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.


Action: Annie hobbels Paul with a sledgehammer

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

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.

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.

Source: Film Courage