A Dreamer Walking

Suspense 101: The Unexpected

Posted in Uncategorized by Jacob on April 6, 2012

Hitchcock says after you tell the audience the bomb is going to go off it must never go off. If the bomb goes off and the character your audience cares about ends up dead the audience will be displeased and might even walk out on you. At least, this is how the movie going audience was in Hitchcock’s day. Today it is a bit different.

We have a job as filmmakers to satisfy our audience. We must satisfy them enough for them to want to come back again. This does not mean we need to give the audience everything they want. The audience member has come to expect a happy ending. They have begun to understand our tricks. Suspense is not as strong in film anymore because the audience knows in the end everything will be alright. Today, film must not be so predictable. Loss is needed to keep the suspense in film alive. If you have a small bomb go off and kill some key characters in the middle of the film your audience will be more worried about the bomb at the end of the film.

Audience members want to believe in what they see. For them to believe, our stories must feel real. They need to have all the joy and pain we see in everyday life. Everything does not go just right in our own life, neither should it go just right in film. The key element in both suspense and mystery is wonder. We don’t know what will happen. Keep the wonder alive and you will keep the audience on the edge of their seats. Even if a “happy ending” is eventually going to happen don’t give in until the last possible moment. Andrew Stanton (writer of Toy Story 1 & 2Finding Nemo, and Wall-E) talked about the importance of suspense in the Pixar films. In the first Toy Story movie Woody is given a match toward the beginning of the third act. At the end of the act Woody and Buzz are chasing Andy’s van when the battery of the remote control car runs out. All is lost until Woody realizes he has the match and could set Buzz’s rocket on fire and catch up with the van. He lights the match and is about to light the rocket when a car drives over them and extinguishes  the match. The surprise, dread, and heartbreak created in every 3rd-8th grader was priceless. Eventually Woody lights the rocket and get to Andy’s van, but there was a tremendous amount of entertainment generated by the creators of Toy Story not giving into the audience’s expectations right away. Pixar just got better after the original Toy Story. They had Woody save Jesse in Toy Story 2 only to have the plane door close right before they were able to jump out. They had Lotso Hugging Bear get up to the “stop” button only to not press it and doom the whole toy gang to be terminated in the furnace in Toy Story 3. Only when all hope is gone and the audience truly begins to wonder if the Pixar creators are really going to let these toys, we have come to love, die does “The Claw” come and save them.

Filmmakers must walk a delicate line. If you draw the suspense out for too long you will exhaust the audience. If you go against what the audience wants you run the risk of pissing them off. Great film is created when the creators get the little details right. I think the most important thing is to go with your gut. As Frank Capra (director of It Happened One Night, and It’s a Wonderful Life) said, “There are no rules in filmmaking. Only sins. And the cardinal sin is dullness”. Your story will be dull if the audience knows what is going to happen. Keep them guessing. Tension is only created when the audience does not know what is going to happen next.

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

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