For a piece of fiction to work, several elements must be present. Most commercial and genre fiction, those works of art that general audiences read and buy, follow the three-act structure. Not surprisingly, those acts are the beginning, middle, and end. But to have a piece that really works, that will get readers to immerse themselves into the story, smaller elements also need to be present.

When dealing with structure, aside from the largest element of the acts, the next smallest aspect that every story should have is what I like to call “The Five Requirements.”  The Requirements move the story forward in a manner that makes sense for the reader and creates the much talked about arc. This is what the audience is used to – what every great story is built on.

So what are The Five Requirements?

  1. Inciting Incident: the event that propels the characters from their normal world into a new world
  2. Conflicts or Complications: the problems that the protagonist faces while trying to regain balance in their world
  3. Predicament: the big question as to what the character needs to do, usually a question of staying the same or moving to a new normal
  4. Climax: the payoff for the conflicts and the answer to the predicament
  5. Resolution: where the character is shown living their new normal 

Every genre, for it to work, also has specific scenes that it must include. These vary from genre to genre; a horror will need vastly different scenes than will a romance. Yet, if those Essential scenes are missing, readers will think that something is ‘wrong’ and the story won’t work.

Now, the thriller genre is extremely popular and can be categorized as psychological, medical, or even lean toward horror and supernatural. There is almost always a crime involved, whether it’s an actual crime like a murder, or a perceived crime, like an affair. In addition to “The Five Requirements,” are what I call “The Seven Essentials” (are you catching a theme here?). These are scenes that need to be present for a thriller to work.

  1. The Crime and the Desire of the Villain
  2. The Villain Makes it Personal
  3. Red Herrings
  4. A Ticking Clock
  5. Speech in Praise of the Villain
  6. The Hero at the Mercy of the Villain
  7. A False Ending

If you’ve ever read a thriller or watched one on television, you’ll find each of these Essential scenes present in the story line. Because television shows like to leave on a bit of a cliff hanger, a few of the Required elements as well as a few of the Essential scenes might carry over into two or more episodes.

Now, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention some of the writers who have greatly influenced me and my writing and have helped me devise these Essentials and Requirements. I urge you to check out K.M. Weiland and Shawn Coyne, both of whom write extensively on story structure.

To help illustrate these concepts, I’ve broken down the episode This is The Way The World Ends from the popular show Dexter (S6:E12). This episode starts where the last one ended (like most shows), with Dexter floating in the ocean on his own. He and his sister Deb have been chasing a religious zealot guilty of murdering innocent people. Although Dexter is also a serial killer, he plays the part of the protagonist. Consider the scene breakdown that includes both the Required elements and the Essential scenes:

  1. Inciting Incident
    1. Dexter gets rescued by the captain of a boat filled with illegal immigrants.
      1. The beginning world, though negative, is the starting point; he’s stranded in the middle of the ocean, contemplating his death for his son’s sake. The incident, or turning point, is when he’s rescued; his normal world (floating in the ocean)has been changed.
  2. Conflict/Complication
    1. The captain of the boat threatens the life of those on board.
      1. This threatens Dexter’s new normal of getting back alive to be with his son
  3. Crime and Desire of the Villain
    1. Travis Marshall has killed again. He wants to do what he perceives as God’s will.
  4. The Villain Makes it Personal
    1. Marshall has painted Dexter’s face on the wall of his victim’s home.
  5. Ticking Clock
    1. To do God’s will, Travis must complete one last sacrifice before the solar eclipse is over.
  6. Conflict/Complication
    1. Dexter processes the scene where his face is on the wall.
  7. Red Herring
    1. Deb and her team find a drawing in Gellar’s (Marshall’s mentor) journal; they believe it to mean the highest point in Miami, a high rise building.
      1. This isn’t a huge red herring, but it does throw the PD off track.
  8. Speech in Praise of the Villain
    1. Deb tells LaGuerta that a cop needs to be put on top of every skyscraper in Miami so they can catch Marshall because he’s such a threat.
  9. Conflict/Complication
    1. Deb interrupts Dexter’s research on high rises.
    2. Dexter has to stop his own investigation to attend Harrison’s pageant.
    3. He receives a call from Deb at the pageant, taking his attention away from Harrison.
    4. Harrison is kidnapped.
      1. There are many more conflicts/complications, but for the sake of time and space, I’ll stop here.
  10. Hero at the Mercy of the Villain
    1. Marshall has Harrison and will kill him if Dexter doesn’t do what he’s told.
      1. This isn’t as literal as some stories where the villain physically has the hero, but Harrison is the only thing that Dexter cherishes.
  11. False Ending
    1. When the cop on top of the Transcorp building doesn’t respond, Deb realizes that Marshall is there. Dexter kills Marshall.
      1. By having Deb chase after Marshall where the audience knows he’s at, it leads them to believe that he’s caught. The audience also thinks it’s over when Dexter kills Marshall (this happens at the beginning of S6:E13).
  12. Predicament
    1. After being caught murdering Marshall, Dexter is put in a tight spot and asks himself whether to run or stay.
  13. Climax
    1. He makes the choice to lie.
  14. Resolution
    1. Dexter and Deb now live in their new normal.
      1. Their new normal is living with a shared secret. The caveat is that, because this is a television series, it’s also a turning point for the season/series, and they aren’t really comfortable in their new normal. This way a new story can unfold, using the same structure, for the next episode.

For every thriller to work, it must have these Required and Essential scenes. This may feel a little confining, but it can really push for creative solutions and new twists. When I find a story that doesn’t work, or is unfinished, looking at this structure helps me see where things are going wrong. It also helps the author fill in plot holes and take the story in the direction they’ve established from the beginning.

If you’re struggling to figure out what is missing in your story, and why it’s not working, contact me to see how I can help.

If you’d like to receive more tips and tricks for self-editing and story related articles, sign up for my free Gym Membership! When you’re ready for the next step in your publishing journey, check out the page Information Your Editor Needs, and contact me using the form provided. I look forward to hearing from you soon!

Suggested Reading

K.M Weiland

Shawn Coyne’s The Story Grid

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