I sometimes come up with what I think is a great concept for a thriller, but then I realize my idea only provides a unique way of starting the story, and then all of the uniqueness disappears once the plot gets going.
For instance, an older friend in college told me a wild story from his past. It sounded made up, but I later confirmed it was true: At his previous college, he had been arrested for creating a world-famous computer virus. Like most hackers, he could type faster than any stenographer, so a judge sentenced him to community service working for the government’s little-known “Relay” service.
This was a program that allowed deaf people to use a primitive version of “Chat” to communicate online with a relay center. People at the relay center then had to call whomever the deaf person wanted to call and read everything he wrote, then transcribe everything that was said on the other end of the line back to the deaf person. This enabled deaf people to use the phone like anybody else. There were two especially weird things about this service:
- Lonely deaf people would try to chat directly with the relay operators, but the operators were strictly forbidden from responding or conveying anything but what was said on the other end of the line.
- Shockingly, operators were forbidden from interfering with or reporting any crimes committed over the phone using the service, since the government had no right to “listen in” without a warrant, even if the operators were actually facilitating that crime. My friend handled calls to and from drug dealers and wasn’t allowed to tell anybody!
A great setup, right? Well, here’s the problem: As soon as he leaves the relay center to help her, the whole concept disappears. He just becomes one more noir hero protecting a damsel in distress from some crooks. The bizarre relay system no longer has anything to do with the story.
Here are two TV shows from back in the day that have concepts that only start off strong: Early Edition is about a guy who gets the next day’s paper a day early and then spends every day saving someone who would meet misfortune without his intervention. Tru Calling is about a morgue worker who can talk to the dead and find out who killed them, allowing her to avenge them. The problem is, both heroes can discover the danger using their superpowers, but they can’t solve the problem using these powers. After the first commercial break, the concept is gone, and they became routine crime-solver shows.
But no matter how strong your concept, it’s just your starting point; great concepts don’t make for great stories, great characters do.
The 40 Year Old Virgin
YES. Keener is old enough to feel like a more mature choice, but hot enough to (reluctantly) satisfy bro-comedy fans.
NO. Not really, but that’s fine. Nobody wants to see her knuckle down and study, so the story wraps up very quickly after the reveal.
YES. It would have been easy to stop taking the story seriously once the 4th wall is broken, but the story remains compelling, and we easily go back into it at the end.
The Bourne Identity
YES. even moreso afterwards, because we can finally totally root for him again.
YES. Well, it ends pretty much after, but yes, there’s still another fun climax, so yes.
Do the Right Thing
YES. Very much so.
YES. Very much so.
How to Train Your Dragon
In a Lonely Place
The Silence of the Lambs
YES. But just barely. The story couldn’t have sustained our interest very long without Lecter.