TECHNIQUES FOR BUILDING SUSPENSE
I’ve mentioned before that I have a side project where I write short pieces (scenes and stories) to explore different script writing techniques. I thought that this week I’d share an example in which I explored some ideas around building suspense.
Here are some general observations on building suspense…
Suspense is a result of worry. If we don’t care about the character we won’t feel it. Therefore, the first rule of suspense is – make the character relatable.
Suspense usually requires the listener to know more than the character (the character is unaware of the danger but the listener knows and is worried) and it is therefore harder to create in the first person. We have to shift the perspective around a bit. This can be difficult to pull off regardless.
Suspense is created when the writer poses a question that the reader wants to know the answer to (will the protagonist be discovered by the villains who are hunting him/her?)
Suspense is sustained by deferring the answer to that question, by adding complications, and by continually increasing the peril and introducing new questions (What will happen to the innocent backpackers who, knowing nothing of the danger, are heading right into the area being searched by the villain?).
Suspense requires revelation. At a certain point the protagonist must become aware of the peril. If they remain in the dark, most audience members will feel cheated.
Suspense is increased by focusing in on the protagonists senses (narrowing the focus to the racing heartbeat, the sweating palms, and the shaking hands). People in peril don’t stop to notice the gorgeous pattern on the wallpaper, so remember to narrow the focus of the audio (fade out the background and fade in the protagonist’s breathing and heartbeat etc.).
Suspense requires a payoff equal to promise implied in the question.
THINGS TO AVOID
Don’t expect the peril faced by your protagonist to create the maximum amount of suspense (your listenerer is likely to assume the protagonist will come through fine – even if they wont – and therefore won’t invest as much in the outcome). Make sure you have companions, and bystanders to care. Kill someone off early and the audience won’t be quite so sure that the other supporting characters will make it through alive.
Don’t put strangers in peril – no-one cares. Provide enough information for the listener to want these supporting characters to succeed, while not knowing if they will. Uncertainty regarding someone we care about is the key.
Don’t overdo the obstacles – beyond a certain point the listener will think to themselves “this is just getting silly”, at which point they will switch off the play and get a good night’s sleep.
Don’t subvert the promise of the question posed at the beginning of your attempt at suspense. If it turns out that the noise was simply that of the neighbour’s cat, the listener will feel cheated.
I’ve tried to (very quickly) create some relatable characters. Our hero, Jake, is a guy who is willing to sacrifice himself for the sake of others (if a little world weary). Paul exists only to watch and interact with Jake (so he’s particularly two-dimensional). I’ve also tried to reveal (in super quick sketch form) that the corporal is a decent guy and that M’Kenga is the breadwinner for his family. Not a lot to go on in a short space, but hopefully enough to make it matter when they are placed in peril.
The question of the piece is “who will live and who will die when the bomb goes off?”
In this case our characters are all aware of the danger, though there is a moment where the boys don’t realise their peril.
I’ve chosen to defer answering the question of the piece repeatedly…
- the first monkey grabs a grenade
- the other monkeys do likewise
- the corporal opens the door onto the scene
- the local boys come to take a look
- the jeep arrives blaring its horn.
I’ve attempted to use sound to focus in on the details and intensify the suspense (the crunch of each of Jake’s careful steps, in particular).
I’ve placed bystanders in peril along with our protagonist.
I’ve tried to pay off the question of the piece with the explosion at the end.
So, does it work? Are there other principles of suspenseful scene design that I’m neglecting? What have I missed or overlooked in this analysis of the horror genre? Share your thoughts in the comments below.
This article is © 2017 by Philip Craig Robotham – all rights reserved.