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Most sources on the internet sum up the Thriller genre something like…

“Stories that elicit strong feelings of excitement, in essence, thrilling the audience.”

(Funny, isn’t that what they say about the Action genre?)

Sure they mention tension, suspense and other elements, but the focus of the definition always lands on excitement and thrills.

For the average Joe, this may be adequate, but if you’re intent on writing successful Thriller fiction, such a simplistic definition isn’t helpful. In fact, it could even be harmful, misdirecting you from the first fundamental pillar of the genre.

Let me hit you with a little secret;

Thrillers are really Horror stories for folks who don’t like Horror.

While Thrillers generally make greater use of the emotional wheel throughout their narratives, ultimately, like horror fiction, Thrillers are all about FEAR (we’ll unpack this in one second).

Interestingly, Thrillers rarely stand on their own as a genre work.

If you look at the top Thrillers of all time, those pieces of fiction ALL cross over into other genres, whether it’s a Crime Thriller, Horror Thriller, Action Thriller, or even more, like the Action/Crime/Mystery/Sci-fi/Thriller, Minority Report.

Phew, that was a mouthful.

It’s extremely rare to find a top piece of Thriller fiction that moves into no other genre pool.

The reason for this is pretty simple; most thrillers are complex narratives with significant depth. Especially when it comes to the main character and MAF. At their essence they pull from the intensity of Action, the fear of Horror, and the engagement of Drama.

By their very nature it’s difficult NOT to cross genres.

The purpose of this article is to focus in on what makes the thriller a thriller.

I’m going to cover the three core pillars of Thriller fiction as well as another ten or so elements of significant importance. Every thriller needs the three pillars to be considered a thriller. The more you implement the other elements, the closer you’ll get to reaching your maximum story potential.

In breaking down the Thriller, I’ll showcase examples that cross various thriller genre boundaries. At the conclusion of this article, you’ll completely comprehend the core substance of Thriller fiction.

It’s worth noting here, that Thriller fiction is one of the only genres commonly referred to by two other names:

Suspense and Mystery.

Wait, what?

Clearly, Thrillers, Suspense, and Mystery are different genres.

I mean for fuck’s sake, grouping Hitchcock’s Rear Window and Jaws together…. Really?

Obviously these two works of fiction are about as different as different can be.

Aren’t they?

Wellllllll… yes and no.

Reality is, Thriller, Mystery, and Suspense fiction all utilize and play with the same core mechanics (to their own degrees and ends).

While Mystery definitely shares the bed with Thriller and Suspense, I argue it has enough specific points in execution, that it breaks away from the Thriller (and suspense) and earns it’s own classification… at least enough so for this article.

So let’s throw that baby right out the window with the bath water and focus on the other two.

When it comes to Thriller and Suspense in defining material… the two should not be viewed as equivalents, BUT instead as opposite ends of the same sliding scale.

  • If you have faster pacing with more action oriented narrative, you’re in Thriller territory.
  • Where you have slower pacing with more dramatic oriented narrative, you’re in Suspense territory (or Mystery, or even Psychological Thriller territory for the record).

There’s another key pillar element in defining this scale, the most important of the three, but I’m not going to lead off with that fella. We’ll save him for later… for our second cup of coffee.

Truth is, Thrillers make a few big moves and if you want to nail the genre, you need to know them all.

Alright lads, roll up those sleeves.

Break out that new set of colored pens and pad.

* If you haven’t read my article on Horror, you’d probably do well to read that one first. I guess you don’t need to understand horror to write a solid Thriller, but seeing as the two are so closely tied together, if nothing else just the ability to compare and contrast with the material covered in the horror article will help give complete context.


FEAR. The first Pillar.

If you remember, we define Horror as the “Expectation of an unimaginable worst case scenario.”

For the Thriller, the fear is grounded in reality and is thus, not unimaginable. And therefore defined as;

Expectation of a worst case scenario. 

In horror, you introduce Fear that the reader doesn’t know. Most folks haven’t been to Hell, had to fight a legion of undead, or outwit a blood sucking vampire lord.

Horror is driven by the imagination’s ability to create completely new terror.

Thrillers are driven by the imagination’s ability to explore a predefined area to its outer most ends.

Without the unimaginable element… without the unknown… we can hone in and say the fear driving the Thriller is not terror, but instead, HIGH ANXIETY from a known and expected threat.

In Jaws we’ve got three guys in a boat, a big shark, and the ocean. The shark isn’t growing legs and chasing them onto land. The chief isn’t pulling out a jetpack and flying to safety. The stage is quite limited… but out imaginations aren’t… and readers get to stew in all the practical possibilities.

Are they going to drown… or get eaten?

Will they die horribly slow, or quickly in a single chomp?

Will they take the shark with them?

Will anyone possibly come to the rescue?

The stage has been set… but our imaginations are still incredibly powerful and effective.

Fear of an imaginable worst case scenario while different, can be just as potent. In some cases, for some folks, it might even be more so.

These are the folks who laugh at Freddy Krueger or Pumpkinhead, but get goosebumps at the thought of a serial killer next door.

In some sense, despite being grounded in reality, Fear of a worst case scenario is more liberating than the Fear driving horror.

In horror, to reach “unimaginable” territory, most of the time you’re working with just a few primal fears. You often have to sort of “stretch” working with those fears to get more specific.

For example,  it would be challenging, if nothing else, to create a horror fiction based solely on one’s fear of “relationships.”

< It’s easy to incorporate a relationship fear or relationship theme of some sort into horror, BUT, basing the whole narrative around it… not so much. >

Thrillers have much more flexibility in this regard.

The Thriller’s realm encompasses the human condition in its entirety. They focus on the psychological by nature.

