Friday, November 13, 2009


(Spoilers: The Hangover, Children of Men)

I have a secret screenwriting weapon. It’s called suspense. You’ve probably heard the old saying that drama is conflict. True, but I think it's equally true that drama is suspense.

Suspense draws the audience into the movie and builds tension, putting them on the edge of their seat. It creates an intense response that when done well will make people passionate about a script or movie. A good suspense scene will drive readers nuts – and they won’t even know why.

Let's start with defining what suspense is. Suspense is the anticipation of a potential impending disaster for a character we care about. Tension builds as the disaster approaches and the audience wonders whether the character will be able to avoid it or not. There’s a will-it-or-won’t-it-happen aspect to suspense scenes that distinguishes them from action scenes.

For some reason nobody outside of thriller writers really talks about suspense much. But all genres need suspense.

Can the hero make it to the wedding to stop his true love from marrying someone else? That’s suspense. And it’s a common scene in both romantic comedies and romantic dramas.

Remember the scene in The Hangover (written by Jon Lucas and Scott Moore) when the guys have to get the tiger back to Mike Tyson’s mansion? That’s suspense. Good broad comedies are full of suspense scenes.

How about in The Matrix (written by Andy and Larry Wachowski) when Neo and company find they are trapped in a walled off building due to Cypher’s betrayal with agents closing in? They have to climb down inside the walls without being heard in order to escape. Suspense.

So how do we craft a good suspense scene?

As I mentioned, the key element of suspense is a potential impending disaster. This disaster must be clear to the audience and it must affect a character we care about. In the tiger scenes in The Hangover, the impending disaster is Mike Tyson beating the crap out of our loveable goofballs if they don’t get the tiger back to his place.

Now our characters set about attempting to avoid the disaster. We increase the suspense by throwing ever-greater obstacles in the characters’ path. As they overcome each one, a bigger one appears. We want a roller coaster effect – highs as well as lows. So the characters seem to get closer to their goal only to suddenly find themselves farther away.

In the scene in The Matrix our heroes cleverly climb into the wet wall to avoid detection. It appears they might make it out of the trap. But it's dusty in the wall. One character's foot slips, sending a cascade of dust into another's face. Which leads to a sneeze and the jig is up.

It’s important to take your time in a suspense scene. Usually in screenwriting we want to keep the pace up, keep the story rocketing forward. But you can’t get the audience to go from comfortably munching their popcorn to sitting on the edge of their seat, fingers dug into the armrests, in a few seconds. Tension needs time to build. However, tension doesn’t increase if the character is just kind of hanging out. The idea is to continually ratchet up the tension by gradual degrees as the scene progresses.

Another useful tool to build suspense is the “ticking clock” which I covered in my last post. The impending disaster doesn’t seem threatening unless it’s actually imminent. Put a time limit on your character to solve their problem. In The Hangover Mike Tyson doesn’t tell the buddies to bring the tiger back whenever they feel like it. He gives them a deadline. As that deadline approaches tension increases.

Let’s look at a good suspense scene in Children of Men (screenplay by Alfonso Cuaron & Timothy J. Sexton and David Arata and Mark Fergus & Hawk Otsby). Theo, Kee and Miriam are at a supposed safe house when in the middle of the night Theo overhears the resistance leaders planning to kill him in the morning and hold Kee for their own purposes. Theo finds Kee and Miriam and they try to sneak out of the house.

First, there is a ticking clock – it’s near dawn. They don’t have much time to escape unnoticed. Theo’s in such a hurry he doesn’t even stop to get shoes.

They sneak outside and look for a car with keys in it. They are almost discovered by guards (an obstacle). Theo disables one car and they get in another. But it won’t start (another obstacle). So he pushes it until it’s rolling down the hill. But this alerts the guards and the chase is on.

They reach the bottom of the hill and the car comes to a stop in a big mud puddle. Shoeless Theo has to get out and push so they can jump-start it. The first attempt fails as the bad guys are closing in. Finally they get the car started and escape just in the nick of time.

Notice how the tension in the scene builds to the final escape. There are ups and downs, but as the trio makes their way to freedom, the obstacles and the risk of capture increase. And that causes the tension in the audience to increase. When they finally escape we breathe a big sigh of relief.

(For another example of great suspense, read my post on a submarine scene form The Abyss.)

Note that it’s important to suspense that the audience know what’s going on. They have to see the disaster coming in order to be anxious about it. The opposite of that is surprise. Both are useful tools and particularly powerful when combined in a scene. I’ll talk more about surprise in my next post.


Kris Bock said...

Loving these essays! they are going to help me when I teach a workshop on novel plotting this weekend.
Chris Eboch
Haunted: The Ghost on the Stairs, The Riverboat Phantom and The Knight in the Shadows
See the book trailer on You Tube !
Read the first chapters for free

Unknown said...

That's awesome, Doug! Thanks for the analysis.