Movie Making Tips: Creating Tension & Suspense

Suspense In Movies

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What follows are some tips on how to create tension and suspense in movies.

I am creating an indie movie at the moment and these are tips I’ve found after trawling various resources, including Hitchcock tips and tips from various other sources. I’ve weeded out the weak tips to give a list of some of the strongest tips possible.

1) Stalling

Keep unanswered questions whirling around in your audience’s mind. Don’t immediately give an answer to a mystery. Instead, delay the answer to build tension in the viewer’s mind by leaving questions temporarily unanswered.

Example: In ‘Cabin In The Woods’ you see a research facility, but exactly what part a research facility will have on a group of friends’ camping trip isn’t answered until 30 minutes into the movie. 

2) Unexpected Twists

Never have the plot or ending unfold the way the audience expects. Add unexpected twists to the plot and shatter your audience’s confidence in them being able to predict anything correctly in your movie.

Example: In ‘Alien’ the fact that there is a synthetic aboard comes as a surprise to the audience and the main character after an action instead of the fact appearing in dialogue.

3) Show Dangers To Your Audience In Advance

Focus on and show any dangers not yet seen by the characters in your story. Show the danger at the beginning of the scene before whatever it is does any harm to your character. Focus back and forth to that object a few times. Put the stress in your audience’s mind first. They will be unnerved that they can see it but that the character is unaware.

Example: In ‘Jaws’ the audience sees the shark fin and the danger approaching whilst the swimmer remains unaware.

4) Have Several Events Happening Simutaneously

Whilst something nail biting is happening, mix it up by having something trivial happen to interrupt the focus of the character on the important event. For example, if a character is in the middle of disposing of a murder weapon, have an old friend call by.

Example: In ‘Savages’ the two main characters have to deliver a shipment of drugs, but a police car behind them puts on his siren, then overtakes them to go elsewhere.

5) Using Time

Have something happen that is time critical in a scene or running through the plot. Such as a murderer trying to open a door whilst the character is trying to find a way out through the back window which is stuck fast.

Example: In ‘Taken’ the main character has to find his daughter before she is shipped off into danger.

6) Breaking Cliches + Unexpected Behaviour

If it’s a drug baron, don’t have a tattooed Mexican with a moustache for a drug baron, have a pianist who is good with a knife instead, for example. Something out of the norm and not a cliche character. Also, have your character behave in ways not expected by the audience. For example, having a serial killer who injects humour into his crimes, or a hit man that is apologetic and sympathetic up to a point.

Example: In ‘No Country For Old Men’ the killer never shows any aggression emotionally but kills in a calm, precise and matter-of-fact way.

7) Don’t over-complicate the story

If the plot is complex and difficult to grasp, your audience will be concentrating on trying to work out what’s going on, rather than focusing on tension and suspense.

Example: In ‘The Grey’ the plot is simple: after a plane crash they must survive against a pack of wolves. Leaving the audience to soak up the atmosphere and situation instead of trying to keep up with a complex story.

8) Show Emotional Reactions Close Up

When there is an emotional reaction, go from a wide shot to a close up on an emotional reaction. This will startle the audience and also make the emotion dominant in the scene.

* Start with a close up on your character.

* Then cut to whatever they are focusing on.

* Then cut back to your character to show their emotional reaction.

* Repeat these three steps as many times as needed.

The audience will never tire of this method as it builds tension and draws the audience in.

9) Reactions Not Dialogue

Wherever you can, don’t have the speaker spout a load of dialogue about how they feel. Have an event happen, then go close up on the character to get their reaction emotionally. This speaks louder than words and is more powerful than dialogue explanations.

Example: In ‘Saving Private Ryan, when the German soldier had a knife coming closer to his victim, close ups of the characters and strange emotion is involved instead of the two characters chatting away to each other, which made the scene disturbing. The German soldier makes strange ‘shushing’ sounds as rocking him to sleep which was bizarre, different and a genius when it comes to contrast.

10) Distractions In Dialogue Scenes

Have the character distracted by something in a dialogue scene, however major or minor it might be. Such as when noticing someone’s hand is shaking when they otherwise appear confident. Or a suspicious character sat behind them.

Example: In ‘Savages’ when they negotiate with the rival drugs gang, the character’s attention was half upon the snipers that he had positioned to cover them.

11) Divide Action Shots Into A Series Of Close Ups

If you have a fight scene for example, rapid close ups of key parts of the fight, such as a knife being drawn, the knife getting closer to the victims eye and a close up of the eyes of the attacker, then of the victim’s eyes is far more effective than shooting it entirely with a wide shot. Parts of the action can be hidden from the audience this way to either keep them guessing or to add a twist. Such as a fight where the victim looks past the first attacker and at the ending a second attacker is shown standing over them at the end – perhaps someone totally unexpected. The attacker’s daughter with a loaded shotgun perhaps.

Example: In ‘Taken’ when his daughter is taken there are close ups of her trying to make a phone call under the bed where she was hiding and just a shot of the aggressor’s shoes and his voice. Leaving parts of the struggle up to the viewer’s imagination and leaving space for her father to examine damage done to the room to try and figure out what happened later on.