It would be far easier to write a thriller based primarily on one’s fear of relationships, heck a bunch come to mind: The Hand the Rocks the Cradle, Sleeping with the Enemy, Single White Female

The fears one can work with as the engine to a thriller are anything within the human condition.

Fear of failure. Fear of being exposed as a fraud. Fear of being Abandoned. Fear of personal intimacy. Fear of judgement.

If we turn back to Jaws for a moment, besides the obvious (primal horror) fear of being eaten alive by a monster shark, there’s a very distinct High Anxiety fear of being helpless. (Humans lose most of their capability when forced to try not to die in deep water.) How many times in Jaws does Chief Brody struggle with his fear of the water, not the shark itself? Answer: Quite a few.

The real-world worst case scenarios readers can imagine through the lens of these fears are quite effective.

And quite relatable, instantly giving credibility to the narrative.

We’re going to discuss Worst Imaginable Case Scenarios and the Underlying Fear Anxiety a bit more later… for now, just recognize the fears that generate the Anxiety of the narrative are key, especially the main one your hero carries around.


Here comes the second major pillar of Thriller fiction.

Top off the coffee, we’re going to sit with this one for a bit.


It’s All about the MAF. (Not the bass or the treble.)

Where in horror, the MAF (Main Antagonistic Force—villain for the most part) is almost always Super Normal, in Thrillers, the MAF is almost always…


However, this doesn’t slow down the MAF at all, in fact…

One of the elements that makes Thriller so alluring is the dominant role of the MAF. Thriller fiction borrows this from the Action genre and further expands on it.

Of course in all fiction, you need a capable, active MAF… but perhaps nowhere else but in the Thriller does the MAF get to practically take over the show.

I haven’t timed it myself, but google tells me Darth Vader appears only 8 minutes in the original Star Wars run time, 121 minutes. (Star Wars, not classified as a Thriller…)

Contrast that to Hans Gruber, in the Action Thriller, Die Hard, who clocks in at 18 and a half minutes of the 132 minute runtime. Or Hannibal Lecter of Silence of the Lambs, who comes in and 17 and a half minutes of the 118 minute Crime Thriller.

Ok look, I didn’t breakdown villain screen time in a million movies and I wasn’t trying to cherry pick villains here,  but hopefully the above examples point to a pattern;

the MAF drives the action.

Where a story can be plot driven, or character driven, the Thriller for all intents and purposes, puts forward the MAF driven story.

You may be thinking, “Hey, wait a second, 18 minutes out of 132 isn’t taking over the show!”
(Shit, now I have to watch Die Hard again and jot down the total run time of any scene with Hansy or his boys. I will do this and report back here when I have a free 3 hours.)

Anyway, the screen time itself isn’t the point…

In every serial killer crime Thriller story, if the killer isn’t killing… where’s the story?

In Die Hard, if Hans isn’t robbing the vault, if he’s not shooting the corporate president, wiring the building with explosives, manipulating the FBI… where’s the story?

Nowhere… if the story is a Thriller.

// Sidenote: If you highlight the MAF without actually having the MAF do anything. You’re moving the Thriller intro psychological thriller or drama territory.

But be warned, if your MAF does not drive the action AND you don’t double down on tension (discussed later), your story is completely leaving thriller territory… and will likely be DOA in whatever genre label it wears.

Sadly, so many wannabe thrillers drop the ball big time here.

I can’t even remember the movie I watched recently, but some guy was in a country house and he kept seeing visions of a ghost. The ghost didn’t do shit. It just appeared and growled. The protagonist started taking all these actions to try and figure out what was going on.

Ultimately nothing happened. The movie tried to rely on jump scares and a complicated, ineffective backstory. It tried to make the hero the driving force of the Thriller.


The movie was totally boring and a waste of time. //

After you read this article, you’ll spot “thriller” fiction where the MAF doesn’t drive the story a mile away. These will be the movies and books you walk away from after 20 minutes.

To develop solid thriller fiction, push the active MAF as hard as you can. The more the MAF oozes conflict, jeopardy, and narrative drive, the more engaging the story. 

This point can not be stressed enough.



If you love writing villains, you probably have an affinity for Thriller fiction (and maybe before this article, weren’t really sure why).

In most fiction, you work in what’s commonly referred to as Pinch Points.

Moments, usually driven by the MAF, outside of the protagonists perception, that inject narrative drive and  raise the stakes. A typical narrative only requires a couple of these.

Again, we can see in Star Wars, Vader only had 8 minutes and at least some of that time was fighting with the protagonist. So Vader’s Pinch Point moments were quite limited.

We don’t need Vader’s backstory to understand his role in the adventure unfolding before us. We don’t need to know the why’s or how’s when he appears in a pinch point. Big dude with electronic voice who force chokes underlings who fuck up—check.

This is acceptable in the adventure movie and in most fiction. In fact, it’s necessary in most fiction where limited time and space are better served supporting some other elements of genre.

But the Thriller isn’t most fiction…

Thriller fiction opens the way for a far greater number of pinch points, approves greater development of the MAF in general, and even goes as far as to showcase the MAF in a split narrative fashion (giving the MAF their own separate parallel running story).

Don’t lose your narrative drive when handing over the show to your MAF… If you pursue highlighting your MAF, make sure all that narrative content is relative to the active story…

but that said, in Thriller fiction you get the green light to explore the why’s and how’s of the villain. USE THE MAF to take advantage of and foreshadow the other elements we’re discussing in this article.

This type of layering of the MAF makes the Thriller.

// Side note: It’s interesting to see in Star Wars how although Vader got such little screen time, he was so thoroughly developed throughout the rest of the movies. Think how your impression of the original Star Wars would have changed, had you been shown all the aspects of Vader’s character arc (particularly the negative side of his arc)? //



Allow an impotent character to steal the show and you’re sunk.

