Lesson 6: Story Telling: SUSPENSE, OR THE LACK THEREOF

I want to start with suspense, or the lack thereof.

This is my pet peeve.

There is very little suspense left in mainstream movies these days. Perhaps writers and directors don’t know what true suspense is, or the market dictates how a story should be told. Just watch a Hitchcock film to find out how to create suspense.

Most movies that suppose to be suspenseful are more like a house of horrors, or a roller-coaster ride through the dark, where things pop out at you and go boo, or they rely on peoples phobias like snakes or bugs to get them excited.

This is cheap suspense!

So what is suspense in the cinematic language of story telling? True Suspense is knowing what the characters do not know.

What do I mean?

OK, look at it this way: I watched a monster movie the other day. The form of suspense it used was similar to the house of horrors example I gave above.  The characters were being hunted by a monster in the dark. They knew it, and we knew it.

Its like walking through the haunted house at a carnival: it is dark inside, and you know that things are going to jump out at you, or touch you, or a loud sound will frighten you, and you are in a state of suspense waiting for this to happen, but never knowing when it will happen, etc.

For me this is the first level of suspense.

In the monster movie example the monster was lurking in the darkness, and the characters were getting killed off, one at a time, so the audience experienced the first level of suspense, the audience knew as much as the characters, and were kept in the dark, excuse the pun, just like the characters.

Naturally there were lots of scary things popping out of the dark, accompanied by loud sounds to heighten the mood.

Is this valid suspense?

Yes, but not that effective, or original.

And like I say this is level one, and only works if you actually care about the characters. So in order to make this kind of suspense truly function, you will probably need more than 30 minutes of character development to create the ever so hard to attain, special emotional bond you must establish between your audience and the heroes of the story.

You can’t just throw suspense at the audience and expect them to care if someone is in a life threatening situation without first creating an emotional bond. A great screenplay, a great movie is simply the careful ordering of emotions: more on this later…

Even though suspense always increases with how much the audience has emotionaly  bonded with the characters, there is a way to drop suspense on the viewer immediately.


You need to turn up the volume, so to speak. But how do you take suspense up a notch, up to level 2? True Suspense is knowing what the characters do not know. When the audience knows more than the characters a whole new universe opens up to the screen writer.

Let me give you an example:

1. Surprise suspense (like house of horrors): two men are sitting at a baseball game talking about their hunting trip. Suddenly an explosion rocks the stadium, and a light stand begins to break. The men look up, and just manage to avoid getting killed by the falling light. There is panic and mayhem, fire, smoke, and screams abounding, etc.

2. True suspense of the knowing:  two men are sitting at a baseball game talking about their hunting trip. Known only to audience the bomb is actually under the bench where the two guys are sitting, it is quickly ticking away. There are only moments left. The two guys keep talking about their hunting trip, oblivious to the danger they are literally  sitting on. Even worse than this: a local little league team came to watch the pro game, and because of this the two heroes are surrounded by kids, the exits are clogged with fans, the game is at its hight, and the heroes have almost no time left to find the bomb, and dispose of it before it goes off, but they don’t even know its there at all.

OMG! What are they going to do, right!!

See the difference? Even if you did not care about these characters, it would still be very suspenseful, anything with innocent children in danger is automatically thrilling. It works because the audience knows more than the characters know, because the audience will be put through hell with this knowledge, rooting for a happy outcome, but knowing that the situation is utterly hopeless. I call this internal conflict.

Great story is all about conflict. But when that conflict is created through true suspense, the conflict transcends the sliver screen, transcends character and plot to become one within, and personalized by, the mind of the viewer. This is incredibly powerful and creates for the audience pathos and solidartity with the story.

True suspense fully invovles the audience, not just makes them passive bystanders watching things go boom in the night!

This is the true power of good cinematic story telling: you can give the audience more info than the characters know.

This empowers the viewer emotionally, and intellectually if it is a mystery story that needs to be solved.

When you give the audience just enough foreshadowing they might figure out the mystery on their own, which is good, or keep them guessing all the way to the end, which is way better. You want to stay one step ahead of the viewer, but give them plenty of opportunity to speculate about how its all going to end.

Sometimes you will trick them into believeing one thing when in fact it is the exact opposite. The best way to do this is by giving them more info than the main characters know. Creating true suspense does not have to be difficult.

Suspense does not have to be limited to thrillers. Shakespeare proved this in Romeo and Juliet. Only the audience knows in the end that Juliet is not really dead when Romeo takes his own life thinking she is, and when she wakes up and finds her beloved dead, she kills herself for real…

This is a brilliant double suspense moment where the audience knows more than the characters, and can hardly hold back the tears when its all over, because they have grown to love the characters by that time. I’m sure in the day of Shakespeare the audience was so intwined in the suspense of that moment that they probably screamed at the characters not to kill themselves, etc.

Go To, Lesson 7: Story Telling: How to Know when a story is worth telling


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