July 11, 2015

What to Do (& Not Do) when Writing Suspense into Your Screenplay

Suspense...

It can be described as "the anticipation of action," when anxiety and emotion is built as the audience waits for something to happen on screen. We know it when we see it and feel it, but how in the hell do you write it into a screenplay? What should we be aiming for when crafting a scene, and what are some pitfalls that we should avoid? Well, the folks over at Film Courage asked screenwriter and author of The Secrets of Action Screenwriting, William C. Martell, about it and he gives some great advice in the video below:

Martell makes two things perfectly clear in his response:

  1. If you don't draw out the suspense, your scene will fall flat.
  2. If you don't alert your audience to the dramatic irony, your scene will fall flat.

You don't want to cut the tension off too soon, or else your audience won't really be affected by it, and you want to give them enough information that they're able to know that something important/dangerous/perilous/exciting is about to happen in the scene. But, how do we do that? How can we anticipate how a viewer will respond to our on-screen cues? Well, we can start by understanding the concept of suspense.

Taking a page out of Hitchcock's book -- he is the Master of Suspense after all, he describes it as an "emotional process" achieved only by giving your viewer information (as opposed to the "intellectual process" of mystery). Hitchcock breaks this concept down in the video below:

Now that we know the basic nature of what suspense is, how do we "draw out" suspense? How do we clue our audience into the dramatic irony of a scene? Essentially, how do we make a scene suspenseful? Once again, Hitchcock gives an example (the same one Martell mentions) in the video below:

There are so many great suspenseful scenes to learn from. Here are a few to peruse, and feel free to share which scenes demonstrate suspense in the comments below.

Misery

Action: Annie hobbels Paul with a sledgehammer

Suspense: We have to hear Annie's long, tedious speech before we finally see the action.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E55ni_xc4ww

The Silence of the Lambs

Action: Clarice confronts Buffalo Bill

Suspense: She doesn't know that the man whose house she just entered is in fact the serial killer she's been looking for.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yNeQm5aqrHo

Rear Window

Action: The confrontation between Jeffries and the man he suspects is a killer

Suspense: Footsteps...guy in a wheelchair unable to escape...gorgeous.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t8eNpwLPwog     

Your Comment

6 Comments

As Hitchcock says, mystery should not be mistaken for suspense. But suspense should not be mistaken for dramatic irony either. In the first video, Hitchcock says that to create suspense you need to inform the audience. He does not say that you should necessarily inform the audience to the expense of one character (which would then be creating a dramatic irony). The scene, in "Indiana Jones and the temple of doom", where Indiana Jones fights a giant on a conveyor belt which is carrying them towards a shredder is a suspense scene, but there is no hint of dramatic irony. The two characters are as well informed as the spectator regarding the impending danger. The same applies at the climax of the series "Back to the future" or for the scene in "2001: A space odyssey" in which the computer Hal endangers Bowman's life. There are thousands of examples of very suspenseful scenes without dramatic irony. What you need to create suspense is indeed that the audience is aware of what's going on (contrary to a situation of mystery) and that the dramatic answer is uncertain. If the spectator is torn between hope and fear, you have suspense. Yves Lavandier

July 11, 2015 at 11:09AM

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Yves Lavandier
screenwriter, director and script doctor
149

Ça alors, Yves Lavandier ! C'est un peu idiot dit comme ça, mais La Dramaturgie est le premier livre que j'ai lu sur l'écriture de scénario, et toujours le meilleur à ce jour. Je profite donc de cette chance pour vous remercier chaleureusement : je n'aurais jamais réalisé mon premier court, ni écrit mon premier long (et donc pas non plus ceux qui ont suivi) sans vous ! Merci, monsieur Lavandier, merci.

July 13, 2015 at 1:03PM

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Cédric Jouarie
Director, Writer, Producer
160

Thanks V. missed ur articles mate. not as frequent as before.
Good luck with whatever ur involved in these days

July 11, 2015 at 8:01PM, Edited July 11, 8:01PM

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W Ali
Director/writer
754

Thank you Cedric Jouarie for posting in French. Reflects very highly about your awareness of the presumption that the whole world understands french.

July 14, 2015 at 5:24AM

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sanveer mehlwal
Filmmaker
236

I think he's just replying to his fellow Frenchman, screenplay writer and teacher Mr. Yves Lavandier

July 16, 2015 at 3:49PM

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W Ali
Director/writer
754

Dear Sanveer, I'm not presuming of anything, but expressing my thanks to Mr. Yves Lavandier to his extraordinary contribution to scriptwriting with his book 'La Dramaturgie'––just like Wathig Ali said.

With that being said, how come the world doesn't speak French?

July 17, 2015 at 12:16AM

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Cédric Jouarie
Director, Writer, Producer
160