How To Plot A Blockbuster Thriller

Since I recently watched THE MECHANIC: RESURRECTION, and loved it, I thought I would break down the plot.

Ok, I’m a bit obsessed with thrillers, structure and plotting so this may be a “plot-relapse” of sorts. Enjoy!

THE MECHANIC: RESURRECTION is a thriller with a brilliant structure. (I mentioned as much to my wife. Her response: “Yeah. I saw that, too.”)

Ah, marriage and sarcasm. Have there ever been more familiar bedfellows?

Back to plotting a blockbuster thriller. How do you do it? Following the example of the film is a good start.

Here’s one of the trailers for the movie:

The Trailer

My review: Although it has its share of flaws, I really liked the movie. In fact, I liked it more than the first movie, which to me is a major accomplishment and the main goal of a sequel.  

Disclaimer: plot spoilers ahead 


THE INTRO

In the first five minutes of the movie, you get gorgeous panoramic visuals of Brazil. That says the main character, Arthur Bishop (Jason Statham), is international. He’s living it up in retirement with sun and surf.

As a related sidenote, contrast this locale with the bleak hole where we found Jason Bourne in his latest movie of the same name.

In Mechanic, Bishop lives on a boat and bikes to a cafe. More amazing sights. Someone (i.e. a representative of the Antagonist – Crain) tracks him down, offers him a job via threats and attempted blackmail (never a good idea), Bishop fends them off in a cool action scene that shows his fighting chops.

Bishop is a wanted man. He is a skilled fighter. This is all cleverly summed up with minimal dialogue and maximum visual action.

This is also all in the first few minutes of the film.

Lessons

  • When writing a thriller, get to action as soon as possible.
  • Introduce the main characters early – especially the protagonist and antagonist
  • Make the protagonist a wanted man (Jason Bourne, Jack Reacher, Mission Impossible).

Next, Bishop flees to an island getaway. Also breathtaking. He’s hiding out but the island also isolates and traps him. Setting matters!

Before he knows it, he is peer pressured into interrupting domestic abuse. This is another short scene of violence and action that does double — make that triple — duty.

This scene accomplishes many things at once: 

  • Bishop makes a choice to get involved in saving a stranger – integrity, selfless, caring.
  • Bishop is a bad a$$ – in case the audience forgot.
  • Action scene – this is a THRILLER after all. Plot and pacing matters. Don’t go too long without some action. 
  • Introduce another important character, Gina, the love interest.

We can learn much here. Make your scenes do double or triple duty. Don’t forget pacing — keep a steady beat of “action” scenes. In thrillers, that’s usually physical conflict. In a romance, its usually emotional conflict. Each genre has their own kind of “genre beat”, those expected conflicts and emotions.

The next few scenes show Bishop and Gina falling for each other. This is character and motivation building since the rest of the movie depends on him caring for her.

Otherwise, Bishop could just walk away. Your main characters must never be able to walk away.

Once the bad guys show up, there is another action scene. Remember, you must keep the action scenes going. This one has more stakes because it’s no longer just about Bishop surviving. Now it’s also about the girl he loves.

Always look for ways to up the stakes in your story, mining both external and internal motivations. 

Gina, of course, is promptly kidnapped. Thus the motivation for the story. The Antagonist – Crain – lays out his ultimatum, which doubles as his goal – eliminate three competitors.

At the crux of most great stories is a simple premise. In this case, it’s “kill three well-guarded people and the woman you love lives”.

Simple to say, much more difficult to actually do.

Let me point out here how the story uses the common structural device of threes. Three little pigs. Three bears. Three stooges. Three murders.

Whenever possible, use the power of three.

The Mechanic milks the structure of three by making each target harder to kill. Thus, escalating suspense, challenge, conflict and action.

Another structural secret of the movie is the over-arching time clock: Bishop has 48 hours to kill all three targets. That’s not a lot of time and that’s the point. Time clocks boost suspense, deadlines deepen reader engagement. 

