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This Is Your Brain On The Action Thriller

Jon James Miller challenges writers of action thrillers to make them a film-going experience the audience will feel in their bones.

Jon James Miller is a screenwriter, novelist and frequent online presenter. His first novel, a historical fiction based on an original screenplay, will be published Spring 2015. For more information, go to: Follow Jon on Twitter @jonjimmiller.

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We’ve all experienced the sensation before. Your skin chills, the hair on your arms and back of your neck stands on end. Your breath quickens and your heart races. Your entire body is sent into a state of high alert, ready for fight or flight. The action on the movie screen has transported you into the film universe so completely that you’re mind and body is reacting as if you are there, hurtling through time and space headed toward imminent death.

Why would anybody in their right mind pay for such an experience? But everyone who has seen an action thriller knows why. The palpable sensation of being catapulted into a storyline full of danger and breakneck action makes our senses come alive in a way we hope will never happen in real life. Thankfully for most of us the action thriller will be the only time we are being chased by assassins or engaged in a winner-take-all car chase. And the release of endorphins after surviving such an ordeal, albeit vicariously, is euphoric and addictive.

The action thriller creates suspense through physical action within the film universe it is set. But what sets this subgenre apart from the traditional action movie and makes it so infectious to watch is the sense of mystery and danger surrounding the protagonist. I’ll never forget the first time I saw THE BOURNE IDENTITY (2002). For me and a packed movie theater audience - the experience was truly visceral. The set-up is now classic: Jason Bourne is a trained assassin with retrograde amnesia. Over the course of the movie, he must figure out who he is and why several clandestine groups, the CIA and a professional assassin are trying to kill him. A paranoid-fantasy, if ever there was one.

action thriller

A great action thriller drags you into the film’s world so completely that body and mind perceive the action as if it occurring first-hand. Your brain processes visual and auditory information the same as if you were in actual physical danger. Tricked into perceiving a threat, your amygdale sounds the alarm. Your pupils dilate, your adrenal system floods your system with adrenaline and stress hormones and oxygen-rich blood is diverted into muscles in preparation for a burst of emergency action.

I came away from watching BOURNE IDENTITY thoroughly exhausted, a little bit disoriented and, if memory serves, a freaky notion I might be jumped in the parking lot by shadowy assassins. It was a film-going experience I felt in my bones. And even though I’ve seen the movie numerous times since, I’m always drawn right back in, my muscle memory reacting to the now familiar scenes as if I were experiencing flashbacks of an actual experience. The adrenaline rush might not be like it was the first time I watched the movie but it’s still there.

So what makes us react so strongly to something we know consciously is not real? Not to sound grandiose, but we are responding to sustained storytelling craft. Virtually any movie can (at least on first viewing) make us jump in our seat with a cheap shot of something unexpected appearing in the frame. Even the stupidest horror movie can illicit our fear response via surprise. On the other hand, a well-crafted, intelligent action thriller will build on that same response but over time, drawing us in scene by scene over an ever-escalating narrative ticking time bomb. The ultimate difference is in our emotional investment in the story’s outcome.

In THE BOURNE IDENTITY, we can’t stop watching Jason Bourne because we want to know what happens to him. We are invested because the storytellers have gone to great pains to make us empathize with him, his mental condition and the position his murky, mysterious past puts him in the present. Empathy is a very strong emotion because it involves putting ourselves in another person’s shoes. In the movie world, we see through the eyes of the main character but also exist outside that character and often know a terrible truth of which they are unaware. Sometimes the ticking bomb of the story is literally a ticking bomb and knowing the danger increases our anxiety over the protagonist’s fate. We want to look away but we can’t because we’re looking out for the character who cannot see the danger for themselves. Our suspension of disbelief is such that we fear for them.

An action thriller so well-crafted as to sustain this level of disbelief over 90 to 120 anxiety-ridden minutes is rare. Even rarer is the screenplay that does the exact same thing. Only a script doesn’t have a captive audience sitting in the dark, cell-phones off with a pretense of wanting to suspend reality because they just paid $15 for escapist entertainment. The screenwriter only has ink and paper (pixels today, of course) with which to provoke a visceral, empathetic response in an often jaded and cynical reader’s mind. A mind that has been cheated and short-changed repeatedly by lesser storytellers and their so-called genre scripts full of cheap parlor tricks.

The difference, the only one that matters, between the movie-going experience and the script-reading experience is that the writer has mastered their genre story so completely that the reader takes that extra step and keeps turning the page to find out what happens next. They’ve tapped into that unsuspecting amygdale enough to compel the reader forward. To create empathy via tight action lines and dialogue, fresh characters with a unique point of view and a narrative ticking bomb that keeps the pace moving. A script so well executed, that it will hold a busy, overworked human being’s attention, causing them to lose track of time and shut out the external world voluntarily. Just to find out what happens. And isn’t that why we all got into this crazy business in the first place?

Check out Jon James Millers' webinars at The Writers Store!

Award-winning screenwriter Jon James Miller gives tips in is webinar on
How to Write an Action Thriller They Can't Put Down

How to Write An Action Thriller They Can’t Put Down