Most people know Jordan Peele as the co-writer and actor of the long-running comedy sketch show, Key & Peele. Or you might be a fan of his horror and drama work including Get Out, The Twilight Zone, Us, or BlacKkKlansman. But regardless of the genre, Peele is not only a gifted writer and director. He’s also great at sharing his advice and perspective on how to write a thriller. Learn how Academy Award-winning Best Original Screenplay winner, Jordan Peele created compelling characters and tense stories that push you to the edge of your seat.
Warning: Get Out spoilers ahead.
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How Jordan Peele writes a thriller: Start with a compelling protagonist
“The power of story is that it is one of the few ways we can really build empathy. When you have a protagonist, the whole trick all of us are trying to do is bring the audience in behind that protagonist’s eyes. A good story is one of the few ways we can really — not tell somebody ‘you have to feel for somebody else’ — but make somebody feel because they’re experiencing it through entertainment,” shared Peele.
Your audience will go on a journey with your characters. Create protagonists with agency and experiences that are relatable to heighten that experience for the audience.
Never make your characters dumber than your audience
“For me, The Stepford Wives and Rosemary’s Baby — both Ira Levin stories — were extremely inspiring because what they did within the thriller genre was this very delicate tightrope walk that honored the protagonist in a way that you rarely see in the [thriller] genre these days. The protagonists are smart and they’re investigative and they’re on the trail. There’s an equal effort to justify why the character doesn’t run screaming,” said Peele of the inspiration behind his main character in Get Out, Chris (played by Daniel Kaluuya).
Moving into a horror genre, you have to be very conscious of what the audience knows, what the audience feels, what the audience thinks is going to happen
The modern film audience is very sharp. Storytelling has evolved so much that audiences can quickly grasp what is happening and what the consequences are for decisions. Writers must avoid cliché tropes and predictable plotlines if they want to tell a satisfying story.
“I have an audience in my head so I have a best guess of how this will work. Moving into a horror genre, you have to be very conscious of what the audience knows, what the audience feels, what the audience thinks is going to happen,” Peele continued.
Lure your audience into a sense of security
In Get Out, it’s revealed that Allison Williams’ character Rose intentionally brings her boyfriend Chris into harm’s way. “The clues are there. It became almost impossible for the audience to not suspect. People will suspect [your twist] so give the audience the benefit of the doubt. They will go there. They’re going everywhere. [As a writer] how do I take them back from that point and convince them [otherwise]?” Peele explained.
In an early script, Rose denied Chris’ “get out” instincts and it was too obvious that she was part of the trap. By then, Chris and the audience wanted him to flee. It became clear to Peele that she couldn’t be the one to pacify him. Instead, Peele gave Rose the audience’s observations, luring us all back to a sense of security with her.
Lay a trap with subtlety
“I needed to hypnotize Chris and the audience before they knew it was happening. That’s where the teacup came in,” Peele shared, reflecting on his now iconic “sunken place” scene. The audience was sucked in before they knew it was happening. If the audience is suspecting an attack or a jump scare, they won’t get the thrill of falling for it. Lure them into a sense of ease before springing your trap!
Have a deeper purpose
“What’s worse than death? This feeling of being trapped in your body for eternity. That feeling of falling asleep when you catch yourself…well, what if you don’t catch yourself?” Peele mused.
A good thriller uses a very real threat to symbolize something deeper. Get Out itself was clearly about racism — but what made it frightening on a deeper level is the feeling of being trapped. For zombie films, it could be about contagions or the disintegration of society. In Carrie, it’s about rejection from a community and the fear of being exiled. Use real-life fears to ground the most fantastic elements in your thriller as it allows audiences to identify with the narrative.
“This goes to the conversation about genre as well. We all think of structure when we write a movie, but there are also conventions and ideas surrounding every genre. It can dictate the rules in a way. Part of the reason horror is so alluring is that you’re almost not doing it right if you’re not pushing the boundaries of good taste and darkness,” Peele described wickedly.
The art of the thriller is about making people uncomfortable. It creates a rush of adrenaline before a satisfying release of endorphins. Know what you’re going for. A campy slasher flick requires less nuance than a psychological thriller.
Above all else — have fun!
“Follow the fun. If I’m not having fun, I’m doing it wrong. If you get to the point where you hate what you’re doing, it’s up to you to figure out how to have fun while doing it, to look at it from a different angle,” Peele asserted.
If you’re connecting with your art, chances are that someone else will connect with it, too. Peele insists that writing is fun — it’s the opportunity to create, to live in a world of your imagining, to excite and delight an audience of your choosing. If you’re struggling with your script, always remember to get back to the fun of it.
As for what we can expect from Peele in the future? “I got more thrillers coming.”
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Shannon Corbeil is a writer, actor, and filmmaker in Los Angeles with recent appearances on SEAL Team and The Rookie. An Air Force veteran, her articles have been published in Business Insider, We Are The Mighty, and Military.com, and she has written and produced hundreds of digital videos with millions of views. You can read more about her on her website or come play on Instagram and Twitter!