MAFs in Thriller fiction are always hyper capable.

In horror we said the MAFs were “Far more powerful and capable than the hero, making their defeat a clear and exceptional accomplishment for the hero.”

This rule holds TRUE for the thriller as well

The difference here, as we’ve already mentioned, is that the thriller MAF is normal, not a super normal monster. A lot of writers struggle here, because they don’t push their MAF into the hyper capable realm and instead leave them in a merely capable realm.

They make the mistake of thinking a well executed capable MAF is “good enough” to carry the narrative.

Imagine Silence of the Lambs where Hannibal was just an average criminal, with an average intellect. The entire narrative falls apart.

Or Luc Besson’s Professional, where Gary Oldman’s Norman Stansfield isn’t a psychotic, drug addicted, DEA agent with his own crew and a lot of pull on the police force, but instead a run of the mill beat cop. Again the narrative unravels.

Frank talk here y’all, in the real world you rarely have the time to detail out all the characters as extensively as you’d like.

For the MAF in thriller it pays to make sure you at least have his major flaw and hyper capabilities. You will need these.

> Hey we’re only halfway through with the MAF–nevermind Thriller Fiction’s biggest narrative pillar! Sign up to get the rest of the article, trust me, it only gets better!

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Anti-Fiction and Negative Theme Counterbalance

Article length: 2707 words (preview 580/wds)

All genuine story relies on a Master Theme… that is, a message from the author. A statement, theory, idea, or argument the author puts forth as truth.

As a general rule of thumb, adults don’t like being talked down to. They don’t like to be spoken to as if a child.

Speaking to someone as if they were a five year old means expression reduced to its simplest form;

  1. Directly on the nose, lacking all subtext.
  2. Reduced to a dichotomy of right and wrong, with nothing in-between.
  3. Most significantly, not allowing them to come to their own conclusion, but instead, forcing them to accept your own.

This is the essence of delivering a Master Theme with a heavy hand and guarantees alienating and disengaginung your readers.

Quick example:
In my cyberpunk novel “Crashing Eden,” I used a theme “Is the use of technology a right or a privilege?”

If I had come out and simply had one of the characters say, “Everybody knows, technology is a right, not a privilege,” or vice-versa, this would have been a clear showcase of #1.

If my Master Theme has actually been, “The use of technology is a privilege, not a right,” and I proceeded to showcase instance after instance where I enforce this view and only this view, I would have created a clear and distinct dichotomy. My view is correct and anything contrary I do not show, so it’s either wrong, or simply doesn’t exist. A clear and distinct showcase of #2.

Notice, I used a question as my Master Theme. A question immediately sets you up for success by giving you two sides of an argument to explore, bypassing from the very start, the fundamental mistake of a heavy handed theme; the single viewpoint.

Remember the back cover of Storycraft for Comics;

  • Honesty.
  • Objectivity.
  • Passion.

The professional writer must cultivate these three in abundance.

In this case we hone in on, Objectivity…

The most effective method of delivering a message in fiction is by offering more than one side of an argument; by presenting your argument through subtext and allowing the reader to come to their own conclusion.

The better the job you do at making the argument believable from all sides, the more impact your own conclusion carries. In turn, without objectivity to see a contrary side to your message, as a writer, you and your message are lost.

Keep in mind, all Master Themes of fiction are not fact.

  • Your Master Theme isn’t; H2O is the molecular make up of water.
  • Your Master Theme isn’t; there are 200-216 bones in the human body.
  • Your Master Theme isn’t; there are four seasons in a year.

While your message of fiction, may indeed ring true to most, or even be true for all intents and purposes… ultimately, a Master Theme is a writer’s opinion.

Simply telling your readers your opinion is correct, demands validation without earning it from your readers.

  • You have to SHOW readers why your opinion is correct (through the achievements of a character over the course of a narrative).
  • You have to PROVE to readers why your opinion is correct, by comparing and contrasting it to alternate views.

Simply asserting your opinion as fact is a sure-fire way to come across oppressive and dismissive to the reader.

Now that we understand what a heavy-handed approach to delivering Master Theme looks like, let us go further into a commonly related pitfall, the negative message… and the solution of counterbalance through objective writing to reach the most people possible with ANY message we wish to convey.

Positive Messages Form Stronger Narratives

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Creating Complex Characters

Article length: 3600 words (preview 1000/wds)

The most forgettable people you meet in the real world are people without any real prominent character.

Usually quieter folks, with nothing physically remarkable about them or their manner. (The senses open the door, substance gets you to enter and stick around.)

Folks who have no outward expression of passion. Folks who simply go along with the crowd and thus blend in with the crowd.

I spent a lot of time in my life going to parties, art openings, and other social gatherings where I had totally nothing in common with the folks at these events… folks all from the same clique. Jocks at the sports bar, trust fund kids at the wall street house parties, wana be culture snobs at the art openings… scores of people all cut from the same mold.

While these people in the real world most certainly had at least some level of complexity to them, in a brief passing at a party, such complexity is rarely revealed.

This is how much of  Fiction works.

Many characters never get the page time to reveal any real complexity.

These one dimensional characters find their effectiveness in exaggerated characterization, schticks, their context in the narrative (action guys fighting, detectives detecting, etc.), or otherwise rely on a trope to fill a narratively fast and superficial role.

Sometimes, one dimensional characters even get a pass as the protagonist!

But when you need to write an important character like the protagonist, with particular depth and complexity, how exactly do you do it?

If your mind immediately jumps to the Character Arc, good for you. I like the way you’re thinking, bub.

