As psychological thriller Cheat arrives on our screens, we take a look inside the writers’ room to find out how they keep us hooked on our favourite shows…
Ah, the butler did it. Or maybe it was the jealous wife. Or was it all a dream…?
Thankfully we’re in an era of brilliant TV, which means we’re largely (although not completely) free of the above groan-worthy tropes.
Writing for television is a skill, though. And when it comes to thrillers in particular, there are a set of tools that guarantee we as viewers will be at the edge of our sofas watching from between our fingers.
The latest example is new four-part thriller, Cheat. With a dangerous relationship at its heart, ITV promises it will “keep audiences guessing from the start”.
That relationship is between university professor Dr Leah Dale (Mr Selfridge’s Katherine Kelly) and her student Rose Vaughan (Three Girls’ Molly Windsor).
Leah suspects Rose of cheating on an essay and is determined to prove she did it. The situation escalates horrifically, locking the two women in a deadly game of cat and mouse — or as director Louise Hopper puts it, “cat and cat”.
But how did its writer Gaby Hull pull it off?
There are a few smart, reliable techniques that screenwriters like Hull employ to keep their audience with their fingernails between their teeth and debating with friends over water coolers the next morning.
Here are the tricks of their thrill-delivering trade…
Cheat opens in a prison visiting room with Leah and Rose facing each other through toughened glass.
It begins at the story’s end, after the shocking events that will unfold over the next four episodes.
This is a classic technique, going all the way back to Ancient Greek theatre, when an upcoming tragedy would be announced at a play’s start, engaging the audience to try and guess how things will lead up to that unfortunate event.
It also casts a dramatic shadow over everything that will follow, with sometimes unsettling effect.
If you know a character is going to die, for example, a scene where they share their big plans for the future will instil you with dread rather than hope.
2. Dangle a carrot
This is all about building up our expectations.
Even if we don’t know a character is about to die, hearing them share their big plans can still put us on edge, because we know one of two things will happen: either they’ll succeed spectacularly, or they’ll fail horribly.
And we’ll want to stay glued to find out which.
Carrot-dangling can also involve messing with our expectations.
Perhaps that flash-forward didn’t show us what we thought it did, or withholds a crucial piece of information that we just have to find out.
In Cheat’s case, during the flash-forwards, we don’t know who’s the visitor and who’s the prisoner — or even why one of them is behind bars…
3. Keep the characters in the dark
Letting the viewer know more than the character on-screen is a surefire way to build tension and suspense.
Someone walking down the street whistling a happy tune isn’t exactly the most dramatic event.
But if you can see that just around the corner is a person lurking with a gun, ready to attack that unwitting whistler, then you’re in thriller territory.
You’re hooked, desperate to see what happens next — and perhaps hoping that the character will surprise you by finding a way to avoid what seems like the inevitable.
4. Keep the audience in the dark
From the characters to the audience, this method of maintaining suspense involves restricting the viewer’s perspective, denying us a realisation or revelation experienced by a character.
Perhaps they walk into a room and see something, or they pick up a letter and read it, or they’re watching some CCTV footage.
Their eyes widen, they shake their head and say, ‘Oh my god’. But all we see is their reaction. For now.
This is a tricky tactic. If done badly, it can annoy viewers, making them feel out of the loop.
But done well, it’s an effective way to keep us on tenterhooks, waiting eagerly for that delayed revelation.
5. Make the clock tick
This is all about establishing the ultimate consequences of the main character’s failure in no uncertain terms, then placing a time limit on them avoiding those consequences.
It could be an actual countdown to, say, nuclear Armageddon, or a simpler matter of getting out of the house before a character’s partner walks up the stairs and discovers them in their bedroom with a lover.
This ratchets up the tension while also dangling that aforementioned carrot of expectation in the most dramatic way possible.
In the case of Cheat, we see this when Leah is having a good old rummage around Rose’s room as the student in question makes her way home.
6. Surprise, surprise
Some people say they don’t like surprises, but they don’t really mean it.
Everyone does, especially when it comes to TV. But more often than not, those surprises come in the form of shocks.
A central character suddenly getting killed, for example. Or someone revealing they weren’t who you (or anyone else in the show) thought they were all along.
But this isn’t just about making a big, one-off impact.
A well-delivered surprise will also create a crucial sense of doubt in the viewer. Who can we trust? And who else will die?
It makes us feel like anything can happen.
Watch Cheat on ITV Hub and see if you can spot the tell-tale techniques of a gripping psychological thriller.
Illustrations by Alice Mollon.