I think suspense is probably the most powerful tool we have as filmmakers. It draws the audience into the story and ratchets up their anxiety, setting up a cathartic release. I’m going to conclude my in-depth look at Inception (written by Christopher Nolan) by looking at the techniques the film uses to build suspense in the dream caper (roughly the second half of the film).
At its most basic, suspense is created when we tell the audience something bad will happen if a character can’t accomplish a certain task. Suspense builds as the audience awaits the outcome. Hope and fear are crucial to suspense – we must give the audience something specific to hope for and something specific to fear.
And the best suspense builds in intensity. We achieve this by throwing increasingly difficult obstacles in the way of the character’s success. At the start of the mission in Inception, the characters have carefully laid plans and are reasonably confident they can pull them off. We hope for their success. But very quickly things go wrong – they discover Fischer has dream defenses they didn’t know about. Next Cobb reveals that, with the sedation they’re using, dying in the dream sends them to Limbo instead of waking them up. This immediately raises the stakes and gives us something specific to fear.
Then we have to tighten the screws, making the characters more desperate. One of the most powerful tools to do this is the ticking clock. When you put a time limit on your characters, any obstacle that slows them down increases our fear they might fail. The most cliché example of a ticking clock is the timer on a bomb ticking down as the hero races to defuse it.
Inception creates an overall ticking clock for the mission with the “kick” that wakes them all simultaneously. The team gets spread out across three dreams and have to complete their various tasks before the kick pulls them out. The tension is increased when the time gets truncated – Yusuf can’t wait as long as he should to activate the kick, and Saito has been shot, providing another ticking clock: they must finish the mission before he dies.
The team uses a song as a countdown to the kick, allowing them (and us) to track its approach. Of course the team misses the first kick, but fortunately they have a back-up – when the van hits the water. Cutting to the falling van provides a gauge for how much time is passing until this last, final chance at success. Any time limit serves as a ticking clock, but you have to find a way to show the audience how much time is left. In the case of Saito, we track his deteriorating health.
With these “clocks” counting down, various obstacles are thrown in the characters’ path. For example, Yusuf is being pursued by gunmen. The team needs to improvise in the second level with the Mr. Charles gambit. And after the others head to the third dream level, Arthur has to keep some security guys from getting to the hotel room.
And of course the biggest obstacle comes when Mal shows up at the medical complex and Cobb can’t shoot her. As a result, Mal kills Fischer, sending him to Limbo. Ariadne then hatches a plan to retrieve Fischer, but there is barely enough time left to pull it off. Tension is at its peak.
Individual scenes have their own arcs of suspense. For example, in The Mr. Charles scene, suspense is built over whether Fischer will trust Cobb. If he doesn’t, the background characters will tear the intruders apart. As the scene progresses, the background characters get more and more suspicious and aggressive (providing a ticking clock for this scene) as Cobb tries to win over Fischer. And there’s a twist when Fischer considers killing himself to “wake up.”
Looking at Inception, it may seem easy to build suspense. And, in fact, it’s actually not that difficult. But I read a lot of scripts that fail to exploit these techniques. It’s not hard, but you have to actually do it!
Consider whatever story you’re currently working on – is there a ticking clock? If not, can you add one? If so, are you tracking it clearly? Is it clear what we’re supposed to hope for, what we’re supposed to fear? Are you throwing enough obstacles at the characters? Can you add any twists that increase the stakes or reduce the time available?
If we’re going to improve our writing, it’s not enough to figure out how a film like Inception does what it does, we have to apply what we learn to our own scripts.
In other news, I have launched a Kickstarter campaign for my short film MICROBE. Please take a look and consider whether you’d be willing to contribute. Every bit helps, and we have some pretty nifty rewards for contributors, including access to an extensive behind the scenes website. http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1470121165/microbe