The Character Arc certainly adds depth and color to a character. It’s a topic I’ve touched on many times in length elsewhere… but here’s the thing, character arc’s don’t create complexity by themselves. Character arcs create engagement and most importantly, carry the purpose of the narrative through realization of the Master Theme.

Fundamentally, Character Arcs push characters toward complexity.

They get them out of the realm of being one dimensional, moving toward well-rounded and multi-faceted, but complexity is not achieved until something very specific enters the equation.

I could tell you about my days working special effects for movies and television, I could tell you about my coffee shop in brooklyn, or the custom hive I built for my bees this year. I have a lot of layers, a lot of different facets… but I hate to tell you, none of that makes me a complex person.

In fact, despite a well-rounded colorful life so far, and being a multifaceted character, I deliberately take a note from Lynyrd Skynyrd, and try to be a Simple Man.

Ok, you’re not a member of the site and are about to bail.

Well, before you go, here’s the free take away. The meat and potatoes of this article. Write this on your board above your computer.

Complex characters are ALWAYS highly conflicted characters.

Seven simple words, but the execution is far from simple.

And this is why Character Arcs alone don’t create complex characters.

A character can overcome a flaw and come to a new way of seeing the world (the basis of the character arc), without a high level of internal conflict.

There’s a ton to unpack here.

Now might be a good time for non-members to hit the membership page and join the rest us as we dig into this topic essential to higher level writing.

Let’s get to it.

Character Nature

When we speak of complexity of character, what we’re really talking about is the nature of that character.

At a fundamental level, we express the nature of a character by what we reveal about them (what the reader knows about them), Discovery… and how they act, Behavior.

Discovery is the actual moment the reader learns of a facet to the character they didn’t know existed.

This latter part is important.

Discovery of a character is ALWAYS something already established in the character outside of the reader’s perception. This is the character’s emotional/psychological baggage, their history before the story started, etc.

These discoveries have high narrative relevance because they create the context (or expectations) for the character’s behavior.

The hero samurai is killing everyone left and right. Killing is a bad thing, but can be justified. The reader is left uncertain, until the discovery that all the guys the hero is killing, murdered his family.

The discovery, gives context (and justification–or not) to the behavior.

Of course, a discovery may not be a direct as the example above.

None the less, every discovery, is a clue to the reader that helps them establish context and expectations. Every discovery helps the reader attempt to create order of the narrative unfolding before them.

It’s worth noting here, if the reader discover something about the character AT THE SAME TIME, the character discovers it, this discovery does not give context or expectations. Instead, it moves right into the second way we define a character’s nature, by their behavior.

Behavior are the actions a character takes, or the way they conduct themselves.

More specifically in fiction, character behaviors are the results of reader expectations. Behavior tracks ON or OFF expectations, reinforcing them, or creating uncertainty.

Back to our example, the hero samurai is killing everyone because his family was slaughtered. We see that the character has no qualms about breaking the law and no moral hesitation when it comes to avenging his family. Now the reader expects that the hero will do anything to kill the men responsible. The discovery and behavior come together to create reader expectations.

If the hero samurai reaches the boss responsible for giving the order to kill his family, and then compassionately spares the man’s life… this would certainly be a subversion of the reader’s expectations.

Discovery and Behavior are cumulative, building upon each other as the narrative unfolds.

The more a behavior is enforced, the more it is expected.

Newer writers sometimes have trouble keeping character discovery and behavior consistent, or more accurately, deliberate, through a narrative. When character discovery and behavior contradict, without significant narrative support and purpose, a character rings false in a story.


Before we continue, let’s define the four basic complexity types of characters.

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Rated M for Mature

Article length: 4849 words (preview 1200/wds)

If you’re reading this article you grew up in culture of movie and games and likely have an intimate familiarity with their associated rating systems. For quick reference;

G: General audiences – All ages admitted. // E: Everybody.

PG: Parental guidance suggested – Some material may not be suitable for children.

PG-13: Parents strongly cautioned – Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13. // T: Teen. 13 and up.

R: Restricted – Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian. // M: Mature. 17 and up.

NC-17: Adults Only – No one 17 and under admitted. // AO: Adults only. 18 and up. (

(Interesting tidbit, NC-17 replaced the “X” rating, which was basically commandeered by the porn industry back in the day. Because certain movies were not pornographic, but clearly adult in nature, NC-17 was born.)

Anyways, these ratings of course are based on the nature of the content, affected by these particulars;

G/E – No profanity. Minimal non-consequential violence. No drug use content-no smoking characters. No nudity. No sex.

PG – Light profanity. No sexually-derived words. Mild violence. No drug use content. Brief nudity. Sexual content permitted as long as it passes other restrictions for rating; primarily appears as innuendo. Crude humor.

PG-13 – Slightly greater profanity than PG. Extremely limited use of expletives like “fuck.” Intense violence permitted, but not extreme or realistic; limited amounts of blood. Mild drug use content. Greater than brief nudity. Sexual content permitted as long as it passes other restrictions for rating. Crude humor.

R – Full profanity. Intense, extreme or realistic violence including ample blood, gore, mutilation, and depictions of death. Graphic drug use content. Strong sexually oriented or graphic nudity.

NC-17 – Represents the extreme end of content in all aspects without being pornographic in nature.

But from a writing perspective, it pays to ask, do these content elements alone define the maturity of a work?

Of course, since you’re here reading this article, the answer is a resounding, NO!

Before we take a look at what really defines the maturity of a story… and why it matters, let’s first define maturity;

MATURE – adjective

* fully developed
* having reached an advanced stage of mental or emotional development characteristic of an adult:.
* (of thought or planning) careful and thorough.

Fully (or carefully and thoroughly) developed.
An advanced stage (characteristic of adulthood).

