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Government Dysfunction: Fertile Ground for Writing the Thriller Screenplay

By Steve Duncan

Feed up with gridlock in Congress?
Frustrated because elected officials are not doing their jobs?
Feel like those who are elected are betraying the voters?

Does divided government make you want to kill somebody!?

Well, rather than entangle yourself in the criminal justice system, consider exploring this fertile ground for writing a thriller feature film screenplay or creating an original television thriller series. Or both.

So, how do you go about planning and executing a thriller that thrills the audience? Of course, you start with an intriguing story premise: the one line pitch that makes a listener (or reader) sit up and say (or think), “I want to see that movie” or “I’d watch that TV show.”

But you also need the essential thematic element of betrayal.

Betrayal is the breaking or violation of a presumptive contract, trust, or confidence that produces moral and psychological conflict within a relationship.

Your story premise should be based on this act of human weakness. It comes in many brands: disloyalty, infidelity, duplicity, and treachery are just a few examples that fuel the fire. Then there’s ambition and greed that fan the flames. And these days, it seems Congress and other government institutions are chock full of these brands of misguided passion.

To successfully write a thriller, it’s always a good idea to study film classics from the genre. Here are two archetypal thrillers that revolve around betrayal and government dysfunction:

In Three Days of the Condor (1975), a quiet and studious CIA researcher -- code named Condor -- (Robert Redford) comes back to the office from lunch and finds everyone dead. They’ve been assassinated. He quickly realizes he should have been among them and finds himself on the run from his own employer -- the U.S. Government. Joe Turner ultimately discovers it’s his own boss, a deputy director of the CIA, who has betrayed him.

In All the President’s Men (1976), two real life reporters, played by Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman, investigate a break-in of the Democratic National Committee whose office is located in the Watergate Hotel. Their quest for a news story brings down the most powerful man in the world -- the President of the United States of America and makes Deep Throat a cliché epithet for those who betray someone.

Of course, there are contemporary examples of the thriller worthy of examination by the aspiring screenwriter. In 2013, two action thrillers, White House Down and OlympusHas Fallen, involve conspiracies against the U.S. President. And both stories explore the heartbreak of betrayal of trusted friends and colleagues.

The Bourne film franchise mines the government’s abuse of control over its CIA agents while the Tom Clancy film franchise -- most recently Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit (2014) -- involves stopping abuse of power conspiracies.

Don’t forget television. TV is expanding because of the Internet and there are many career opportunities (that means jobs) in this area.

The Blacklist (2013-Present), Homeland (2011-Present), Nikita (2010-Present), and Covert Affairs (2010-Present)are stellar examples of the popularity of the thriller genre on the small screen. Each of these television series thrive using today’s government dysfunction as the core of conflict. In The Blacklist, anti-hero Raymond “Red” Reddington (James Spader) uses the government resources, the FBI, to aide in his criminal activities in return for names on a list of ultra-criminals. In this case, betrayal has its benefits for both sides.

House of Cards (2012-Present) and Alpha House (2012-Present) are nascent streaming original series hits for Netflix and Both series involve the government’s inability to properly work and makes their storytelling core revolve around betrayal.

Houseof Cards is the ultimate “in your face” betrayal of an elected official who does anything -- including committing murder -- to become the second most powerful man in the world. And he betrays a lot of folks in this pursuit of power.

There’s even a television series titled Betrayed (2013-Present) that revolves around an unhappy wife who cheats on her husband with a married man then the cheating couple find themselves on opposite sides in a murder trial.

Hey, you don’t have to be a political junky to completely realize that government gridlock is destined to continue for some time. Not that it’s all that new. But as it does, people who go to the movies or watch television have been conditioned to see this concept as believable entertainment. For many, the only way to see Congressional stalemate end is in a feature film or on a television series.

So, use your own emotions about the state of this affair and conjure up a story of intrigue and betrayal and fuel it with passion for the big, small and mobile screen.

Oh, and don’t for get to make it thrilling

Steve Duncan is a Professor of Screenwriting at Loyola Marymount University. A current member of WGA West and Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, his production credits include Co-creator and Executive Consultant of the CBS-TV Emmy-winning series Tour of Duty, Writer-Producer of the ABC-TV series A Man Called Hawk, and Co-writer of the Emmy-nominated TNT film The Court-Martial of Jackie Robinson. He’s the author of A Guide to Screenwriting Success: How to Write for Film and Television (Rowman-Littlefield 2006) and Genre Screenwriting: How to Write Popular Screenplays That Sell (Continuum Books 2008). He’s a contributing author to The Handbook of Creative Writing (Edinburgh University Press 2008) and Now Write! Screenwriting (Tarcher/Penguin 2011). Steve also consults with the NFL, mentoring professional players’ transition into the film and television industry. He earned an M.A., Communication Arts: Television and Film, from Loyola Marymount University.


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At a Glance:

  • Learn the principles of writing the thriller genre
  • Gain a deep understanding of the essential elements of the thriller genre using examples from classic and current feature films and TV series
  • Discover how to develop commercial thrillers from idea to character to story to plot to screenplay