How To Write A Screenplay: The Spy Thriller Edition
Most scripts are always suitable for screenplay contests but when it comes down to production costs they are never made into movies.
By Jen B.
There are infinite resources on how to write a screenplay, but the tactics change from one genre to another. There are special tricks for rom coms and comedies and very different ones for dramas and action movies. Let’s explore a popular but hard to nail genre: spy thrillers!
Some of the most famous movies of all time are spy thrillers. We have iconic characters like James Bond and Ethan Hunt whose fame and success spawned entire franchises that are being made to this very day. Not all spy thrillers run on high suspense. Austin Powers, Mr. and Mrs. Smith, and Spy all showcase more comedic takes on the genre.
Regardless of the subgenre you choose to fuse your spy thriller with, there are some key elements you should keep in mind to write a compelling, marketable spy thriller story.
A captivating opening sequence
Screenwriting agents, managers, or producers always look for a blast of an opening when it comes to spy thrillers. Even audiences who go to the cinema expect a big opening to hook them and capture their attention during the first few minutes of the movie. This will be an important task when you’re writing your own script: start big! Looking back on successful spy thrillers, you’ll notice captivating opening sequences make memorable and excellent beginnings to any story. Think of James Bond movies which always start off with an interesting opening to draw you in. Similar observations can be made about Mission Impossible movies and The Bourne series.
An exceptional lead duo
It’s not just about a charismatic hero. You’ve got to dedicate as much effort in writing an equally good (or bad?) villain. A solid protagonist-antagonist dynamic is what carries your story, so you need to make sure your lead characters are not just stereotypical, run of the mill enemies. Get creative and don’t just follow preexisting recipes for strong spies. Create something new and fresh so your script makes a good first impression among the hundred other spy thrillers piled up on a screenwriting manager’s desk.
Make your action scream…or whisper
If you’ve written a spy thriller and you’re thinking about selling your screenplay, you must check this one off before marketing your work. Spy thrillers are nothing without well-written action. You have to make your action scream because the stakes or major conflicts are loud and big. The safety of whole cities, countries, or even the entire world hangs in the balance. Your action sequences should reflect the urgency of those stakes.
Car chases and explosions are the typical examples, but you can also utilize a more subtle form of suspense. High tension scenes infuse your story with a sense of suspense that can illicit an even stronger reaction in your audience than that of dangerous jumps off buildings and physical challenges. The classic example of suspenseful tension is the nerve-racking sequence in Mission Impossible where Ethan Hunt is suspended an inch away from the floor and trying not to trigger any alarms. There are no speeding cars or physical action on screen, but our heart rate spikes and we can’t relax for twenty whole minutes.
When you’re writing action sequences, whether they’re loud or hushed, make sure the suspense and tension are at their peak. Feel free to read screenplays online that tackle action in different ways. See what they do best and how their suspense builds throughout the script.
Use a MacGuffin
Before you roll your eyes, yes, MacGuffins can be trivial and meaningless. However, as many screenwriting managers will agree, in most spy thrillers, MacGuffins drive the characters and the plot forward. Usually our hero is chasing a secret list of agents who defected, or a new dangerous device made to harm others or, as spies often do, a bomb.
Regardless of why your hero is after that MacGuffin, think outside of the box and make yours compelling enough that the audience doesn’t just nod along. You don’t necessarily have to create something completely new. If you choose to throw in a bomb or a list, make it stand out to make your script stand out, too. There must be something special about your MacGuffin, something extra dangerous, that triggers a stronger response in audiences.
Ground your story in reality
An important aspect of marketable spy thrillers are realistic thrills. Sure, spies usually have obscenely absurd gadgets and technological spectacles and that’s part of their appeal. But the audience never disconnects from the story because these weird wonders are grounded in realistic, attainable technology that also exists.
Don’t get too carried away when you’re designing such props. Even more importantly, don’t abuse those props to get out of dead ends or unlikely scenarios. Your audience processes events and can detect coincidences that are simply too shocking to be believable. Ground everything that happens in a realistic, logical world so you don’t lose your audience (and the interest of screenwriting agents).
Set it up and pay it off
The most satisfying, and ultimately successful, spy thrillers are those that show off terrific plot twists. Plot twists sell and they would definitely help you if you’re thinking about selling your screenplay. Now well-written plot twists are what you’re after. No lucky coincidences or happy endings out of the blue.
To write a good plot twist, you need to set it up properly so that the payoff makes sense. Always check if there are any surprise elements or new props or character developments and track them back through your script. Did you set them up? Did you drop subtle hints and plant clues along the way? If not, then your big plot twist won’t make sense and will inevitably fail to give the audience a satisfying moment. You can always check screenplays online, read how your favorite spy thrillers are like on the page, to learn more about setups.
When figuring out how to write a screenplay, a spy thriller specifically, you need to be generous with your twists and turns. Surprising and shocking the audience every dozen or so pages is what you’re aiming for. Screenwriting managers, agents, and producers look for those compelling reveals and twists so give them satisfying moments that are set up and paced perfectly all the way to the ultimate payoff.