The Importance of Creating Suspense in Your Film

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We’ve all felt it. You start watching a film. A few minutes go by and it seems like you really have to make an effort go keep watching. You say to yourself, well at some point I’m going to get into it. But sometimes it just doesn’t happen. I find this happens a lot of times with a lot of the student films I watch. The filmmaker is telling a story, but to be totally honest, I just don’t care. About 9 times out of 10, despite my best intentions, I simply can’t get through even a 5 minute short.

As we all know, filmmakers are like jugglers. We’re trying to do about 10 things at the same time. But none of that will matter if you don’t have one key ingredient in your story from the beginning. Suspense. Suspense really is a side effect of good drama. It makes the audience work. It really comes down to this….is something going to happen. This could be something good, or something terrible. Suspense in drama is basically will the protagonist get the thing they need. Will Timmy get the operation in time to save his life?

Like a pot of boiling water, little pockets of suspense should be going off through out your film. Suspense can be caused by a withholding of information. A macro example of this would be the way a film is shot or edited. Often we will start with a closeup of a scene. Hands doing something and the elements of a scene. This creates a mystery…and ever so slightly pulls us into a scene. Why? because we’re working. The moment the audience stops working, they will start getting bored.

On larger level, suspense should be an element of almost every scene. There should always be something going on between characters which is not what they’re talking about. To quote Robert McKee, “If the story you’re telling, is the story you’re telling, you’re in deep shit.” Your audience wants to figure things out. There is a thing called “Dramatic Irony” which means that the audience knows more than the characters. When everyone is going into the water in Jaws, we know there is a shark just waiting for them. So every time we see someone swimming, there is the supense something at any moment can happen.

Whenever I write, I always think about good ole Hitchcock

I remember the first time I saw Pulp Fiction. I remember about halfway through thinking to myself, man, I’m completely engaged with this film. It’s doing something on another level. Later, of course, what I realized was that Tarrantino’s real talent as a writer is creating long scenes of dialog over scenes where we know something really bad is going to happen. He does this trick again and again, and really is the modern master. For those of you who were around in the early 90’s, you will remember there were a hand full of Pulp Fiction knock offs that came out immediately after, but none of them really worked. Why? Because everyone thought that they key to Pulp Fiction was having bad guys talk about pop culture. But the reason Pulp Fiction works is because you have two characters talking about relatively unimportant things while the audience sits waiting and knowing something really bad is going to happen.

If you want to watch a true masterclass in suspense, check out the first scene in Inglorious Bastards.

So I implore all of the filmmakers out there to look at your screenplay, or your scenes. Is there a way to change things around to create more suspense? Also, look at the opening scene. Is there a way to create even just a little bit of suspense so that we get pulled into the story. A great trick we see all the time is starting a film with an action sequence or something with suspense so that we are in from the very beginning. James Bond films always have a little mini movie at the beginning. I guarantee it will not only make it easier for people to engage with the film, but will probably improve the story on a more profound level as well. Good luck!

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