How To Write A Thriller Screenplay

An important part of writing a good thriller movie is knowing how to create strong dramatic tension. This is related to manipulating audience anticipation and expectation of events.

Here are a few screenwriting techniques I want to share with you because we all want to become better screenwriters:


This a trick that that magicians use to distract you from the inner workings of their magic trick. The result is a surprised and entertained audience. In screenwriting you can subtly shift your audience focus to parallel events that may or may not bear an effect on the story outcome.

Perhaps you can introduce a mysterious character that piques audience interest. You can also subvert the dramatic function of a character such as making a friend a villain or a villain a mentor.

You can also add lies or permutations of the truth. These can be deliberate such as giving a false testament or accidental such as a character with amnesia or trauma delivering their interpretation of events.


Add confusion or remove clarity from events. Typical examples include an unknown gloved hand the pulling the trigger or a hooded figure engaging in sketchy activity in a dark alleyway. Such scenes suggest adverse activity without stating it.


The typical clues we’re used to seeing such as fingerprints at the scene of a crime or finding the murder weapon at a suspect’s house are well worn tropes. Use them as little as possible in your scripts.

Instead explore a character’s quirks, neuroses or phobias. For instance, a suspect who is terrified of water may not be the immediately be a suspect in a drowning crime. Or could they?


These are clues that lead nowhere. They are deliberately added to throw the main character (and audience) off scent. Sometimes they are used repeatedly to really dislocate the audience. However, don’t veer the audience too far off track because they still need to  follow the story.

Although a staple of old time black and white thrillers, use them sparingly in contemporary thrillers.


If you know your characters well enough (of course you do), give them the power of a sixth sense. A nagging feeling, a premonition, a gut feeling. Call it what you will. If you write it well enough, the audience will travel with the main character.


Make your villain and hero equally strong, both mentally and physically. They know each other better than anyone else, even their closest allies. Each knows what makes the other tick, how they might behave and what tactics they use in a given situation. They also know how to press each other’s buttons. How to exploit each other’s deepest fears. Using this technique you can continually shift the power balance between hero and villain.

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