12) Use Your Audience’s Imagination

Just like the famous ‘Psycho’ shower scene, show violence in quick, edited and stressful succession, but don’t show all the violence. Your audience’s imagination will think up of more horrific things than you could ever produce. The same goes for ghosts; how often has a ghost movie really gripped you until you actually see the ghost? No doubt the ghost in your mind was much more scarier than what the movie producer’s horror make up or special effects department came up with.

Example: In ‘Jaws’ you don’t see the shark or the shark biting the victim half the time. You only see through the shark’s eyes and a blood bath with screams, leaving the grisly details to the viewer’s imagination.

13) Stir Up Your Audience’s Emotions

If your audience identifies with a character and feels for them they become drawn in as if they were a part of that character. In ‘Psycho’ a violent scene was shown early on to build tension in an already shocked audience as to whether this kind of violence would happen again in the movie.

Example: In ‘Fight Club’ you identify with a vulnerable character being taken in by a wayward character and feel sorry for him. Up until the point where you realise that the two characters are in fact the same person.

14) Using Slight Doubt

Don’t answer a plot question as cut and dried. Always leave a seed of doubt in a grey area. For example, if one of the characters committed suicide but didn’t leave a suicide note, this would leave the question of whether it was in fact a murder and not a suicide as a possible factor. Make it subtle however, as your audience will get annoyed if they are bombarded with obvious red herrings. Subtlety is the key here.

Example: In the classic 80s series ‘Sapphire & Steel’ they always appear to be doing someone a service, but you never quite trust them. I can’t even put my finger on why I never trusted them, but this made the series so popular. It’s still a creepy series today because of this fact.

15) Using Immediacy

Having something that really needs to be done or a question that really needs to be answered will add tension. For example, if a laid back detective is looking for a killer it’s not that gripping. However, if the detective has some personal connection with the killer and feels it’s his duty to find him as soon as possible, it creates immediacy which rubs off on the audience. Having dire consequences sure to happen if your character does not reach their goal, such as a victim dying if not reached in time etc. This will make the immediacy even more heightened.

Example: In ‘Total Recall’ the character really needs to find out his true identity because his sanity depends on it.

16) Build Expectation

Make sure the audience knows that something is going to happen most of the time and then delay that event and focus on suspense leading up to it. For instance, if there was a ghost in a bathroom, have the shower mysteriously turn on first and the character slowly walking to open the shower curtain. The audience know something will happen, but the tension leading up to the event will create worse pictures in their mind’s eye. Remember that the audience’s imagination will always be more powerful than anything on screen.

Example: In ‘No Country For Old Men’ the killer turns up at a gas station and questions an old man who the audience identifies with as a nice guy. He flips a coin and you are expecting it to be heads for a kill or tails for a no kill. In the end, nothing happens but the tension build up is genius.’

17) Have An Strong Enemy

Have a strong enemy that your character must go up against. Make sure the enemy is a lot stronger than the character to create tension. Have your character figure out a way to defeat that enemy only at the very end. In fact, make it look almost impossible for your character to defeat the enemy to start with.

Example: In ‘Iron Man 1’ his partner creates a suit that is bigger and stronger than the one the character has built and you are left wondering just how he will defeat his enemy.

 18) Conflict & Contrast

Create conflict and contrast wherever you can in the movie. Such as the character going up against opposition or being confronted with dilemmas etc.

Example in the new ‘Total Recall’ movie the character’s wife and friends disagree with him going to the have memories implanted, but the character goes against this.’

19) Close Ups Of Importance

If there is something important in the movie, be it an old book on the desk, or a sword about to be picked up, show it as a close up shot to make sure your audience sees it first. That way, in the back of the audience’s mind they will think ‘That’s going to come into play somewhere along the line here, I wonder how?’ and they will know the object and it will feel more real to them. If they are not familiar with the object, tension may be thwarted by the viewer thinking ‘What is that, oh, it’s an old book I think’.

Example: In ‘Iron Man’ when a missile lands close to him it is shown up close as having ‘Stark Industries’ written on it. This is much more powerful than having the character say something like . . . ‘Oh no, it’s my own missile!’

20) Unfairness

Have something completely unfair pop up at least once in the movie. If possible, against a character that the audience is rooting for and identifies with. You could have  a character lied to, double-crossed or ripped off for example. This builds up tension in the audience as they will really want to see the tables turned and for the character to eventually gain the upper hand. Make sure your character gets revenge, as otherwise your audience will retain that stress after the movie ends and be disappointed at not seeing good overcome bad. They may even hate your movie because of it.

Example: In ‘Savages’ the Mexican drug lords’ henchman does not get his comeuppance. This left me feeling disappointed as I wanted to see that evil guy get a taste of his own medicine. It didn’t happen . . . and that didn’t leave me with a feel good feeling when I left the cinema. So if you plant unfairness into your audiences mind, make sure it is resolved before the final rolling credits.


Article by Kevin Baker


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