Genre Study: The Spy Thriller

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.

What Counts as a “Spy Thriller”?

We’re entering the territory of my favorite genre of all time: espionage thrillers.

Now, there is a distinction to be made between the three different types of spy movies:

  • Action/Spy Comedies. Found in both TV and film, parodies the genre in a way that’s almost a loving homage to classic spy films. Examples: The Spy Next Door, Spies Like Us, Get Smart, Chuck
  • Action/Spy Adventures. Emphasis on cool locations, classiness, three martini lunches, gadgets, disguises. These movies are often very flashy and fun, and they don’t get bogged down by the consequences of the job itself. Examples: Mission Impossible, James Bond
  • Spy Thrillers. Darker, grittier, emphasis on the shadows, moral corruption, wrong deeds committed behind closed doors. Examples: Salt, The Bourne Identity, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, La Femme Nikita, Ronin, Hannah, The Debt, Argo*
All three of these microgenres have a similar set of tropes they build from or parody. But you’re less likely to see fancy gadgets in the spy thriller, and more likely to see politics and realistic CIA bureaucracy in the spy thrillers then you are in the action/spy combos.
We’re focusing on the spy thrillers in particular because they’re more intricate in terms of plot construction. Spy thrillers generally build up to a climax that includes a reversal that almost invalidates the entire plot, and dramatic tension is a key technique required to be successful here.
In action/spy movies, the plot is structured like this: hero needs to retrieve something or save somebody, he encounters beautiful women in casinos, has a vicarious time doing so, there are a minimum of two vehicle chases, and then in the end the goal is achieved.
This isn’t to disparage the action/spy microgenres: movies like Mission Impossible provide an often times more fun, lighthearted adventure that moviegoers always come back for. Their levity is intermixed with heart-stopping adventure, and that’s an addicting combo. The plots are simplified in certain ways in order to allow for more action set-pieces — which is fine! But spy thrillers require a different kind of thought, because the spotlight is on the plot more so than the set pieces.
Spy thrillers are often more twisted, are more inclined to feature anti-heroes, and there is often more of an emphasis on moral corruptness. Salt, Bourne, and Tinker Tailor all heavily feature the bueracracy within the CIA and politics.
This series exists to help you write a killer spy thriller that will add something new to the genre and be a fresh take instead of a tired retread.
*Argo is a tough movie to classify, because half of it can be watched as a spy comedy, and then the other half as a spy thriller. I put it in the spy thriller category because the critical scenes (such as the race to the airport, the scouting of the location, the opening sequences) were more thrilling than comedic or in the vein of lighthearted adventure.
Coming Next: 10 Movies You Should See Before Writing a Spy Thriller 

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