6 Tips to Keep in Mind When Writing a Gangster Film

 Genre Study is Page 85’s new blog series that examines how genres evolve over time, and how you can make the most out of the genre you’re writing by studying films of the past.

This is part three in my series entitled Genre Study: The Gangster Thriller (Part One) and (Part Two), where I break down the tropes and conventions of successful Gangster Thrillers so you can write one of your own.

It’s also a list, and everyone loves lists!

6 Tips to Keep in Mind When Writing a Gangster Thriller

  1. Character arcs are key. Know upfront whether or not you want your protagonist to endure the slow-burning ‘fall from grace’ style of character arc as they descend into the depths of a world of crime as portrayed in Public Enemy and Bonnie and Clyde, or if you want to distance the audience by introducing a protagonist who is working with the good guys such as in White Heat. This second approach allows you to completely throw any morally redeeming qualities of the gangster out the window because he/she no longer has to be sympathetic to the audience.
  2. Kill your heroes. Action films can get away with vicarious ‘we’re breaking the law for your viewing pleasure!’ movies where there are no consequences. Gangster thrillers cannot. If your gangster film ends up with everyone sitting around a campfire reminiscing about what a great adventure they just had, you’ve got a problem. Gangster thrillers are a harsh subgenre, and in the end, somebody has to pay the price for their transgressions. Kill your heroes.
  3. Know your tone. Gangster thrillers can vary a bit tonally, although they are predominantly quite dark due to the fact that they are dealing with the underworld of crime. Bonnie and Clyde had a few moments of brevity throughout the film, but anything more lighthearted than that film is challenging the way this genre works.
  4. Don’t forget the mother figure. This archetype is ever present in the Gangster Genre. In both Public Enemy and White Heat, Cagny’s character respects and adores only one person: his mother. In Bonnie and Clyde, Bonnie seeks out her mother for comfort during the scene at the beach, and she is crushed when her mother turns away from her. The mother figure exists to provide a matronly contrast to the harsh violence present in the rest of the movie.
  5. What side is law enforcement on? In Bonnie and Clyde, law enforcement plays the role of the antagonist, whereas in most gangster movies they’re the one implementing justice. How you position law enforcement in your screenplay will affect the theme of your movie.
  6. Figures in the shadows. The idea of a nefarious evil lurking in the shadows is a powerful element of the gangster thriller. In Bonnie and Clyde, law enforcement is literally lying in wait in the underbrush so they can ambush the couple. In Casino, the corporate elite takes over.

I’m a firm believer in studying films of the past that are similar to the story you want to tell before you sit down to write. I also believe that studying films in the context of genre adds another layer of analysis — you can’t approach an action film in the same way you approach a thriller, or even a horror. Subgenres such as Gangster Thrillers or Spy Thrillers have their own styles and tropes, and if your film falls into these categories, you can play on the viewer’s expectations in order to create surprising twists.

So stick around Page 85, and we will continue to help arm you with all the tools you need to write the best screenplay you can!

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