Wednesday, August 14, 2019

Film Courage Plus: Creating Suspense

FILM COURAGE did a series of interviews with me, around 36 (or more) segments total. That's almost a year's worth of material! So why not add a new craft article and make it a weekly blog entry? All I have to do is write that new article, right?

Yesterday was Hitchcock's birthday...

Creating suspense on screen:

Keeping the audience on the edge of their seat is the function of SUSPENSE. Suspense is not the same as action, nor is it the same as surprise, nor is it the same as mystery. Suspense is the *anticipation* of an action. The longer you draw out the anticipation, the greater the suspense. Hitchcock explained; "Two men are having an innocent little chat. Let us suppose that there is a bomb underneath the table between them. Nothing happens, then all of the sudden, BOOM! There is an explosion. The audience is surprised, but prior to this surprise, it has been an absolutely ordinary scene, of no special consequence. Now let us take a SUSPENSE situation. The bomb is underneath the table, but the audience knows it... Probably because they have seen the villain place it there. The audience is aware that the bomb is going to explode at one O'clock, and there is a clock in the decor. It is a quarter to one. In this situation, the same innocuous conversation becomes fascinating, because the audience is longing to warn the characters on the screen: 'There's a bomb beneath you, and it's about to explode!' In the first case, we have given the audience fifteen seconds of SURPRISE at the moment of the explosion. In the second case, we have provided them with fifteen MINUTES of SUSPENSE."

It’s no secret that I love thriller films and Hitchcock movies - my upcoming book is HITCHCOCK: MASTERING SUSPENSE which uses seventeen of Hitchcock’s films to illustrate different principles of suspense. But suspense isn’t confined to the thriller genre, it’s used in *every* genre to create tension. That romantic comedy where we know that one of the pair has that secret that will ruin the budding relationship if discovered... suspense is built around the anticipation of that discovery. In a movie of survival, be it THE MARTIAN or THE REVENANT suspense is built around situations where we anticipate the worst possible thing happening... and then the scene builds around that anticipation until it is resolved by the action. In REVENANT we know that bigoted fur trapper Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy) plans on harming Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio)’s son - and that scene builds tension until we get the action. Instead of the action being over in a flash, the audience has been given the information that it will happen and that makes us squirm in our seats as we see Fitzgerald’s plan unfolding. Instead of a couple of seconds of surprise we have a whole scene of tension and suspense. In dramas we often have suspense built around a secret that our protagonist doesn’t want discovered. Every genre uses suspense to build emotions before the action.

There are Four basic kinds of suspense: the "ticking clock" (or time lock) and "cross cutting" and “secrets” and “focus objects”. The Hitchcock example above is a ticking clock. We are given an event which will occur at a certain time, and our suspense builds as we get closer and closer to the time of the event. Cross Cutting takes two things we don’t want to see in the same place and gets them progressively closer to each other - like two trains hurtling towards each other on the same track. The closer they get to each other, the more suspense. A good example of this method is in Hitchcock’s REAR WINDOW where our protagonist Jeffries sends his fiancé Lisa to search the apartment of suspected murdered Lars Thorwald. Jeffries has gotten Thorwald out of the apartment on the pretext of meeting him at a restaurant down the street, but when he doesn’t show Thorwald becomes impatient and returns home. Jeffries watches through the rear window of his apartment as Lisa searches the apartment as Thorwald returns - entering the building, climbing the stairs, walking down the hallway to his front door, unlocking the door, and...

Secrets are another form of suspense which is often used in dramas and comedies and romances. A character has a secret which they do not want to have discovered, and another character gets closer and closer to discovering it. In YOU’VE GOT MAIL we know the secret of Tom Hanks’ character - he’s the big corporate bookstore owner who is putting the small independent bookstore owned by Meg Ryan out of business... but the two meet and fall in love, and now he must keep that true identity secret from her because it will kill the relationship. The audience knows that secret exists, so we are in suspense that it will be discovered. Another type of secret suspense can be found in Hitchcock’s ROPE (an experimental film which we look at in my HITCHCOCK: EXPERIMENTS IN TERROR book) - two men have murdered a friend and placed his body in a giant trunk in their livingroom... moments before having a party in that same livingroom in honor of the now dead friend. Everyone wonders where David is... but we know that he’s inside the trunk they are serving a buffet dinner from. Suspense builds as things happen which get some of the party guests looking closer at the trunk than the killers would like. Will their secret be discovered or will they get away with murder?


