Suspense: The Joy of Making Things Go Wrong

by Jeffrey Michael Bays (@BorgusFilm)

Incompetent characters and failed technology are common ways to playfully frustrate the audience in a suspenseful moment. The most suspenseful Hitchcock scenes are moments where no one helps, and the audience is reminded that they are also unable to help. We are forced to watch and wait – in suspense.

In episode five of HBO’s Room 104 (“The Internet”), director Doug Emmett does this beautifully. Anish (Karan Soni) is on an important business trip and has left his laptop with a career-saving Word file at home. In a desperate attempt to retrieve the file, he summons his mother (Poorna Jagannathan) by phone and steps her through the process. What seems like a good idea goes horribly wrong as his mother, not tech savvy, fumbles around and accidentally deletes the file.

When writing suspense, a key element is provoking the audience to reach in to save the hero from impending danger. The audience, of course, immediately realizes they can’t do anything to change the events on the flat movie screen. Somehow, though, this provocation is highly entertaining.

In my new book, Suspense With a Camera, I use the example of a man walking a tight rope. It’s not the rope that causes suspense, or even the prospect of falling. Only when the man wobbles and looks like he’s actually going to fall – that’s the moment of suspense. It triggers a rescue instinct within us. We want to jump in and catch him.

When his mother in Room 104 accidently deletes the text while copying it to the clipboard, Anish tries to carefully coach her into pasting it back in. She instead wants to just turn the computer off, which would erase it. It’s so suspenseful that we want to reach in and do it for her. “Just paste it back in!” we yell at the screen.

As helpless bystanders, viewers are forced to watch an inevitable crisis unfold, anticipating that the incompetent character will suddenly wise up. Following in Hitchcock’s footsteps, Emmett intentionally plays upon this, teasing the audience relentlessly. This tease simultaneously heightens our involvement in the story.

As if the situation in Room 104 isn’t suspenseful enough, the story is set in 1998, adding technological foibles to an already gripping situation. Anish’s mother is dealing with floppy disks and a complicated dial-up modem which she just can’t figure out. This primitive system of computing makes us giggle, along with her endearing pessimistic attitude toward Anish.

The episode creates a delightfully frustrating dance of unpredictable characters and flawed technology. If only we could step in and teach them how to use Dropbox! Room 104 delightfully frustrates. This frustration, which is simultaneously a fun sensation, is the key to heightening suspense.


Jeffrey Michael Bays is a writer, indie filmmaker, and YouTuber known as the “Hitchcock Whisperer.” His new book, Suspense With a Camera, guides screenwriters and filmmakers on a clear path through the sometimes confusing territory of suspense. Bays also created the award-winning Not From Space on XM Satellite Radio (2003).

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