“The oldest and strongest kind of fear, is fear of the unknown”H.P. Lovecraft
Suspense, Alfred Hitchcock describes, “is an emotional process.” It is the feeling of apprehension and anxiousness within the audience induced by an outcome that is unknown, or yet to be seen.
Leveraging suspense enables writers and filmmakers to bring the moviegoing audience to the edge of their seats, making them anxious to know what will happen next. It has the power to sink the readers into the pages of your screenplay, creating a real page-turner via words alone.
So how do writers and filmmakers employ suspense? What are good examples of suspenseful movies? How are those steps integrated into a whole film or an individual scene?
In this article, we’ll explore how to use suspense effectively, exploring examples and certain key tricks to writing suspense.
Creepy haunted houses, desolate locations, and dark imagery might set a dark mood within the audience. However, these visuals are often overdone and can be an easy attempted shortcut to generating suspense for the audience.
Instead, when writing suspense you must imbue it in the very makeup of the narrative as it progresses. So what are the keys ways to do this?
Have you ever watched a battle scene where the protagonist is up against a bunch of ‘bad guys’, where you know he or she is going to win the fight (to make it to Act 3, obviously), and you’re just watching now for the ‘cool’ fighting styles or superhero gadgets/powers?
More often than not, these types of scenes often fall flat because high stakes were not added to the scene, and thus, neither was suspense. We know the protagonist will win and so the suspense as to what is going to happen is absent. We might enjoy the process of getting there because of the execution. But truly, we will be going through the motions until the conclusion is reached.
So you must employ high stakes in your story to increase suspense. But how?
For example, in the interrogation scene with the Joker in The Dark Knight, Bruce Wayne is faced with having to save either Rachel or Harvey Dent.
Notice how we’re dealing with Bruce’s two desires.
So we have Bruce Wayne’s desires set. Now, it’s time to put those desires in jeopardy. And that’s exactly what the Joker does by strapping the two essential characters to gasoline-set bombs.
Watch how in this scene, Bruce doesn’t have to showcase his nifty gadgets or fend off Gotham criminals. He is simply riding his Batpod while Jim Gordon is driving his car.
But as simple as the action is, it doesn’t matter. The audience becomes hooked when Bruce’s desires become jeopardized. Will Harvey be saved? Or will Rachel? Can they both be saved? What if they both die? We figure that Bruce can’t have everything he wants. Something has to give. And voila! We have suspense: fear of the unknown and an easy outcome obscured.
So the starting point for writing suspense is through high stakes by 1) identifying your hero’s desires, and 2) putting those desires in jeopardy. Getting to know your protagonist intimately will lead you to better understand their innermost desires and consequently create more convincing and suspenseful stakes.
Another reason though why this scene employs suspense so well is because of the ticking clock inherent in it.
Suspense increases when characters race against the clock. Perhaps no director employs the use of time more effectively to create suspenseful movies than Christopher Nolan.
Dunkirk, for example, is structured entirely around the premise of a ticking clock. The timeframe we know exists for the characters heaps pressure onto them. It squashes the narrative and creates immediate suspense. However, this is also done on a more specific level throughout.
For example, Tommy and Gibson race to escape the beaches of Dunkirk before the Nazis destroy them.
With a two-minute warning now added, the suspense of the scene intensifies. Will Tommy and Gibson make the ship in the time remaining? Or will they be left stranded? Multiple possibilities and variables are thrown up here as anxiety drives the characters (and audience).
For example, maybe the soldiers accidentally drop the stretcher. Does one of the soldiers trip and fall? Or does a hole appear on the bridge leading to the ship for them to jump over? (in fact, this is what Nolan uses later in the scene).
Dunkirk is one of the best examples of suspense existing both on a micro and macro level, from its very start to its very finish. Suspense is layered in every frame of the movie, both because of the ticking clock (that even soundtracks the entire film) but also because of our next tip, the context and knowledge the audience has of the situation…
A scene where two people are talking about football could be very dry and boring. But what if you show the audience there’s a bomb hidden underneath the table where they’re talking?
What if you tell the audience that it’ll go off in five minutes as well? Well then, bam! (figuratively speaking). You’ve just induced suspense by empowering your audience with knowledge.
“You got the audience working”, Hitchcock says. The audience becomes actively engaged in the film through amped-up anxiety produced as a result of knowledge.
