to gain freedom. The solution is simple, yet in this case our humanity gets in the way.

It doesn’t have to be a choice either. Perhaps one character is locked outside of the room with an item another character needs to live. If a door was open it’d be a simple task, but the door’s NOT open, and the windows are shatter proof. How are we going to get in there to save the day?

3. Distracting information

At a critical moment, reversing the trajectory of a scene by way of a scream, gunshot, etc.

A murder/mystery dinner party anyone? We’ve just tracked down another dead character, and have the maid holding a bloody knife. Suddenly there’s a SCREAM from the parlor, and we rush out to see who it is.

Miss Peacock is dead on the floor, but we were with the maid the whole time. Is the maid really guilty? Is she working alone?

This trick is another AWESOME way to keep your audience on the edge of their seats. We all want to solve the mystery, so by getting closer to one problem only to produce another one, we can’t help but keep going as we want to know it all.

4. Random information

Roy calls this the lucky break or the bad break.

Sometimes our characters can stumble onto a clue. The trick here is to make it subtle AND almost always have it raise more questions than it answers.

A dead body, a weapon, a way out, all of them feasible but NONE of them should lead to safety or the exact way out.

Making things too convenient makes for a grumbling audience.

5. Withholding information

A character says the equivalent of, “This changes everything,” and then doesn’t tell you how.

This adds TENSION, which is always good for drama AND dialogue.

On top of that, if you can come up with a WORTHY reason for that character to withhold the information, you’ve just given your characters more depth, and your story a leg up on other amateur spec scripts.

6. Camouflaged information

Taking a familiar object and calling it by a more complex name.

A rose is a rose is a rose, unless it isn’t. What you’re aiming for here is taking an everyday object like, for instance, a thumbdrive and having a character say something like:

That’s not a thumbdrive. It’s a portal.

We know what thumdrives are. We know what portals are. What we don’t know is how these two could overlap, and now we have to find out.

Things are never simple in stories right? They can be, but don’t have to be. As long as you’re doing what’s best for your story that’s what’s important.

Some characters are written to always look for complex solutions, which is good, especially as they fight with other characters, but sometimes a stick of gum, a rubber band, and a paper clip are all you need to escape from a dungeon.

7. Highlighted information

Taking an ordinary object, or action and drawing excessive attention to it.

This makes me think of a magician with misdirection.

“Look over here! Look over HERE! LOOK OVER HERE!” All the while the assistant is climbing under the table cloth behind you.

Conversly to the previous question, characters can sometimes focus on the “solution” to the problem that isn’t even a real solution. Maybe it’s only part of the information (like from another point), maybe the info’s been misinterpreted, or maybe another character just lied.

If we’re working, working, working to achieve a goal, but right as we open that door to freedom we find a brick wall behind it, things happen.

Obviously you can’t leave your story there (or the audience will hate you), but it’s a great way to escalate the tension, which means we’ll keep reading.

Anytime you call extra attention to an element in your script’s world, the reader will file it away as an expected pay-off. Later, when you reward him/her with the reason why the object or action is important, he/she will be satisfied.

8. Crowding information

Making one thread in your story easy to figure out so that another, more important, thread is missed.

Say the maid is the killer, and you caught her red handed. All the clues were there, but you never noticed that all those times the butler was actually missing too.

This little trick gives your readers just enough to feel smart, but also keeps them reading for more that’s going on behind the scenes. It’s what leads to an “Oh shit” moment when you finally give them all the pieces to solve the puzzle by fade out.

9. Glazing information

Think of your character like a dressed-up dish. You, the cook, coat them with all sorts of traits which is their representation of what they are to the world. If the “glaze” hides what they really are and yet is CONSISTENT with what they really are, you’ve pulled this technique off.

CE gave an excellent example of this in the forums. He used Douglas Quaid from Total Recall as an example.

This is another GREAT use of the technique as well, since the entire movie we’re wondering, is he really a nobody dreaming of being a somebody, or has he been this kick ass secret agent the entire time?

10. Impossible information

Presenting sensorial evidence to a character in your story which is flatly contradicted by what the character knows to be the truth.

A family relationship suddenly called into question.

A solution that defies logic or physics.

Possibilities are numerous, and making the clues go against everything the character knows and believes makes for internal and external drama, depending on how large your cast is.

11. Interrupting Action

(Honorable Mention by CE.)

I wanted to include this technique as I think CE was onto something. He uses the example of ending a chapter before knowing the outcome of an event.

Similar to a choose your own adventure story, but in a script we can’t skip ahead to pick the outcome we desire.

Leaving your audience hanging will not only create suspense, it will have them appreciate your storytelling. (AS LONG AS you’re cutting away to something they also care about.)

Keeping the entire script well paced will allow you to employ this trick and bounce around to various characters leading to an enjoyable read.


Incorporating a few of these techniques into your plot should enhance your story. That should translate into a more beneficial experience for the reader.

This list doesn’t have to be limited to the contained thriller genre either, since most are techniques for creating suspense, but it should help you give your characters something to do or think about as they’re stuck in that single location. A very helpful book for first timers or those looking for a refresher course is “The Starter Screenplay” by Adam Levenberg.


  1. Great tips!

    I’d add …


    Make it clear that X must happen/not happen by Y in order for Z to occur/not occur.


    Give the audience information that your character(s) does not have. For example, a boring scene in which a wife talks to her husband about her day suddenly becomes exciting when we know that her lover is hiding in the next room.

    • The Incredible Mr. Dillon.

      Visiting us from Feedback Friday! Thanks very much for the two additions. I mentioned ticking clock, but you may be right that it wasn’t exactly the best example for that particular technique.


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