3 Basic Steps for Building Suspense in Your Screenplay

by Jeffrey Michael Bays (@BorgusFilm)

If someone were to say that they love your latest script, but it could use more suspense, what would you do? Suspense is a part of the storytelling craft that has traditionally been left to mysteries and thrillers. I’ve been saying for a while that any genre, including romantic comedy, can benefit from suspense. In fact, I use the romantic comedy You’ve Got Mail as an example of suspense in my book.

If your script does happen to be a romantic comedy, the suggestion of adding suspense may throw you for a loop. Lucky for you, I’ve boiled it down to three basic suspense-building steps that are guaranteed to keep your next audience riveted.

STEP 1 – SHARE A SECRET WITH THE AUDIENCE

Suspense really isn’t about knives, screams, and chases. It’s more about provoking your audience into getting involved. It’s about connecting with your audience, making them care, making them so involved in your story that they want to reach into the screen and help. You want them to be so enthralled by your story that they forget about Facebook and desperately follow every turn of your plot.

The easiest way to do this is to play upon a secret. Your protagonist knows a secret. This secret can be anything – a hidden pregnancy, trespassing on private property, or knowledge of a crime, etc. If this secret gets out to any of the other characters, it spells certain doom for their outcome.

Bring the audience into this secret. Make them feel privileged to have this private access to the protagonist. Then you can begin to play upon the prospect of the secret getting out and protagonist getting caught.

STEP 2 – TEASE WITH CLOSE-CALLS

Once you involve them in this dangerous secret, tease the audience about this secret getting out. This is where you write a close-call moment, where the protagonist forced to lie about the secret to another character who is very close to catching on. This lie provokes the viewer. We feel special, and our bond with the protagonist rises.

The key to increasing suspense is to milk this moment. Dance as close as possible to “getting caught,” but hold back at the last minute. This tease makes the audience anticipate and hang on, waiting for the excruciating inevitability, hoping that the secret will go undiscovered.

At the last minute, the danger goes away, and the secret is safe for now. The audience breathes a sigh of relief, and maybe even a giggle, that the protagonist has gotten away with it.

Close-call moments like these can be repeated. Each time the audience is pulled deeper and deeper into the protagonist’s situation. It becomes so real for us that we feel the urge to reach in. For some reason that kind of audience provocation is highly entertaining. It’s the same as jumping to your feet while watching your favorite football team get close to scoring.

In the gambling world there’s a psychological phenomenon called the Near Miss Effect. When a gambler sees three lemons lining up on a slot machine, but the third lemon spins away leaving only two, the gambler experiences a near miss. They believe they are now on a winning streak, and they try harder to win the next time. Psychologically they become addicted.

Just like the gambler gets addicted to their winning streak in the game of slots, you want your audience to become addicted to your story. Close-call moments get them hooked. How many do you need? You can write a couple of close-calls in Act 1, or several throughout your entire movie. The important thing is that eventually you do provide closure in a twist – the sleight of hand.

STEP 3 – FOOL THEM WITH A SLEIGHT OF HAND

Relieving the audience after a long and entertaining dance of close-calls is important. Somehow the danger should permanently subside by the end of your movie, otherwise the audience will feel like they’ve wasted their time.

But, Hitchcock said, “The bomb must never go off.” What he meant by that is that if you’ve led your audience to believe the bomb will go off, you must surprise them with a twist so that the bomb doesn’t. If the expected outcome actually happens, the viewer will feel cheated. They’ll never watch your movie again.

It’s exactly like a magician, convincing you that the coin is in his left hand and then opening it to reveal an empty hand. If the coin appears in the hand as expected – that’s no trick! In the same way, movie audiences want to be tricked after being held in suspense. If you surprise them with a clever sleight of hand in the end, they’ll love you for it.

~

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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