About 'Suspense' in Movies

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Yesterday I came up with an interesting discussion at the screenwriting session with a II-Year Direction student, Sujith and Mr. K Hariharan, CEO & Director of the Prasad Academy. Sujith wanted to know how to develop and write suspense in screenplays.

Even before joining L V Prasad Film and TV Academy to learn direction, Sujith had already ventured to his credit about 30 plus shorts in various genres, and I was pretty impressed by his conviction and fervent approach in making films, with his all-pervading ‘Handy-cam’.

And Sujith wanted to know the elements of suspense-building in movies. I think it’s a wonderful topic for aspiring screenwriters to discuss about.

What is Suspense?

“Suspense is made up of curiosity and delay.” Philip Gerard (Author Secret Soldier -www.philipgerard.com). And John Gardner, the famous American Novelist (Art of Fiction)says: “In serious fiction, the highest kind of suspense involves the Sartrian anguish of choice; that is, our suspenseful concern is not just with what will happen but with the ‘moral implications’ of action.”

From both the comments I infer one underlying thing: creating an emotional propaganda, in the audience; and with the characters. How do we prepare this ‘curiosity and delay’ with the ‘moral implications’ of actions? Are there any rules? Can we really convert a suspense scene that’s not working to a masterpiece?

If we need to discuss about suspense-building, I think we need to discuss about Alfred Hitchcock (1899-1980) first – the master-promoter, the master practitioner. Hitchcock was not the first, or the only one to use suspense in movies but he developed a ‘pattern’ for implementing suspense that worked so well that it is still revered as the best examples of the use of suspense. [Sinyard, Neil: “The Films of Alfred Hitchcock”. England (1994). Multimedia Books Limited. ISBN: 1-85395-179-0.]

In Hitchcock’s own words: “There is a clear difference between surprise and suspense […]. We are sitting here and having an innocent conversation. Let’s 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 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.” [Hitchcock, Alfred: “Let ‘Em Play God” in: Gottlieb, Sidney (ed.): “Hitchcock on Hitchcock”. England, 1995. Faber and Faber Limited. ISBN: 0-571-19136-3]

Suspense is an emotional development in the audience by patterns that specifically plays of the ‘difference’ of gathered information between the audience and the characters on the screen.

Will the protagonist diffuse the bomb before it goes off (Peacemaker)? Will the Heroine arrive at the right space of time to save her daughter from the perilous incarceration (Not Without My Daughter)? Will the Boy achieve the deserving respect and acclamation of his particular talent, which was long pending (Taare Zameen Par)?

This’s where the audience knowledge plays the part. We know the facts the characters in the film do not know. We go through inexplicable stress because we know we cannot help the characters who don’t know what’s going to happen to them.

And if we become that concerned about the characters, and worry about what’s going to happen to them, then we should possibly like and care about them (likeability factor). At the same time a sense of urgency has to be set on to the audience’s mind, also a suggestive impact measure instilled into the audiences’ imagination as for the outcome of what’s going to happen to the characters. In his blog [Observations on Film Art, 7 March, 2007] David Bordell the famous Film Theorist and Academician, University of Wisconsin, Madison explains about suggestive impact measure.

A good reading material is “Theorizing the Moving Image” [Series – Cambridge Studies in Film - ISBN-B: 9780521466073] by Noël Carroll, philosopher and author, where we find how we relate suspense as we ‘spontaneously’ estimate morally objectionable outcomes that are ‘necessarily impending’. This moral consciousness binds us to a lesser suspense, when the antagonist is likely to fail or the protagonist is likely to win; and a better suspense when the antagonist is likely to win and the protagonist likely to lose.

So, the elements that highlight the emotion of alarm, shock, fear, fright, horror, terror, panic, hysteria, mortification, anxiety, nervousness, tenseness, uneasiness, apprehension, worry, distress, dread all derived from the primary emotion called ‘fear’, also amazement, surprise, astonishment all derived from the primary emotion called ‘surprise’ are these:

01. The knowledge levels of audience and characters have to vary

02. The Characters have to be likeable

03. A sense of urgency has to set in

04. The audience should be given the suggestion of the impact/stake

05. A moral connotation to weigh the outcome

If these are the creative elements in the screenplay, to develop suspense in the plot or scene, the process of film making has to support this development in two specific stages:

01. Deciding the shot or deciding the frame of the shot

tzpvid2.jpg (300*129)

taare-zameen-par.jpg (480×317)

02. Editing – to augment the suspense with shrewdly marrying the visual and the music.

To surmise, real suspense comes with moral dilemma and the courage to make and act upon choices.

And to call the last quote: “Luck is everything... My good luck in life was to be a really frightened person. I'm fortunate to be a coward, to have a low threshold of fear, because a hero couldn't make a good suspense film.” - Alfred Hitchcock


Teres said...

That's very interesting to learn, John. Very informative indeed!

Post a Comment