Creative Ways to Build a Climax: An Analysis of the Suspense & Timing of 'Drive'

Great storytelling isn't just about giving information to your audience. It's also about when and how you give it to them.

Human beings are natural storytellers, but that doesn't mean that your great aunt Millie or Dave from Accounting can tell a story like the greatest literary and cinematic minds in history. That's because telling stories is a lot like -- dancing. You've gotta know when to drop it low, baby! In other, less confusing words, you have to know how to build tension, add suspense, as well as flavor -- a little something special, and then know when, where, and how to drop the climax bomb. (Otherwise you're just another guy or gal out there doing the 2-step -- and not even the cool Ciara version.)

Drama is anticipation mingled with uncertainty.

So, how do you do that? What are some examples of films that give information to the audience in creative ways that not only help tell the story, but entice viewers to keep watching long enough to enjoy the payoff at the end? One of our favorite video essayists, Darren Foley of Must See Films, offers this incredible analysis of the opening sequence from Nicolas Winding Refn's Drive, which breaks down the clever ways Refn makes this simple, barebones car chase (narratively speaking) exhilarating, unique, and nail-biting.

And now, hear what Foley has to say about the creative ways Refn, as well as Sergio Leone, Frank Darabont, and others dispense information to their audiences in a way that doesn't just inform, but also adds tension, anticipation, and uncertainty. Drama!

There are so many ways to craft a great denouement for a scene. Refn uses the sound of a basketball game on the radio for a Voice of God narration. Darabont uses the Rule of 3's to introduce a pattern that will ultimately surprise the viewer. Tarantino and Welles make objects within the diegesis the focal point in a small part scene in order to either trick the audience, or build anticipation. The examples are out there -- they exist in every great film, but thanks to Foley, we have a better idea of what to look for.     

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DRIVE is so boring and slow it should have been called SIT AND STARE. Oh wait...maybe that was ONLY GOD FORGIVES. Come to think of it....pretty much the same quiet PISSY character in both films by the same actor and director. I loved BRONSON and couldn't wait to see DRIVE. Once I started watching it within 15 minutes ...I couldn't wait to turn it off!

November 22, 2014 at 4:50AM

mark dossett

Drive is awesome, Mark!

November 23, 2014 at 12:44AM

Will Gilbey
Screenwriter / Editor

Maybe you'd prefer sitting and staring at deeper films like F&F Mark.

November 30, 2014 at 3:52AM

Jamie Johnson
Director / Editor

You really got me at Missy Elliot... DRIVE, a movie that portrays solitude - life - love in enigmatic way. I had people saying the movie didn't get their attn or "it's not my taste". Nicolas Winding Refn has a different style of filmmaking...

November 22, 2014 at 7:56AM

Vinnoth Ira Krish
Director / Editor / Screenwriter

Winding Refn definitely knows what he's doing. And the opening sequence is expertly crafted, as this video outlines. But I'm not I necessarily like what he's doing. Drive was so great until half way through. It had a slow, methodical pace but but held tension and intrigue beautifully. I was totally on board with our hero. He seemed deep and lonely and there was hope of real human connection. Until half way through the movie (I believe it was the elevator scene). After that we realize that he is not a nice person who has flaws and a dark streak. He is actually a sociopath. He has no empathy for others, and really no feelings about killing people. And we also realize that he might not even be capable of loving Carrie Mulligans character. The real problem I have with this is that I can't tell if this is a failure in storytelling on Winding Refn's part, an intentional bait and switch by the director, or that he simply doesn't care (or actually likes the fact) that his protagonist is inhuman. I feel like it leans toward the 3rd option from looking at his other films. He has an interest in this kind of remorseless violence from potentially unfeeling characters from looking at his other work. And because of this confusion I don't feel like I can trust him. But at the same time he is clearly skilled in constructing his stories and drawing tension out in a scene without cheap bombastic tricks.

November 22, 2014 at 8:32AM, Edited November 22, 8:32AM

Michael Markham

love this movie

November 23, 2014 at 1:32AM


Strangely enough, Darren (great voice) does not mention the audio element introduced by the police scanner. The frequent use of this element builds a tension on it's own.

A lovely post, brilliant breakdown of the opening.

November 23, 2014 at 2:40AM