As a result, Tarantino has created suspense just from that one piece of knowledge alone. Think of all the unknown thoughts that flock the movie-goers imagination. Will the Jewish family remain hidden? Does Hans Landa know? What will the German officer do if he finds out?
This knowledge is also built upon the knowledge that Tarantino assumes the audience has about the wider context of the Second World War. He plays on this to create suspense. Furthermore, a lot of work is done in the characterisation of Landa in the brief minutes prior to the reveal. All these elements collide brilliantly to create a moment of great suspense.
The story behind a movie really takes place in the imagination of the audience. Our emotions and feelings drive the narrative as much as the actors of the story. And suspense catalyzes those emotions all the more, especially when we’re empowered with knowledge.
So use suspense to flood the imagination of the audience. Empower the audience with knowledge that induces fear of the unknown. The audience will do an equation in their mind: their knowledge of the situation + the different ways it might turn out. The moment where the answer to this equation is ambiguous is where the suspense lies.
Additionally, establishing a rule elicits suspense.
Establishing a rule means creating circumstances within a story that drives the actions of the characters. Establishing a rule that triggers suspense and anxiousness could be powerful for just one scene, or for an entire story, even if it’s not technically a ‘suspenseful movie’.
The Banshees of Inisherin provides a great example of this.
In the film, Colm urges his former friend, Padraic (Colin Farrell) to stop disturbing him. Except, his urging takes on an extreme threat:
“I have a set of shears at home, and each time you bother me from this day on, I will take those shears and I’ll take one of me fingers off with them…”Colm
And just with those two lines, the writer sets the rule in place to drive suspense within the audience. Will Padraic’s attempt to rekindle his friendship with Colm lead to him shearing off his own fingers?
As a result, the audience is once again sunk into the unknown. What if Colm is just fed up? Is this a legitimate threat? He wouldn’t possibly cut off his own fingers, right? Right!? Those thoughts not only play in our heads, they become focal points or arguments between Padraic, the townspeople, and his sister.
Furthermore, whilst the writer establishes this rule, we’re at first unsure of the rules of this story and its style. Gradually, however, we come to understand that this threat is not an empty one. And so the stakes heighten. This is a story in which the characters will resort to strange and violent behavior. With this, anything is potentially possible.
Look at all the writing content created by just one rule alone. The level of dialogue intensifies and each scene becomes emotionally packed.
Moreover, the story world plays a massive role in establishing the rules that can drive suspense.
For example, in The Hurt Locker, writer Mark Boal sets us in a world of hostility (the Iraq War) where insurgency and explosions happen unpredictably.
The scene lasts only two minutes. Yet, we are gripped, on edge, via James, as to whether an explosion will happen or not.
The film has previously set up the rules and context of this world and we therefore understand what the stakes are better than coming into it completely cold. Without this context and knowledge, the scene might still be engaging and intriguing. But it would lose a layer of suspense and tension that makes it quite so nail-biting.
Establishing the story world via previous action or dialogue can also elevate the intensity of the dialogue and conflict from scene to scene. The rules and nature of the world at hand helps heighten the stakes and create suspense in every moment, setting a standard for the story to always be circling around.
When dealing with one of the most ancient feelings within the human condition, fear of the unknown, utilize suspense to seduce the reader/audience deeper into the story.
Not only will this elevate your writing, but it will spark the curiosity of the audience to look for a catharsis. Suspense elevates the intensity of dialogue and can organically prompt conflict in your screenplay. This makes the story all the more worthwhile and engaging for an audience.
We typically think of suspenseful movies as ones in which there are action scenes, ticking time bombs, and car chases. But in fact, all stories should have an element of suspense to them.
What is keeping the audience hooked from beat to beat? What questions need answering by the story’s end and what is unknown? How will this all pan out to meet the protagonist‘s desires and goals? A drama should contain these ambiguities just as much as a mystery thriller.
Writing suspense is ultimately all about placing believable unknowns in front of the audience and teasing them with how these unknowns might become known. With some context to the characters and world, these unknowns will be engaging. And with the right execution, these unknowns can be compelling enough to not only generate engagement but genuine emotion, catharsis and maybe even some sweat.
This article was written by Elbron James and edited by IS Staff.
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