Many blockbuster thrillers include such a story-wide time clock. Most kick this technique up a notch in Act 3 – or near the climax of the story – by shortening the time frame. In the example of The Mechanic: Resurrection, Bishop’s time frame for the kills is cut down from 48 hours to 24 hours. Less time equals more thrills. 

The Kills

The movie heats up for Act 2, as it should. Act 2 is the conflict act, where you deliver the promise of the premise, the act that Save The Cat (great book) calls playtime.

In The Mechanic, Act 2 is all about the three Kills.

Kill #1 Warlord Krill (cool name) imprisoned in a Malaysian prison. Bishop gets arrested, steals a knife off another prisoner, gains Krill’s trust and assassinates him.

These are (mostly) all interesting scenes that show Bishop’s cleverness.

Kill #2 Adrian Cook, who masterminds an underage trafficking ring in Sydney. Bishop studies him, then scales a building to Cook’s penthouse apartment to take out the bottom of Cook’s overhanging pool.

As the glass bottom of the pool explodes, the water gushes out along with a very surprised (and soon to be dead) Adrian Cook.

Kill #3 Max Adams, arms dealer. Adams is holed up in a military base complete with submarines and panic room style bunker.

Lessons

  • Each kill is dramatic, large enough to fill the screen.
  • Each kill requires action AND cleverness.
  • Between kills, the story reminds us of what’s at stake by showing Gina with the Crain (antagonist).

Make sure your thriller keeps delivering bigger thrills. Bake in reminders of the stakes and motivation so readers don’t forget.

Design story complications that require more than mindless action. Cleverness is a common trait of thriller heroes — Bond, Bourne, Bishop (sidenote: you might want to give your protagonist a last name that starts with B. I’m just saying).

Two More Structural Secrets

First, between kill #2 and kill #3, Bishop makes a run at Crain. This keeps the story from being predictable and gives the audience another chance to see the antagonist.

In a thriller, the antagonist often plays certain roles:

  • Act 1: Antagonist shows up
  • Act 2: Antagonist and Protagonist confront each other, Antagonist wins.
  • Act 3: Protagonist comes after Antagonist in a big “battle” scene. Usually, the protagonist wins.

Second, in a plot twist (keep viewers and readers on their feet!) Bishop teams up with Adams to take down Crain.

One of the “rules” of storytelling is to never be predictable. Establish a pattern – the first two kills – then break the pattern.

The hoax works. The movie ends gloriously with a big fight scene where Bishops kills all the bad guys, saves Gina and blows up a big boat.

Explosions are almost necessary in thrillers. That way, the audience (readers) know the bad guy is really dead.

In the end, like most good thrillers, Bishop gets the girl.

 

Conclusion

The Mechanic: Ressurection is not perfect; it suffers from many common story issues. The motivation – the relationship – between Bishop and Gina is underdeveloped. Does it work? Yeah. Could it be better? Indeed.

Some of the action sequences are over the  top. Doesn’t bother me, but I guess some realism purists can’t stand a bit of literary license.

Thrillers, good ones, exist within a defined structure infused with depth of emotion, theme, characterization, escalating conflict and globe-trotting action.

More on Writing Blockbuster Thrillers

5 Keys To Writing A Great Thriller

5 Rules for Writing Thrillers (from the author of Rambo)

10 Basic Ingredients of A Successful Thriller 

How To Write A Page Turner

How To Write A Thriller (3 Bestselling Authors Weigh In)

The 5 C’s of Writing A Great Thriller Novel

The Rules of Writing Thrillers: The Article That Inspired John Grisham 

If you enjoyed this article, please consider sharing it. For more articles, resources and updates on my books, please join my newsletter.

Oh yeah, and my new nonfiction spiritual book is up on Amazon in eBook and softcover version with an audio version coming soon. 

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Christopher Kokoski is a speaker, trainer and author of Wicker Hollow and the Past Lives novel series.

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Posted in Blog, creativity, publishing, screenwriting, Success, writer, Writing

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