Sunday, October 05, 2008

Elements of Suspense

“If, in the first chapter, you say there is a gun hanging on the wall, you should make quite sure that it is going to be used further on in the story.”
- Anton Chekhov

Okay, first, let’s talk about AUDIENCE KNOWLEDGE.

There is available online a nice, albeit elemental, thesis on the
Elements of Suspense, which focused on Alfred Hitchcock, and we are, of course, given the famous time bomb story. Hitchcock said:

“There is a clear difference between surprise and suspense […]. We are sitting here and having an innocent conversation. Let us assume that there is a bomb under this table between us. […] suddenly there is a loud boom and the bomb goes off. The audience is surprised, but before this surprise they have only seen a very ordinary scene without any significance. Let us instead look at a suspense scene. The bomb is under the table and the audience is aware of this because they have seen the anarchist plant it there. They also know that the bomb will go off at one o’clock, and up on the wall is a clock showing that the time is now quarter to one […]. In the first scene we have given the audience 15 seconds of surprise […] but in the last scene we have given them fifteen minutes of suspense.” (Truffaut 1973, p. 52-53)

I would say there is a variety of elements in this one example alone that are crucial to making this scene work. You have here, first of all, audience knowledge, of knowing facts that the characters do not know, which creates tension because the audience is helpless. In this scenario, the characters are somewhat helpless, too, because they don’t know what’s about to happen. It’s all about how well you handle not only the characters but also basic plot information. A number of elements need to be setup: you have to set up the characters and make the audience care about them and hope they won’t die. You have to establish the anarchists, and the fact that they are out there destroying lives. You have to establish the time factor. And there is also the important element of expectations in order to heighten the tension, which Joshua James
wrote about. By this, we mean showing earlier in your story something bad that’s happened and innocent people dying, so that you’ve established the possibility this bomb could, in fact, go off. This brings to mind David Bordwell’s article and what he called “Suspense as Morality, Probability, and Imagination.”

The most influential current theory of suspense in narrative is put forth by Noël Carroll. The original statement of it can be found in “Toward a Theory of Film Suspense” in his book
Theorizing the Moving Image. Carroll proposes that suspense depends on our forming tacit questions about the story as it unfolds. Among other things, we ask how plausible certain outcomes are and how morally worthy they are. For Carroll, the reader or viewer feels suspense as a result of estimating, more or less intuitively, that the situation presents a morally undesirable outcome that is strongly probable.

When the plot indicates that an evil character will probably fail to achieve his or her end, there isn’t much suspense. Likewise, when a good character is likely to succeed, there isn’t much suspense. But we do feel suspense when it seems that an evil character is likely to succeed, or that a good character is likely to fail.


Consider all the ways time was used to heighten the suspense throughout that little film called The Dark Knight. Every day Batman fails to reveal himself, people will die. Then, we’d know who was the target and we'd keep watching because we’re curious if or how the Joker will get to that target. “Depending on the time, he might be in one spot… or several.” He had “just minutes left” to save either Rachel or Dent. The way the Joker parceled out crucial information about his new game quickly heightened the tension in that interrogation scene with Batman. Then there was the commercial – tonight at five o’clock, we’ll reveal the identity of Batman. Stay tuned. Or the Joker’s phone call – “If Coleman Reese isn’t killed in sixty minutes, I’m going to blow up a hospital.” Or the ferry situation – If you don’t blow-up the other ferry by midnight, I’ll blow-up both of your ferries. This wasn’t done just for the sake of suspense. The emphasis was still on the characters because the Joker was out to prove a point about humanity.

We also had the ticking clock at the end of Aliens but it wasn’t an arbitrary gimmick. This was also the resolution to Ripley’s personal story and all of those nightmares and fears she was going through. This was her saving her own lost innocence as well as facing her deepest fears and the physical embodiment of those fears when she confronted - the Queen. All of this had to be done in X minutes.

Of course, there doesn’t have to be a clock to make the tension heightened. It’s one thing building upon another thing. It’s multiple setups for one big payoff. It’s the simple knowledge of what’s about to happen and then that thing happens (or not), like when Michael is about to shoot Sollozzo and the Captain in the Italian restaurant in The Godfather. (BTW – the restored version is gorgeous.) And we hold for that one moment as Michael almost fails to go through with it. It’s the time spent to set that up, the talk about how to do it, how many shots, how to walk away, the planning of where to place the gun, in order to maximize the suspense and emotions in that one scene. And I still feel, as when I wrote the
Screenwriting State of Emergency, that there’s little devotion to details today to make scenes like this great.