The essence of maturity points to complexity and depth.

Always write for yourself first.

However, as a professional writer, you need to recognize your audience/demographic.

In turn, you must have the honesty and objectivity, to realize if you’re actually writing for that audience/demographic. And of course, you can’t make that assessment if you don’t know what the parameters are in the first place!

Quick clarification…

Maturity Demographics

When we speak of maturity of fiction, we’ve got immature on the one end of the scale and mature at the opposite end. That maturity can be assessed in the nature of the writing itself, AND in the person(s) processing that information (the readers or audience).

Primarily when we speak of an immature audience, we’re talking about kids.

But we could also be discussing an audience and type of entertainment fiction that is pure escapism… where people just want to turn off their brains and enjoy the entertainment strictly at face value without having to expend any effort in comprehending or “figuring it out.”

Well written immature fiction is no less difficult to write than well written mature fiction… in fact, if you have any experience writing comedy, you probably already know, well written immature fiction can be exceedingly difficult.



Obviously, the elements of content defined by all the descriptors in the rating systems are the low-hanging fruit of fiction maturity.

Clearly if your content has extreme violence, rape, drug use etc, those are all things immature people don’t really understand. These elements also have potential to traumatize or corrupt a developing mind.

Most would argue these elements are simply not appropriate for immature readers.

But “content” is a broad sweeping term. So let’s breakdown some of the specific narrative devices that live in the content and see if we can’t pinpoint some ways to recognize and control the maturity  of our writing;

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Character Dynamics

Article length: 2500 words (preview 600/wds)

The adept writer understands character and character arcs (that’s you dummy).

In a single hero story, this is pretty straight forward, but in the multiple main character, or ensemble cast story, a more advanced aspect arises, often overlooked or misunderstood. I speak of Character Dynamics.

Not to be misunderstood with writing “dynamic (multi-faceted, active, engaging) characters”… but rather the the force and relationship between characters that stimulates narrative development, or more specifically, change between them.

Of course Character Dynamics exists between all characters, whenever one character interacts with one another… but where minor characters are concerned the dynamic is important but momentary… with multiple main character stories: buddy stories, team stories, larger ensemble pieces, Character Dynamics become a recurring pattern and a primary consideration in driving the narrative.

Character Dynamics are ultimately about conflict.

From the Writer’s Guide to Comics; “Conflict is opposition. It can appear in the form of opposing ideas, arguments, or actions.”

You most certainly already know this… but this is only HALF the equation.

Character Dynamics are also about the harmony when conflict is resolved. “Harmony is agreement. It can appear in the form of similar or identical ideas, arguments and actions.”

Here is the rule you know instinctively, but never realized it until right now.

Unearned harmony is the antithesis of good story.

All harmony must burn through the crucible of conflict and confrontation. Only then can it be earned. In its most effective form, this reward of Harmony comes through connection to the Master Theme of the story, teaching/expressing through change, but at the very least, satiating through change.

Riggs is a loose cannon who wants to rush in headlong and fight the bad guys.
Murtaugh is more reserved and wants to fight the bad guys cautiously, by the book.

This is opposition.

Riggs learning he’s got to calm down because he’s putting people at risk.
And Murtaugh learning he’s got to take more risks or else he’s helping the bad guys get away.

This is the characters coming into harmony.

The two cops coming to this realization both around the understanding that “Partners do whatever it takes for each other.”

Would be expression of this harmony through the Master Theme (not the master theme of Lethal Weapon, I just threw that out there off the top of my head.)

The two cops coming to this realization, without the greater understanding of the Master Theme, wouldn’t be as effective, but it would still satisfy the reader with a distinct and deliberate change from conflict to harmony.

Got it?

Unearned Harmony is the reason why a perfect day story never resonates.

In the real world, sitting on your couch, winning at video games, watching some fun movies, eating great food that you prepare perfectly; this would all be a perfect day in life… but in fiction it would be horribly boring to read.

I’ll prove this technically in a moment.

Unearned Harmony also lies at the root of Mary Sue characters… but in this, I digress.

We’re talking Character Dynamics today and Character Dynamics are about establishing a relationship between characters that specifically drives the narrative. Now let’s get to three rules that will change the way you write… for the better.

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Character Arc Roadmap

Article length: 1245 words (preview 150/wds)

The Character Arc breakdown in Storycraft For Comics lays the foundation for solid character development (further supported by the Character Arc article here).

Recently working with a client with no writing background I found myself reworking the presentation of the Character Arc material, trying to make it as simple and straight forward as possible.

I felt the clarity of what I put together had a significantly value and present it below.

Assuming you’re not running a spectacle script; one of the things you hear me stress a lot is the importance of hitting your character flaws hard in the beginning of the story. Most writers shy away from painting their characters in a bad light, they only want to write their characters from the ideal position of their completed arc. Hold tight to the following;

Your character is not the impression he makes when the reader first starts to read the story. Your character is the COMPLETE IMPRESSION he makes over the entire story.

Empathy is not broken when we see a flawed character.

Further, understand that the impact of a character (arc) is not felt in a single moment, it is a cumulative experience, felt across a spectrum of time. This means;

The more you can incorporate and stress the beginning flawed part of the arc earlier on, the more room there is for development across the breadth of the story, and in turn the more engaging and effective the arc will be.

I’m not going to explain all the elements here, as Storycraft already touches on a bunch of them, but I’ll drop explanation where needed.

Practically speaking; grab all the underlined, headline elements from the breakdown below, and paste them into an empty doc and you’ve got the perfect advanced starting point to build your characters from. Heck, if somebody asks maybe I’ll add a word doc download to the article.

