Elements of Suspense (1)

“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)

It’s all about how well you handle not only the characters
but also basic plot information.

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.

You have to set up the characters and
make the audience care about them and hope they won’t die.

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.

We ask how plausible certain outcomes are
and how morally worthy they are.

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.

THE TICKING CLOCK

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.”

He had “just minutes left” to save either Rachel or Dent.

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.

There’s little devotion to details today
to make scenes like this great.

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.

(part 2 you can find here)

- Mystery Man

I’m famous yet anonymous, failed yet accomplished, brilliant yet semi-brilliant. I’m a homebody who jetsets around the world. I’m brash and daring yet chilled with a twist.

I also write for Script Magazine.


4 Comments

  1. Steve May 10, 2010 at 11:34 pm #

    Another good article, Mystery Man. Nice work.
    I’ll keep a eye out for part 2.

  2. Dave Cebrero May 11, 2010 at 7:59 am #

    Great stuff! Can’t wait till part 2.

    • Karel Segers May 11, 2010 at 11:11 am #

      Another week, fellows. Another week.

      Unbearable, isn’t it, the suspense… ;)

  3. guest April 17, 2012 at 12:37 am #

    ……………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………..BOOM!!! suspense

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