By Ian Long
It isn't really a trick question, but the most important ingredient of suspense is the one thing we should always have in mind when writing screenplays:
In other words, we need to care about - or at least empathise with - the character at the centre of the narrative, who is the subject of the suspense.
(Successful screenwriting is almost always about making yourself go back to basic principles).
Misery - an example of empathetic identification
In MISERY (1990, directed by Rob Reiner, script by William Goldman, from the novel by Stephen King) there's only a very short time to sketch in Paul Sheldon's character before he's kidnapped by Annie Wilkes.
But the filmmakers manage to give us enough clues for us to read his character and see him as someone we are willing to identify with.
* Paul is an accomplished, successful novelist, which adds charisma.
* He has high aspirations and isn't driven by profit; he wants to stop writing the successful 'Misery' series and do something more creative.
* He has a good working relationship with his female agent, who clearly likes him.
* He's caring (he wants to see his family in time for Christmas).
* The hotel manager speaks well of him (we often judge people by how they deal with those in 'subordinate' positions).
* He's handsome and well-dressed - but not fussily so.
After the accident (which later turns out to have been deliberately staged by Kathy), there are further reasons for identification and empathy:
* Crucially, Paul hasn't become a victim through greed or stupidity, or a bad decision; anyone in his position would have suffered the same fate.
* He's badly injured and disoriented.
* He's at the mercy of someone who is powerful, unpredictable and terrifying.
* Soon after we've met him, he has become very vulnerable.
* He employs great resolve and ingenuity to deal with his situation
So when suspense is applied to his attempts to escape from Annie, we're "in there with him" - our emotions are fully engaged, and we're not just watching from a position of detached interest.
FIND OUT ALL ABOUT SUSPENSE HERE!
Although emotion, empathy and identification are the basic preconditions for suspense, there is much more to learn about this crucial aspect of storytelling.
And you can do this at our SUSPENSE IN STORIES workshop.
DATE AND TIME
Sunday 15 April
Registration - 10.15
10.30am - 5.30pm
40 Percival Street
Nearest tube: Angel
Click here to see a map.
Click here for more, and to book.
The workshop examines the changing techniques of suspense as they apply to many genres, and to films, TV series, and novels.
The Tutor - Ian Long
I'm a screenwriter, script editor and Euroscript's Head of Consultancy. I teach workshops in various genres (Neo Noir, Horror, Science Fiction) as well as Suspense in Stories and Creating Fear in Films.
THE ONLY PLACE TO TALK ABOUT THE CRAFT OF SCRIPTWRITING.