Mark Tapio Kines is the author of Screenwriting Fundamentals, an online course on Lynda.com. He has written and directed two features, and is the first filmmaker to ever use crowdfunding to finance his work. Mark can be reached at his production company’s site, http://www.cassavafilms.com.
In my Lynda course, I bring up the word “suspense” all the time. Yet it seems that most people still think of it only as a genre. If I say a film is suspenseful, you might assume that I’m talking about a thriller.
But “suspense” isn’t a genre any more than “originality” or “unpredictability” are genres. It is, instead, a quality of good storytelling. All well-written dramatic narrative films – and this includes romantic comedies, family dramas, science fiction, you name it – are fundamentally suspenseful.
I say this because this is how I define suspense: It’s the state of mind of wanting to know what happens next. So your goal as a screenwriter is to keep your audience in suspense.
This sounds like elementary stuff. But I’ve read a lot of unproduced scripts, and I feel that many of today’s screenwriters are dismissing the importance of suspense. Sometime during the last few years, “story-driven” became synonymous with “formulaic”. As a result, indie filmmakers began focusing more on their characters’ backstories than on their present-day conflicts. Here’s what I often see: 120-page scripts that mostly consist of five or six very long talky scenes. Boy and girl meet cute, date, have a fight, break up, and then get back together or move on with their lives. The End. And that’s it. A ten minute story stretched out to two hours.
Adding suspense will enliven your story. Here’s a few basic shortcuts that can make your script more engaging without sacrificing any of its integrity.
There’s no suspense if your characters have nothing to do. So first you have to give them goals. Then you make them go out and try to achieve those goals. And then come the obstacles.
An obstacle is anything that stands in the way of a character’s goal. The more obstacles your story has, the more your characters get to do. And the harder those obstacles are for your characters to overcome, the more suspenseful your script will be.
Let’s say your hero is driving to work. Nothing suspenseful about that. So to make his journey more difficult, you let a tree fall onto the road, blocking his way. Now your hero has an obstacle to deal with. Dramatic storytelling isn’t him feeling sad about the tree. Dramatic storytelling is showing him trying to get around that tree. Obstacles can also lead to other obstacles. If your hero breaks his leg while trying to move the tree, suddenly his boring old commute has become high drama, and now you’re writing something really interesting.
Of course, obstacles don’t mean much if the stakes aren’t very high. I’ll get to that in a second.
But first, remember that the best obstacles in dramatic storytelling are actually other characters. Let’s say your hero needs help with something, and another person is reluctant to provide that help. That’s a fantastic obstacle, because now your hero has to figure out how to get this person on his side.
And don’t forget antagonists, who I like to call “obstacles with their own agendas”. They aren’t just villains; they can be ordinary people who, for their own reasons, do not want the protagonist to succeed. (If your hero is a jewel thief, for example, then even the nicest police officer in the world is, dramatically speaking, an antagonist.)
One funny thing about screenwriters is that we almost always notice when the stakes aren’t high enough in someone else’s script, but we tend to forget to set our own stories’ stakes very high.
High stakes increase suspense. But that doesn’t mean you have to put lives on the line in every scene of your script. Here’s the best and simplest way you can raise your stakes: Establish something that’s really important to a character, then put that thing at risk. It could be their marriage, their social status, their empire, a favorite toy… whatever you want. But put it at risk – constantly, all throughout your script, if possible.
Let’s go back to the example of your poor hero just trying to get to work. If it’s an ordinary workday, then the tree blocking the road may be nothing more than an annoyance. But that decreases suspense, and you don’t want that. So you make it clear that it’s not an ordinary workday. Let’s say your hero has to deliver an extremely important presentation. Or he has to get to the office before their rival spills a dirty secret about him. Or he’s been late too many times already, and he’ll lose his job if he blows it again.
In other words, you’ve defined this job as being something really important to your hero, and now you’ve put that job at risk by blocking your hero’s way to work. You’ve taken an ordinary situation and increased the suspense tenfold. Your audience will be dying to know what happens next!
The Ticking Clock
The “ticking clock” is another great shortcut to suspense, and it can take many forms. The obvious one is the countdown timer on the time bomb. But even if your script doesn’t feature a literal time bomb – and let’s face it, most don’t – there are some great variations. A character can be a ticking clock: Imagine someone who’s off his meds. If he doesn’t take them by a certain time, something really bad is going to happen. There’s your ticking clock. (Also, you’ve just established some nice high stakes.) Now add some obstacles that make it nearly impossible for him to get to his meds in time, and you’ve got great suspense.
A ticking clock is often a deadline that characters have no control over. They must submit to it. We experience such deadlines every day, from routine matters – like when we try to rush through an intersection before the light turns red – to more crucial situations, like getting through airport security before our flight leaves. We’re all slaves to time, in one way or another. The characters in your script should be as well. There are loads of believable, relevant deadlines that you can choose from to make their lives more dramatic.
If I were a physics teacher, I might come up with some sort of formula for all this, like:
Character’s Goal + Obstacle x Stakes ÷ Ticking Clock = Suspense
But I think you get the idea. You don’t have to cram all of the above in every single scene of your script. But if your story is stagnating, and you’ve got a good twenty pages before your next big plot twist, don’t just opt for a few long scenes where your characters talk about their feelings. Give them something to do, and a reason to do it. Add an obstacle or two that they’ll need to overcome. Put them in a situation where the clock is ticking. Raise the stakes by putting something they love at risk.