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Mastering Dialogue part 2

Article length: 1600 words (no preview)

The rest of the dialogue article. Because it’s a continuation and jumps right into the remaining tips, there’s no public preview on this one;

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Master Theme Reference

This is going to be a very short reference article for folks to see first-hand some of the Master Themes I’ve personally run in my writing over the years.

Master Theme is so absolutely critical to solid scripting and crafting genuine story, I’ve discussed it at length on the free site. I talk to it all the time here on S2S and in my writing books, but the crux of it can be found here;

One Theme to Rule Them All

More on Master Theme

Master Theme, Secondary Themes and Character Arcs

If you do nothing else as a writer, integrate a Master Theme. It is the foundation everything else builds upon.

Folks constantly over complicate the concept of the Master Theme; Master Theme is simply, your specific message to the reader.

Ok, on to the ones I’ve used over the years.

Oh, one more thing, just like illustrators often have their trademark styles, writers often write to similar Master Themes–well at least in their own work–when you freelance and work for other folks, you often have to write to the message they want to convey.

Anyway, while it’s great to be versatile, there’s nothing wrong with keeping to a wheelhouse. It’s almost like specializing in a genre.

If themes of political corruption float your boat, write about it!

If Master Themes of primal revenge fiction turn you on, do it!

Write your passion.

The unique details of every story give the story completely new life, despite how many times you’ve used the same or similar, Master Theme before. In fact, I think it’s pretty neat to see wildly different stories, from the same writer, running the same Master Theme… especially if they’re totally different genres.

Anyway, here’s my list;

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Fundamentals to Write Better Dialogue

Article length: 3200 words (preview 800/wds)


This is the last article you’ll ever need to read to write absolutely perfect dialogue!

Well, not really…

If you’re a member of this pro class (and not just a lurker/creeper), you know you never stop learning. Even when you become the best, there’s always some new insight or technique to discover and become even better.

I actually was planning to make this my final article on dialogue, but wound up going off on some other dialogue mechanic stuff near the end. I decided to post this really important stuff now and throw the rest up later.


This is the second to last article you’ll ever need to read to write absolutely perfect dialogue! 🙂


I’ve been helping a lot of folks with dialogue lately and decided I should sit down and write a nice long article on dialogue. Wellz, it turns out, I’ve already gone done that. Like trying to find my car keys, it gets easier for me to lose track of what I covered as I get older and the number of articles increase every year.

Anyway, here’s a quick TOC of my dialogue articles for anyone who wants to review;

Writing Natural Dialogue

Dialogue During Action

Pacing Dialogue to Reveals

Barren Dialogue

And of course here on Story to Script;

Poetry in Dialogue

The meat and potatoes one;

Conversation Vs. Dialogue

In an effort to not cover the specific mechanics, which I’ve mostly covered in those articles, mostly, let’s get all Wassily Kandinsky up in this joint, and dive into the abstract, or more to the point; the fundamental reasoning behind the choices that shape excellent dialogue.




I’ve talked extensively about the trap of talking heads, which should be avoided at all costs.

I constantly warn how talking heads break the synergy of comics, pushing the scales of narrative balance away from the visual artistic realm, and fully into the cerebral narrative realm.

In order to put your best dialogue forward, this is a critical concept to understand.

As I mentioned in newcomers ignore comictography, comic books arrive in (at least) 4 levels;

    1. The surface story script.
    2. The subtextual story script.
    3. The surface visual script.
    4. The subtextual visual script.

So at any given moment, the visuals of the comic (film/anime,etc.) tell a story; parts 3 and 4.

To some extent, I might argue that the visual story is more important than the story script itself.

Good lord, what did I just say?

OK, let me rephrase a bit. I know some of y’all writer folks just fell outta your chairs.

The visual story in a visual medium such as comics and film, is not so much as “more important”, but dominant over the non-visual story telling. The purpose of dialogue in a visual medium is to compliment, support, or enhance the visual story

Any artists reading this article might be throwing their hands up celebrating the age old (silly) question, “which is more important to a comic, the art or the story?”

But y’all need to settle down now, because while the dialogue works to compliment the visual story, the writing and story also first defined where and how the visuals began.

Story Structure – lays down the foundation that manifests…

Art – which lays down the foundation that manifests…

Dialogue – which completes the medium.

As a writer in a visual medium, your first duty is to establishing a coherent, potent, effective, engaging visual story. The writer accomplishes this starting with solid story structure, moving to express that structure through scene selection, building out the scenes utilizing the vast craft of writing as we’ve been discussing all these years, then finalizing with polished dialogue.

Script dialogue should always be included to add greater clarity, depth and complexity to the visual story.

Any moment the script takes on the entire job of carrying the story, whenever the story script replaces the visual script, you’re holding a burning hunk of metal in your bare hands. The longer you hold it, the more damage you do.

The dialogue and narrative in script, the #1 from above, isn’t meant to carry the entire, or even bulk of the narrative. That’s what a novel does. Allowing #1 to take control of expressing the story may be a lot of things, but it’s not writing for a visual medium.

The clearest two examples of the story script completely usurping the visual story are;

    1. Talking heads, as I’ve noted.
    2. Text on black. This is where the writer tries to mimic the dramatic narration over a blank screen of film. Usually when someone loses consciousness or falls into some deep depression or something. I don’t care what anyone says, this isn’t effective in comics. It’s hasn’t been effective in movies since Pee Wee’s Big Adventure. Ok, they opened the LOR with it, but really, was it effective or did you just not care cause the movie was so good? (And if it was really effective, why did the narration switch off of black, over live action after the logo crawl? Why didn’t in run 7 minutes of narration over black? You know why.)

So first and foremost when choosing your dialogue, be sure that the dialogue compliments, supports, or enhances the art.

