7 Keys to Writing the Ultimate Spy Thriller

From ScreenCraft:

What does it take to write a great spy thriller?

From the James Bond franchise to every Mission Impossible installment — and everything around and in between — the spy thriller has long been one of the most intriguing genres in film and television.

We’ve had spy thrillers based on true stories (Bridge of Spies and Argo), slapstick comedies (Spy, the Austin Powers Trilogy, Top Secret!), action comedies (True LiesMr. and Mrs. Smith), slow-burn thrillers (Tinker Tailor Soldier SpySyrianaThe Third Man), compelling television series (Homeland24Jack Ryan), and so many more.

While there are many obvious variances of what makes a great spy thriller — due primarily to the popular subgenre that is often blended with other genres — here we feature seven essential elements to great contemporary spy thriller scripts.

Screenwriters can mix and match these keys to apply to their spy thriller scripts, depending on the genre they are blending it with.


If you’re not hired to write the latest James Bond, Jason Bourne, or Ethan Hunt blockbuster, you have to do your best to find a killer logline that will force Hollywood decision-makers to take notice.

It’s not enough to tell your version of those types of spy thrillers. You can’t simply create your own Bond, Bourne, or Hunt, give them a new name or gender and pass them off as your own. That’s not going to be enough to sell the script on spec.

You need to create a unique and original spin on the popular subgenre.

A logline is the expression of the intriguing concept you’ve conjured, answering the question of who, what, when, where, how, and why.

A hapless New York advertising executive is mistaken for a government agent by a group of foreign spies and is pursued across the country while he looks for a way to survive. (North by Northwest)

Retiring CIA agent Nathan Muir recalls his training of Tom Bishop while working against agency politics to free him from his Chinese captors. (Spy Game)

A desk-bound CIA analyst volunteers to go undercover to infiltrate the world of a deadly arms dealer and prevent diabolical global disaster. (Spy)

A fearless, globe-trotting, terrorist-battling secret agent has his life turned upside down when he discovers his wife might be having an affair with a used car salesman while terrorists smuggle nuclear warheads into the United States. (True Lies)

A spy organization recruits an unrefined, but promising street kid into the agency’s ultra-competitive training program, just as a global threat emerges from a twisted tech genius. (Kingsman: The Secret Service)

A bookish CIA researcher finds all his co-workers dead and must outwit those responsible until he figures out who he can really trust. (Three Days of the Condor)

In the bleak days of the Cold War, espionage veteran George Smiley is forced from semi-retirement to uncover a Soviet Agent within MI6. (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy)

A 1960s secret agent is brought out of cryofreeze to oppose his greatest enemy in the 1990s, where his social attitudes are glaringly out of place. (Austin Powers: Internation Man of Mystery)

What’s your spin on the subgenre?

Is there a way to weave a spy thriller concept into the horror genre? Is there a MacGuffin that is intriguing enough to center your spy thriller around?

Whatever the concept may be, it has to stand out from the already ingrained spy thriller franchises. Hollywood has read so many versions of those stories. It’s up to you, the writer, to take the subgenre in a new direction or center it around something unique and different.


While some may believe that the big thrilling spy movie opening has become a cliché, you can’t deny the expectation that audiences (and studios) have when they sit down to watch a spy thriller.

But remember that there are many different versions of a big opening.

You can go the James Bond route, and focus on action spectacles.

. . . .

You can take a cue from the original Mission Impossible and focus on early twists, turns, and intrigue.

. . . .


You can’t just have a great hero go up against a cookie-cutter villain. It works in spy thriller franchises at times because of the fan base. But you also can’t just have a cookie-cutter protagonist go up against a unique and compelling villain either.

They have to be equally strong in your script — and they have to compliment each other through their characterizations and those character traits that are constantly being put up against each other.

If it’s just another spy or secret agent going up against just another leader of some faceless evil organization, Hollywood isn’t going to take notice. The studios have their own franchise for that.

What makes your protagonist and antagonist different than what we’ve seen before already?

Is your protagonist a disgraced spy rotting in a prison for a crime they did not commit? Have they assumed a new identity after leaving the CIA, now working as a kindergarten teacher to atone for the terrible things they’ve done in their past? Or maybe they are a spy hired by a spy organization because of their multiple personality disorder — thus able to beat any lie detector test.

Is your antagonist the thought-to-be-dead twin of your protagonist?

These are all horrible (or brilliant) ideas maybe, sure. But the point is that you have to think outside of the box.

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