A Dreamer Walking

Suspense 101

Posted in Uncategorized by Jacob on April 1, 2012

There are two ways to create entertainment for those who choose to watch your film. 1. You create entertainment through enlightening, humoring, or awing your audience in the present tense. 2. You create entertainment through expectation of the future; creating a sort of mystery and suspense that keeps your audience member on the edge of his or her seat in anticipation.

I have seen several moments/scenes/sequences in film that will stay with me for the rest of my life. I was in awe of the land of Pandora when watching Avatar for the first time. The sequence where Jake and the rest of the Na’vi go up the mountain cliffs to ride the ikran was unbelievable and an unforgettable experience. Red Skelton, Bill Cosby, and Robin Williams have given us thousands of hours of entertainment through masterful comic timing with their ability to create humor from pretty much any scenario. There are also moments in film I will never forget because of the overwhelming emotion I have felt while watching them. The black Union solders making the charge up the hill of Fort Wagner in Glory, Raymond Babbitt reaching out to touch foreheads with his brother in Rain Man, and Jefferson Smith making his speech at the end of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, are just a few of those moments which not only entertained me but effected who I am and what I will do for the rest of my life.

However, this post is not about addressing the present. It is about creating suspense in film. This is just one of several posts I will do on the subject. In this post I want to tackle the basic idea of suspense in film. Suspense has been in film from almost the very beginning. As soon as filmmakers realized they could cut back and forth between scenarios that were happening in completely different places, they realized they could create a tension through giving the audience a curtain amount of information but keeping us in the dark with knowledge of the final result. To explain the basic idea of suspense I will call upon the “master of suspense” himself, Alfred Hitchcock.

The bottom line is you create more entertainment through suspense then you do with shock. Shock will only last seconds, suspense can last through whole films. One of the greatest ways to create suspense is by giving the audience more information then the characters on screen. If you let them know the Reaper is coming to kill the babysitter and show several minutes of the babysitter just sitting around, you are building suspense. If you show the babysitter about to leave and the Reaper coming, you build even more suspense because you are creating a scinerio where the unknown victim is seconds away from being safe. Imagine the babysitter leaves and a few seconds latter comes back in because she forgot something. You know the Reaper is close because we keep on cutting back to him with the huge blade in his hand and the music getting more and more intense. You know his intention is to kill the babysitter. Yet, there she is just looking for her keys. “They are on the MICROWAVE!!!”, we yell. She can’t hear us. A few seconds later she finds them. But now she begins to talk to Mrs. Smith about eye makeup of all things. We all know if she gets into her car and leaves she will be okay. But no. IT’S TOO LATE! the Reaper is finally there.

We have had several minutes of entertainment through just watching this babysitter search for her keys and talk about eye makeup; two very boring things to watch and listen to if just shown by themselves (at least far more boring then talking about baseball as Hitchcock seems to think 😡 ). We as filmmakers must learn how to draw entertainment out of our scenes. We also need to know when to give our audience a break from suspense. There are many examples in film these days where the filmmakers wear their audience out with suspense. If we don’t let the audience rest and we get too gory, we will begin to numb our audience. There needs to be a perfect balance.

The heart of a film can not be tension and suspense. Suspense is only worth anything if we care about the characters first. Something I will get further into in a different post. It is very important to understand suspense can be created in any kind of movie, not just in the horror and action genre. You can create suspense through creating a scenario where we don’t know if our protagonist will or will not pass and important test, whether the guy will or will not end up with the girl of his dreams, or whether the guy from the slums will or will not make something out of his life. The more you connect your world and characters with the audience the more effective the suspense in your film will be.

Some people, including Hitchcock, think suspense and mystery are different. I do not. Both need to give a curtain amount of information to intrigue the audience and keep a curtain amount of information hidden to keep the audience guessing. We knew, in the example above, the Reaper was coming, but we didn’t know if the babysitter was going to escape. (Actually, we still don’t know if she lived or died, or at least you don’t ;). This leads to the last point Hitchcock made in the video above– Must the Reaper never kill the babysitter or has the audience member changed in the last few decades? Has the tragedy become the new “happy ending”? I will address this question in my next post.

Here are links to the rest of my Suspense Series:

1. Suspense 101

2. Suspense 101: The Unexpected

3. Suspense 101: Technique

4. Suspense 101: Creating Meaning

One Response

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  1. manonmona said, on April 1, 2012 at 6:41 pm

    Reblogged this on Espacio de MANON.

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