Worst Thriller Clichés

We’ve all sat there watching a thriller and suddenly thought, “Are you kidding me?  That always happens. Give me a break!”  Or you shout at the screen (hopefully only at home) when a pair of sleuths splits up, “No!  Stick together!  You’re tracking a psycho–there’s safety in numbers.”  And if you’re a writer: “Seriously?  I would never have written the scene that way!”

There are a lot of clichés in thrillers, but the one that’s been working my last nerve lately is connected to lighting. I don’t mean cinematography. I meant people’s lights.

In movie after movie, TV show after TV show, miniseries after miniseries, I see a heroine or hero walk into an apartment, townhouse, home, condo, loft or whatever without turning on any lights.  None.

The protagonist may put down a purse, briefcase, or keys, but often will just walk from one room to another without flicking a wall switch or even turning on a single lamp anywhere.  Sometimes there’s a stop for a drink–in the dark, of course, with only light from outside or possibly from a nightlight or the inside of a fridge.

Sometimes, if it’s a woman, she’ll even head right straight for the bathroom.  But it’s only at that point she finally turns on a light and the shower or gets the water running for the tub. In that case, you can be sure that she’ll have kicked off her heels en route and started to strip so that we can see her body, and see it outlined against the darkness (that’s the “femjep” cliché at work).

In the darkness, of course, villains can grab our protagonists, terrorize them, strangle them, knock them out, or sneak out of the home they’ve been burglarizing or planting listening devices in while nobody spots them.

It’s a super tiresome cliché. I don’t believe all these thriller protagonists are meant to be models for us of saving electricity. Or that their vision is so good they’re not afraid of tripping or stubbing a toe in the dark.

It’s especially egregious when someone has already been threatened, stalked, mugged, assaulted, shot, kidnapped or otherwise harmed in the story–and still the protagonists don’t seem to care that their homes are dark and anything can happen to them in the shadows.

My parents would approve, though, because they were always complaining that I wasted electricity and left lights on when I wasn’t home. And that was before I was a mystery writer. Now that I’ve published seven mysteries and one suspense novel and been watching and studying screen thrillers for years, I’m extra cautious about turning lights on.

And I’m mighty glad we don’t have a basement because I would never want to go down there even if it were as well-lit as Times Square. Because you know what kinds of mayhem happens in basements….


I’ve had my say.  So which thriller clichés bug you the most?

Lev Raphael is the author of Assault With a Deadly Lie, a novel of suspense about militarized police, stalking, and gun violence. You can read about his 24 other books at his web site: http://www.levraphael.com.


6 Responses

  1. The dark thing of course, but also when the protagonist we’re told to think of as smartish, at least, knowing someone wants to harm him/her, does anything alone. Takes a shower when know one else is in the house, walks home after dark, alone. I walked out on Silence of the Lambs when Clarice went into the basement! Alone, unarmed, following a hunch about a serial killer. Doh! Shoulda called SWAT. Shoulda called an editor.

    • I am so with you. That’s right, take a shower when killers lurk, go down into an unlit basement with no flashlight, just some matches. That’s why “Scream” was so funny because it goofed on horror movie clichés.

  2. Personally, I miss the “screaming cat suddenly leaps through window/door” cliche.

  3. Oh, so true. I yell at the screen, “Turn on the damned lights, you idiot.” It’s right down there with following a note to a meeting in a deserted locale at midnight, without taking half a moment to call or text to ask a loved one or compatriot “Did you send me this?”

    • Now with cell phones, there’s no excuse not to call or text in situations like the ones you describe, or go with someone. Yet it happens over and over. My spouse is more patient and jokes, “Don’t you know these characters have never watched a thriller before?”

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