Elements of Suspense also talked about editing in order to maximize tension, that when emotions are high, Hitchcock resorted to tight shots and close-ups, but when the tension is over, he’ll fall back on medium shots. This is common. And editing is just as important when you write your script. Consider the way Tarantino used editing through his action lines to maximize the tension in the syringe scene in Pulp Fiction. Everything is on the line here, not just the life of Mia but Vincent’s as well. Notice the implied close ups and tight shots in his action lines and the way he dragged out this short moment:

Vincent lifts the needle up above his head in a stabbing motion. He looks down on Mia.

Mia is fading fast. Soon nothing will help her.

Vincent’s eyes narrow, ready to do this.

Count to three.

Lance on his knees right beside Vincent, does not know what to expect.


RED DOT on Mia’s body.

Needle poised ready to strike.


Jody’s face is alive in anticipation.

NEEDLE in the air, poised like a rattler ready to strike.


The needle leaves the frame, THRUSTING down hard.

Vincent brings the needle down hard, STABBING Mia in the chest.

Mia’s head is JOLTED from the impact.

The syringe plunger is pushed down, PUMPING the adrenalin out through the needle.

Mia’s eyes POP WIDE OPEN and lets out a HELLISH cry of the banshee.

She BOLTS UP in a sitting position, needle stuck in her chest---SCREAMING


And finally, one of the other elements of suspense discussed in the
Hitchcock thesis is the framing of the shots. As I mentioned before, I’m a believer in writing the shots, and there are just some scenes and perspectives that get you no matter how many times you see it. Bordwell wrote, “the sight of Eve Kendall dangling from Mount Rushmore will elicit some degree of suspense no matter how many times you’ve seen North by Northwest, and that feeling will be amplified by the cutting, the close-ups, the music, and so on. Your sensory system can’t help but respond, just as it can’t help seeing equal-length lines in the pictorial illusion. For some part of you, every viewing of a movie is the first viewing.” Consider these images.

First, North by Northwest:

I love this. Here's a shot from Saboteur:

And Vertigo:

Below, the camera famously zooms out (toward wide angle) while tracking in. Note Scotty's (James Stewart) hands on the railing and how the railing changes shape as the focal length changes from the first photo to the second photo. Although you wouldn’t write camera angles, you can certainly write about a character’s changing perspective of his/her environment for whatever reason.

Not long ago, an artist did a
practice exercise of storyboarding the opening sequence in Vertigo (below). I wonder if it would be helpful for us to write out our favorite scenes and compare them to the finished scripts? Would we learn that we tend to over-write or under-write?



Anonymous said...

I was supposed to write my own take on suspense for the blog-a-thon, but got sidetracked with a script.

Anyways, I was presenting two contrasting examples. One was a scene from Halloween. And it plays into your audience acknowledgement. It was the scene where Laurie (Jamie Lee Curtis) decides to check on her friend across the street and the very simple walk from one house to the other. It's nailbiting and terrifying and all it is is a character crossing the street.

The other goes against the idea of audience awareness and it's a scene in Training Day where Jake (Ethan Hawke) is playing cards with the gangbangers in the kitchen. We know as much as Jake does, yet the scene is gutwrenchingly tense, just for the sheer intimidation the characters present.

I came to the conclusion that suspense is all about tapping into that knee jerk reaction of wanting to pull your feet up from the floor because there's a shark in the water on screen. It's primal and it's a teasing of your senses, to push you to breaking point. Ultimately when a movie is suspenseful it's truly engaging you and isn't that what every filmmaker wants? To engage its audience.

I've loved reading this blog-a-thon. I'm just sorry I didn't finish my post for it.

Joshua James said...

Excellent article . . .

Anonymous said...

It seems like modern films can sometimes get away without giving the audience specific information.

In the opening scene of many an action film, whenever you see characters having an innocuous conversation, you know something bad's gonna happen.

Remember the business people getting on the elevator in Speed? Or in Resident Evil, for that matter?

Or, for a classier example, watch Clive Owen getting a cup of coffee in Children of Men.

Of course, I think these only work after decades of Hitchcock and his imitators. Many people may not even realize why they know something bad is going to happen.

David Alan said...

Why not have both surprise and suspense? Staying with the hypothetical...

"The bomb is under the table and the audience is aware of this because they have seen the anarchist plant it there. They also know that the bomb will go off at one o’clock, and up on the wall is a clock showing that the time is now quarter to one [...]."

Only the bomb doesn’t go off at one o’ clock. We get nervous laughter. Maybe it was a dud? We start to relax. Then we catch up with the antagonist existing the building, checking his watch...

"...suddenly there is a loud boom and the bomb goes off..."

His watch shows its one o’ clock, which would reveal the other clocks were fast. Maybe he set them forward as a cruel joke? Who knows?

Fun stuff, huh?

But, yeah, I was trying to say relatively the same thing in my article. A lot of things have to go right in order to achieve tension. Maybe next time I won’t ramble so damn much.

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