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How To Write Suspense

Suspense is what all successful fiction needs in order to keep the audience interested. It is a feeling of pleasurable fascination as well as excitement mixed with apprehension, tension and anxiety generated from an unexpected, mysterious and rousing source of entertainment.

If you have ever read a book or screenplay that gets your heart pounding, fingertips moist, gets you on the edge of your seat, and eager to intervene and help out the protagonist, then the writer has done a good job of creating suspense.

If this continues until the last page, then he has done a great job in maintaining the suspense, which is also important. However, it is one of the biggest challenges faced by writers. Below are some tips on how to create suspense:

Use time to increase tension

This is one of the most important factors to consider when creating suspense. There should be a target in the future that continues to loom. You can call this sort of a “ticking clock”.

The clock should be working against the protagonist while in favor of the bad guys. Any time the protagonist is on the verge of coming out victorious something would occur in the antagonist’s favor.

Every time this occurs, the burner under the reader’s seat is increased and this is the key with how to write suspense.

Time constraints

By giving your characters a deadline or a limited time frame in which to achieve their goals, you can add a sense of urgency and increase the tension. This could be a race against the clock to prevent a disaster, or a time limit on solving a mystery.

In the movie Minority Report, the police use psychic technology in order to arrest and convict murderers before they commit a crime. The lead detective, played by Tom Cruise, is accused of killing a man he’s never even met and must race against time while being chased by the entire department to solve and prevent the incident from happening — otherwise he goes to prison. This is a great example of a ticking clock.


Use flash backs or flash-forwards

Jumping back and forth between different time periods can be a useful way to build suspense and reveal information to the reader. For example, you could use flashbacks to show the characters’ pasts and how they relate to the present, or use flash-forwards to hint at future events. We’ve seen this done now in lots of successful movies.

In Godfather part 2, during a part of the story when Michael Corleone had to make some major decisions that would impact the future of “the family,” he reminisced back to a time before he became a ruthless mobster.

This gave the audience more context and understanding into why he made the decisions that he did going forward.


Create anticipation

By hinting at future events or mysteries, you can create a sense of anticipation and build suspense for the reader. This could be through foreshadowing or by leaving open-ended questions that the audience is eager to have answered.


Make Use of Pressure

As everything turns out in the antagonist’s favor, the task faced by the protagonist should be created to seem like a nearly impossible task to surmount.

His strengths should be stretched to its maximum, or at least to a point that would make him bend but never buckle under the pressure applied by the antagonist.

Giving the antagonist or villain the upper hand will always keep the audience guessing “how are they going to get out of this situation?” and it’s your job to show them the best and most entertaining way possible.

Take John McLaine from the Die Hard franchise for example. How many times have we been entertained by watching him get in over his head scene after scene?


Give the Reader a Foresight

The viewpoints of both the protagonist and antagonist should be made known to the reader. Through this, the reader gets to see the danger coming the protagonist’s way in which he is unaware.

Thereby increasing the tension as well as anxiety of the reader, making him wish he could jump in to warn the protagonist or prevent the danger altogether.

Be Unpredictable

Being predictable makes for a boring story. The protagonist’s steps to success should come at a price but the antagonist’s path should not be made so smooth either.

Life can be so unpredictable and applying this in your screenplay makes the whole story more relatable for the readers. The reader may have an idea about how the story is going to end but does not mean they should know how it would get there.

Have you seen the movie The Departed starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Matt Damon? If not, don’t watch the clip below, but if so, you’ll remember the famous elevator scene in the third act of the movie. Classic example of being unpredictable.


Make Use of Dilemmas

An important way of creating suspense is through the use of dilemmas. However, this should apply to both the protagonist and antagonist. According to the nature of the antagonist, a decision would be made without much fuss due to his selfish ego.

The dilemmas facing the protagonist should put him in a position between the deep blue sea and the devil as he is the contrasting character.

Dilemmas need time to be solved and coupled with the pressure of time constraints, tension and anxiety is generated.

Expectations

One of the facts in life is that we all wonder if we could live up to the expectations around us.

Create tension through what others expect of your protagonist or main character. Can he live up to this or is he just another coward?

In the movie Silence of the Lambs, the protagonist (Clarice Starling) has a past of what some of her peers may consider “white trash”. She struggles to put her West Virginia roots behind her after graduating and works within the Behavioral Science Unit within the FBI.

As a trainee she gets assigned to interview and extract insight from a former well respected psychiatrist and manipulative serial killer serving time. In exchange for his insight, she has to open herself up emotionally to him…and there’s the rub. She’s vulnerable and as he gets inside her head it becomes hard to tell who is playing who.

This opportunity Clarice has could be a career boost, or innocent victims could die because she couldn’t get over herself. Will she face her internal struggle or will she be used as a pawn in a larger game of cat and mouse?


Test Your Character

You should test your main character from time to time as this is an immediate tension builder. This refinement process is how to write suspense that actually works.

This should be done without giving the audience any clue of what is coming. This makes the screenplay a lot more interesting, creative as well as relatable.

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Jay Carver

Jay Carver is a screenwriter, director and producer. Through his production company J-Style Films, he has done work for companies such as Turner Broadcasting. In the past, he has worked with Hollywood actor Omari Hardwick and won several film festivals including "Best Director".

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