Before we depart this point, let’s hit an example;

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Writing ACTION

Article length: 10700 words (preview 2500/wds)

Many writing experts will tell you Action Fiction boils down to the Excitement it generates…

This is a backward and incomplete assessment.

Of course, you already know this cause you’ve read my Defining Genre article and know, Action Fiction is governed and driven by anger.

When Indy punches a Nazi, is he “excited”? When Edmond Dantes clashes swords with Fernand Mondego, does he thrust his blade with excitement? When the Hulk does–well, just about anything–is he excited; or are all of these characters moved to action, wicked pissed?

We’ve all been wronged. We’ve all been so angry we could resort to violence (yet long gone are the days of pistols at twenty-paces as a cultural norm). Action fiction lets us live vicariously through the hero and channel all of those moments when we wish we could have, but never did.

The excitement of action fiction to the reader, the dazzle and spectacle, are merely byproducts of anger’s colorful work.

Because anger is fundamental to the human condition, sooner or later in every story, somebody gets angry at something. Action is the one genre that acts like a party crasher, busting into any genre’s party, at any given moment.

I have Action listed as one of the six base genres, and while it’s certainly accurate referring to it as such, in reality few pieces of fiction are written as pure Action Fiction. Usually one or more other genres works in tandem with Action, making it difficult to decipher on its own.

While everyone can recognize the core expressions of action, the novice writer often has trouble knowing exactly where Action ends and a more specific genre begins, or more precisely, where other story mechanics take control.

The Action genre is like Gin, you know the alcohol. You can drink it straight, but most of the time you’ll mix it (with another genre)… When you use Gin as the main spirit you’ll always have a similar foundation; an Action Horror story and an Action Thriller, will often feel related. But push the added ingredients a little bit too much one way, or the other, and it the Action drink really becomes a drink unto its own (Action literally morphing into another genre or subgenre).

I’ll make note about Action fiction rolling over into other genres, most notably Thriller or Adventure, as we go on. But the primary focus of this article is quintessential Action Fiction.

After reading this article you’ll be a pro at understanding the boundaries of action in all its forms.

The Action genre really should be called the Violence genre; after all, violence is where anger lives 11 months out of the year.

The core expressions of modern day violence fiction are pretty straight forward;

  • Fighting
  • Shooting
  • Explosions
  • Car Chases
  • High Body Counts
  • Beaucoup Destruction
  • Sex and,
  • Swords

(Don’t worry, I’m not getting into that 7th one in this article.)

To the novice writer, merely incorporating these eight core elements delivers on Action Fiction.

But I’ve typed up over 10,000 words in this article and you’re here reading, so we both know there’s more to it… a lot more to it.

Dunk your biscotti and let’s do this;


Justification for Violence

Recognizing that anger and violence are the driving forces of Action Fiction, we are immediately faced with a conundrum;

How can our protagonist initiate the anger and violence in our story?

After all, unsolicited anger and violence are the traits of villains not heroes! (hero; quiet down in the back row, we’ll talk more about different protagonists later.)

Well it’s a trick question chuckles, because the hero CAN’T initiate the anger and violence.

It always has to come from the MAF first (that’s Main Antagonistic Force to you newbies).

The MAF always throws the first punch delivering a severe moral offense, crime against the innocent, or personal harm to the hero.

Combining all three for the trifecta is great (you’ll hear this more than once in this article), but that first one, severe moral offense, is the primary catalyst for much Action Fiction.

The MAF’s moral offense, crime against the innocent, or personal harm to the hero, gives justification to the hero’s anger and violence. It is for all intents and purposes the opening attack in what will play out as a series of attacks between opponents.

In Action Fiction, The MAF attack serves as the inciting incident that opens the active story.

I make the distinction of “active story” understanding that NO STORY truly stops and ends, there is always content in the story universe before and after the active story in progress.

Often in Action Fiction, the story picks up with a “conflict in progress.”

For example; The Hong Kong cops trying to bust the weapon smuggling gangsters in John Woo’s Hard Boiled. The weapon smugglers didn’t just appear after Hard Boiled started, Chow Yun-Fat had been working to stop them for some undefined amount of time before the story opens.

Or Dolph Lundgren in Showdown in Little Tokyo, where he’s trying to bring down the Yakuza in Los Angeles. If I remember correctly Showdown in Little Tokyo opens with Dolph attacking a Yakuza underground fight ring in a big shootout.

At first glance of the latter, you would think, “Wait a sec, the hero is initiating the anger and violence.” But this is out of context. In reality, with this conflict already in progress, the MAF MUST HAVE delivered its initial attack somewhere in the backstory.

Cops don’t go and attack criminals before they commit a crime.

The hero can not initiate the violence.

While in theory a backstory MAF attack could serve as the inciting incident, in reality, there is always another showcase of a MAF attack opening the more focused conflict of the active story.

Let me do another one for clarity;

In the movie Predator, Arnie and his boys find the first military squad hung up and skinned. This is the MAF’s original attack (and moral offense). It justifies the squad unleashing anger and violence against the Predator.

If they had caught the Predator sitting down to breakfast, the audience would have been cool with Arnold unloading on him. That backstory MAF attack would have worked, but instead, the Predator initiates the REAL inciting incident of the active story by delivering a MAF attack in the story in progress; shooting and killing Blain (Jesse Ventura).

  • If you find yourself in an Action fiction story where the MAF’s opening attack is watered down, not severe in its intensity and/or not directly focused on the hero, the story is likely rolling into Adventure territory.

Anger and Violence, initiated by the MAF opens the door to an ongoing fight between protagonist and antagonist. This adversarial clash creates three underlying narrative directions for Action Fiction;

All Action Fiction is either Retribution, Revenge, or Survival fiction

While retribution and revenge sound similar there is a clear distinction.

