(SPOILERS: Little Miss Sunshine, Notorious, Star Wars: The Phantom Menace, The Abyss, The Silence of the Lambs)
Suspense is a powerful screenwriting tool. It gets the audience emotionally and viscerally involved in the story. When we think of suspense we usually think of thrillers, but suspense is common in all genres. Little Miss Sunshine (written by Michael Arndt) contains several suspense scenes. Getting grandpa’s body out of the hospital, for example, or the scene where the cop pulls the family over.
Here are six techniques to building a powerful suspense scene:
1. Make Us Care – In order for us to feel suspense we have to care about the outcome of the scene, and that means we have to care about the character. Make sure you’ve given us someone we can root for (or perhaps against). And make the stakes clear for the character. This means letting the audience know what the possible outcomes of the scene are and how they could affect the character.
2. Take Your Time – It is difficult to create tension and anxiety in the audience in a few seconds. Usually we are focused on keeping the pace fast in a screenplay, but suspense requires anticipation. You have to give tension time to build. This doesn’t mean adding mundane, boring stuff to the beginning of your scene. The idea is to introduce the danger early but delay the outcome, so the audience is stuck in that period of anticipation.
3. Build the Obstacles – Obstacles are an important part of any good scene, of course. In a suspense scene, you want the obstacles to steadily increase in difficulty. It also helps to throw in new, unexpected obstacles, especially when you have a ticking clock. Which brings me to…
4. Add a Ticking Clock – A ticking clock is a screenwriting term for a deadline. You’ve put the character in a tough situation, now give them limited time to come up with a solution. This is the idea of a timer on a bomb, counting down as the hero tries to defuse it. The clock doesn’t have to be a literal clock, though. In Notorious (written by Ben Hecht) there is a scene where our heroes are trying to investigate a wine cellar during a party. Suspense is built by the addition of a ticking clock in the form of a dwindling supply of champagne at the party. When the bottles run out, someone will come to the wine cellar for more and catch our heroes where they shouldn’t be. Also, having something "speed up" the clock can be a potential obstacle.
5. Raise the Stakes – Raising the stakes mid-scene can be an effective way to ratchet up the tension. In the scene in Little Miss Sunshine where the family is pulled over by the police officer, the stakes at the beginning of the scene are that they are almost out of time to get to the pageant. But then the officer wants to see what’s in the back of the car – and what’s back there is grandpa’s body. The scene suddenly got a lot more tense.
6. Gradually Increase the Characters’ Anxiety – Sometimes you want an unflappable hero, but this can make it difficult to create tension. If the character isn’t concerned, why should we be? Remember the scene in Star Wars: The Phantom Menace (written by George Lucas) when the two Jedi Knights and Jar Jar are in a submarine being attacked by monster fish? The Jedi seem completely unconcerned – and as a result the audience is unconcerned. Compare that to the scene in the Abyss (written by James Cameron) where the heroes are trapped in a submarine filling with water. At first they are unconcerned – they’re engineers, they’ll fix it. But obstacles keep appearing and the water keeps rising. Slowly the characters become more and more anxious – and the audience does too. The key is to have the anxiety rise gradually. If you start with your characters in full-blown panic, you have nowhere to go.
Let’s see how these techniques are used a tense scene in Silence of the Lambs (screenplay by Ted Tally). Clarice has been barred from seeing Hannibal Lecter, but she knows he’s lied about the identity of the killer on the loose. She plans to sneak in to try to get the real information out of Lecter.
We care about the outcome because Clarice is a likeable hero who has put herself at risk to save an innocent. We know that this is her last chance – if she fails here then most likely the killer’s hostage will die.
The scene takes its time. We see Clarice enter the building, mislead the men guarding Lecter, and ride up in the elevator with a young cop. We know she shouldn’t be there so we’re anxious to see what will happen. Because of this, all the pleasantries she exchanges with the guards and Lecter are filled with tension.
The obstacles gradually increase. At first it’s the relatively simple task of getting into the room she’s not supposed to be in. But then Lecter isn’t as cooperative as she hopes. She is going to have to convince him to help. Then when he agrees to help, he won’t just give her the answer; he wants her to figure it out on her own. Finally the conversation is cut short when Clarice’s rival shows up and has her kicked out.
There are a couple of ticking clocks working in the scene. First is the bigger clock in the form of the limited time they have to identify the killer and save the hostage. Second, Clarice knows she only has a certain amount of time before she is discovered.
Lecter raises the stakes in the middle of the scene. Before he will help Clarice, he wants her to tell him about an incident in her past, an incident that Clarice does not want to talk about. The stakes go from saving someone else to personal, emotional stakes for Clarice.
Throughout the scene, Clarice’s anxiety increases as time passes. At first she’s nervous about her deception but not particularly anxious. When Lecter pushes her to reveal her deepest secrets, though, her anxiety increases. And when he forces her to work through the problem herself we see her struggle to stave off rising panic.
All of which adds up to a tense, emotionally powerful scene.