Ever get the feeling, “I’ve read this book before—or seen this movie six other times?” Any fan of thrillers will recognize that yes, you need action, and a villain, and thriller law requires that Things that Can Possibly Explode Must Go Boom. However, it’s also nice to be surprised. To not be able to predict every move the villain will make. To have a hero who uses his brain once in a while rather than his guns and gadgets.
But it so rarely happens. Instead, we are treated to endless variations on these, the top ten thriller clichés.
Act I: A wealthy, disfigured foreigner toils late into the night; also, HE MAKES SNACKS
1. The Villain of the Week is a wealthy, disfigured foreigner who (a) steals a nuclear warhead, (b) plans to kidnap the president or (c) discovers a lock of Hitler’s hair and is busy cloning the Führer.
2. The Standard Hero is tall, dark and deadly. He used to work for the government, wears anything as long as it’s black — wet suit, tuxedo or cat-burglar outfit — and solves every problem by beating it up, blowing it up or sleeping with it.
3. The Villain of the Week has an endless army of faceless minions except for two people: the femme fatale, who has a special bond with our hero because her wardrobe is also exclusively black, just tighter, and a giant, impossibly strong thug who never speaks and has a signature way of killing people.
Act II: The Standard Hero wakes from his slumber to BLOW THINGS UP
4. Our hero is out of the business and cares nothing for money, but the state appeals to his patriotism—or the villain kills his wife/family/mentor. If the villain is truly evil, he’ll burn down Grandma’s house.
5. Although the hero is a lone wolf, still in therapy for the time he couldn’t save the life of his partner/brother/best friend, he must now work with a team. That team will include a beautiful young sidekick who knows kung fu almost as well as the Kama Sutra and a science nerd who provides exploding pens and tech support. He will also have a Bureaucratic Boss, who will suspend our hero, then turn out to be a mole working for the Villain of the Week.
6. Bad Men in Suits: If the president isn’t involved, the prime minister of Britain shows up, plus a politician involved in the conspiracy, typically a slick, greedy senator with a southern accent and corrupt ties to a defense contractor. If this is an international thriller, the corrupt politician will be a decadent member of the House of Lords who we instantly know is evil, because he clearly has more money than God and a thing for his sister.
7. Between car chases and explosions, the femme fatale tries to kill the hero, who bests her, making her decide to sleep with him. This is how you know she is doomed.
Act III: The Big Showdown ends in a fist fight; never mind ALL THE GUNS
8. Our hero gets new gadgets and puts on wetsuit or commando outfit underneath his tuxedo so he can infiltrate the villain’s secret lair, right after the big charity dinner and ballroom dance. The femme fatale helps him with his foxtrot and his infiltrating, but only so she can betray him after he’s inside. But the villain doesn’t kill him right off. He delegates death-by-torture to the femme fatale, who sets the hero free, then turns bad again at the last minute so she can have a long catfight with the beautiful sidekick.
9. After the hero kills countless minions, he faces the invincible giant. The hero uses the invincible giant’s signature killing move against him, then he goes to find the Villain of the Week, who ignores all the AK-47’s on the ground next to dead thugs and decides to fight the hero bare-handed as the lair self-destructs.
10. The hero dispatches the Villain of the Week by (a) tossing him down an endless chasm, (b) impaling him on a massive spike or (c) throwing him down a chasm that ends in a massive spike. But nothing changes. Our hero doesn’t learn or grow—he’ll be back for more in the sequel. The world doesn’t change. The average person in Cleveland has no idea anything happened at all.
Guy Bergstrom is a speechwriter and reformed journalist. He wrote a thriller that was a finalist for some award. He can be found on Twitter @speechwriterguy or at his blog, redpenofdoom.com