Retribution based stories are about punishment for a criminal offense or infraction against the greater good.

While there’s always an air of it being personal between characters in the story (more on that later), retribution turns on the law of the land, for subverting bad outcomes, stopping and punishing folks who have done bad things, and restoring balance to world.

Basically the MAF tries to do something “wrong” or has already done something “wrong,” and stopping it or bringing the MAF to justice restores equilibrium.

Retribution fiction encompasses a lot of Action Crime Fiction. When a crime is committed in the real world, simply arresting someone is the goal. The arrest sends the criminal through the judicial process, which hopefully leads to justice.

This may work for crime and court fiction, but for Action Fiction, there is no time for satisfaction through the court.

Even when arrest is the end goal in a lot of Cop Action stories, the struggle to reach that arrest must entail measures of actual punishment. The criminals have to get punished in the active story, before getting their final long-term punishment out of story. This is why I refer to the classification as retribution and not simply “justice.”

Of course, in plenty of Retribution Action stories, the criminal is smoked before they ever get arrested at the end. Sorry not sorry, but the idea is that the hero at least tried to do it “by the book.”

Revenge stories are wholly personal.

They turn on personal satisfaction for responding to the MAF attack. It has nothing to do with law of the land, or restoring balance, in fact, revenge stories are quite happy with making an even greater mess of things as long as personal justice is delivered.

In Revenge Action Fiction, the MAF has already done something “wrong” that there’s no avenue of justice to restore equilibrium. The only thing left to the hero is personal satisfaction.

Revenge Action fiction of course is the fertile playground of Anti-heroes (more on this later).

Survival Action is not Survival Horror

In Horror, we know it’s all about survival; the sinister forces at work are literally working to murderly urder the heroes.

In Retribution and Revenge Action, survival is always at risk because the hero is engaged in his dangerous mission, the way a cop always puts his life on the line every day he goes to work, but survival is not the core focus of the character or the narrative.

Sure in all action fiction the MAF and its agents will go after the hero at some point, but it’s simply not their primary goal of the entire story, unless it’s specifically, Survival Action fiction.

Survival Action fiction isn’t motivated by anything other than the living status of the heroes. Predator is arguably Survival Action Fiction, Assault on Precinct 13, Dredd, The Running Man… all stories where the core MAF goal is the death of the protagonists and in turn, the hero’s primary goal is simply survival.

Keep in mind, in all three categories of Action Fiction (even Survival Fiction), there usually are more specific character goals.

For example; Stopping a big shipment of drugs, or guns, rescuing a group of hostages, arresting all the members of a crime syndicate, etc. In the Running Man, resistance fighters try to break the corporations tyrannical grasp by taking out their satellite, this goal eventually becomes the hero’s goal.

Where all Action Fiction is one of these three classifications of stories, it means a core narrative undercurrent directs the more specific character goals.

Combining all three categories for the trifecta makes for stand out Action Fiction.

  • Survival fiction without a human MAF rolls over into Adventure (Cast Away) or Disaster Fiction (Meteor, Volcano or Hurricane Shark stories; more on that later).
  • Survival fiction without any Retribution or Revenge underpinnings, usually rolls over into Horror.

Now that we understand;

  • Action Fiction is fueled by anger and violence,
  • perpetuated FIRST by the MAF,
  • creating a Retribution, Revenge or Survival situation for the hero,

we can now look at the executing Action Fiction at the fundamental level.

The most potent use of the eight core expressions of Action Fiction; anger and violence materializes to its highest level through;

High Tension, High Jeopardy Struggle.

In the Working Writer’s Guide to Comics, I define Tension as; a heightened emotional state derived from an immediate danger or threat.

In other words, stress or anxiety from expectations of a bad outcome.

Jeopardy in a nutshell is danger. The distinct presence of potential loss, failure, or harm.

Since Tension is really a byproduct of jeopardy, the declaration; High Tension, High Jeopardy struggle, is a bit redundant. But it’s important enough to underscore. This concept is critical to effective action fiction.

There are three primary ways to express High Tension, High Jeopardy struggle in Action Fiction:


Direct fighting conflict between opponents. This covers everything from hand-to-hand, to gunplay. It can include only two opponents or entire armies.


One opponent trying to catch the other. On foot, on horseback, in cars, planes, trains, tanks, whatever…


These are High Tension, High Jeopardy struggle situations without a human opponent.

Indy running from the boulder, Ironman flying into space where his suit can’t withstand the atmosphere, Dr. Richard Kimble jumping from the top of a dam, are all examples of stunts. Extreme Risk feats.

Since we’re talking execution now, it’s worth noting here;

  • High Tension, High Jeopardy moments with struggle but less violence, moves Action Fiction into the realm of Thriller.
  • High Tension, High Jeopardy moments without physical struggle, moves Action Fiction into the realm of Psychological Thriller.

It’s absolutely imperative to understand that the High Tension, High Jeopardy moments alone do not define Action; STRUGGLE IS KEY.

Since Action Fiction is ultimately a long, sustained battle between opponents, a lot of similarities spring up from the Ultimate Fight article. Look to that article for specifics on how to develop great action scenes in unto themselves.

However you build out your action scenes realize, the Struggle is one of the most important elements to grasp and implement.

Without struggle, we simply have displays of violence (which serve to diffuse tension and jeopardy, not build or sustain it).

Without struggle, when a character simply displays and engages in violence effortlessly (or for all intents and purposes unopposed), we devolve into a “showcase of badassery.”  As you’ll see in a second, this is useful in limited qualities to introduce or highlight a character, but no matter how you crack it, prolonged displays of violence without struggle get old real fast.

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