Filmmaking 101: Top 5 Tips Writers can use to Build Suspense

Woman holding lantern next to brick wall

Filmmaking 101: Top 5 Tips Writers can use to Build Suspense

A shadowy figure passes behind the hero in a dimly lit parking garage. The doorknob of a locked room turns back and forth. A mysterious package is slowly opened. When making a film, building suspense draws the audience in as they wait to see what happens next.

What are the Top Tips Writers can use to Build Suspense?

While the editor uses their deft sense of story, timing, and tension to achieve that final effect, you need to give them all of the necessary building blocks. The right story, scenes, and shots need to be on point to make that jump scare or slow burn really pay off.

1. Control the Film, Control the Scene

One of the easiest ways to build suspense is through sound. It could be a low, pulsing score, loud punk film in a club, or halting, twinkling, off-kilter piano keys at the highest octave. It can dominate the scene or merely serve as a backdrop, but film is one of the most effective ways to toy with the audience’s attention.

2. Build Emotion Through Your Actors

Used to great effect in the Blair Witch Project, focusing on the face of your protagonist and how they’re reacting to their environment can tell your audience everything they need to know about their situation. A darting eye after hearing footsteps, a hand slowly moving to a light switch, a barely audible sigh letting out a slow stream of frozen breath. These closeups are a more aggressive—and altogether original—way to build suspense.

3. Take it to the Extreme

By doing something other than the “norm,” you can introduce a new feel, a new emotion to a scene. Using a massive wide shot to force the audience to frantically scan the entire room will put them on edge. Conversely, focusing the camera on the back of the actor’s head as they slowly begin to unravel a mystery can be just as maddening. These out-of-the-ordinary moves, used in collaboration with a standard-issue scene can keep your audience off-balance.

4. Use the Entire Shot

Suspense doesn’t have to be built in a shoebox, either. We’re all familiar with the foot chase that starts in a building of some sort (hotel, restaurant, etc.) and ends up careening into a crowded downtown street. Whether the hero is scanning the busy sidewalk looking for his quarry or doing his best to blend in and avoid capture, these wide, frantic scenes are tried and true when it comes to adding friction.

These shots are ultimately more difficult to film, forcing you to block the scene, create a foreground, background, and middle ground action, as well as ensure your actors know where they need to be. Think of the opening chase scene in Casino Royale: Not only are we unsure Bond will get the bad guy, but we’re also not entirely sure he’ll survive the chase. Of course, we know he will, but it still gets the heart pumping.

5. Take Your Time

It may take a single bead of sweat trickling down the forehead of the hero, a quick shot of a supernatural being, or the building crescendo of the score to really put your audiences on the edge of their seat. But never forget these few sections of action are part of something larger—you need to build to these moments throughout your film.

Don’t be in a hurry to get to the payoff. Every movie has an internal rhythm and there’s no reason to amp up the action if it’s unwarranted. Most suspense is built in the editing room, but the editor can only work with the shots you’ve given them. Whether it’s slowing your actors down, letting the camera linger for a few more beats, or adding a few moments of tension-building silence, take the time you need so that you have the shots you need to build optimal suspense.

Take that tempo into the editing room, too. Although it may feel like you have to push the pace to reward the audience, oftentimes the opposite is true. Go back to the feeling you had when you were shooting the film or doing that first read of the script and bring it back throughout the editing process. When building suspense, take a holistic view of the entire scene, followed by a holistic view of the whole movie. That tension and suspense should ratchet up, scene by scene, act by act.

Use the tools and talents at your disposal to make a film that’ll have them sitting on the edge of their seats. The Others made open drapes in the middle of the day creepy. How will you build suspense in your film?

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