That trunk is what I call a “focus object”, and in the Film Courage clip I mention the middle ages sword and sex flick FLESH + BLOOD, where Princess Jennifer Jason Leigh has been kidnaped by Mercenary Rurger Hauer, and eventually becomes his mistress. Hauer is leader of a band of Mercenary soldiers - knights in rusted armor - who are raping and pillaging their way across Europe. They were double crossed by the evil Prince who Jennifer was engaged to, and now they are doing everything possible to make that Prince's life hell on earth. Eventually they capture the Prince, and chain him up near a well. Princess Jennifer, Hauer's mistress and the Prince's finace, is about to have a meal with all of the other mercenaries celebrating the capture of the Prince.

Before the other mercenaries reach the table, the Prince grabs a piece of plague infested meat from the trash and drops it in the well, poisoning the drinking water.

Jennifer sees this, and the question is - will she tell anyone? As the water is brought from the well to the table, tension builds. The water in the jug becomes the "focus object". Water is poured into glasses of several mercenaries who were not kind to her when she was kidnaped. She wants revenge against them, so she says nothing.

The Prince watches her, waiting for her to tell them that the water is poisoned. She sees the shackled Prince watching her, and she watches the mean mercenaries drink the poisoned water one-by-one.

That jug of poisoned water goes from mean mercenaries... to women and children. The poisoned water is poured into their glasses and they start to drink it... will Jennifer tell them it is poisoned? Suspense builds.

The Prince watches her, waiting for her to stop them from drinking. But both of them watch as the women and children drink the poisoned water.

Then the jug of poisoned water is passed to Rutger Hauer, her lover. He pours a glass of water. Will she let him drink it? She is torn between the man she was engaged to and the man she sleeps with every night. What will she do? Hauer is having a conversation with some of the others, and every time he grabs the glass to drink, someone says something and he responds instead of drinks. Suspense builds.

The Prince, shackled by the well smiles at her. What will she do?

As Hauer lifts the glass to his lips, she...

See how focus objects work? They create suspense by giving the protagonist and the audience the same secret information that is tied to an object... and then places that object where the secret can be discovered by characters who can not know that secret.

All of these techniques rely on *dramatic irony* - giving information to the audience that one or more characters do not have. The key is letting the audience know that the water is poisoned or that the body is in the trunk or that Tom Hanks is also that bastard with the big chain bookstore that is putting Meg Ryan out of business. If the audience is not given this information, there can be no suspense or tension... and the story is flat and dull. Our job as writers is to *lead the audience* - to use information to control what they think and feel. Hitchcock called it playing the audience like an instrument. By giving them specific story information at the perfect time we bring them inside the story - they know the secret that some other character does not and now they have a stake in the story. The audience wants that secret to remain a secret. The audience wants to warn the characters that there is a bomb under the table. The audience participates in the story and feels what the characters feel. Our job as writers is not just to tell the story, but to use techniques like suspense in order to tell that story well. To involve the reader and viewer so that it becomes their story as well.

Always be leading the audience. Always be in control of your story and when the information is given to the audience. What do you want them to know and when do you want them to know it? And *why* do you want them to know this information at this specific time in your tale?

- Bill


Click here for more info!


We all know that Alfred Hitchcock was the Master Of Suspense, but did you know he was the most *experimental* filmmaker in history?

Contained Thrillers like “Buried”? Serial Protagonists like “Place Beyond The Pines”? Multiple Connecting Stories like “Pulp Fiction”? Same Story Multiple Times like “Run, Lola, Run”? This book focuses on 18 of Hitchcock’s 53 films with wild cinema and story experiments which paved the way for modern films. Almost one hundred different experiments that you may think are recent cinema or story inventions... but some date back to Hitchcock’s *silent* films! We’ll examine these experiments and how they work. Great for film makers, screenwriters, film fans, producers and directors.

Films Examined: “Rear Window”, “Psycho”, “Family Plot”, “Topaz”, “Rope”, “The Wrong Man”, “Easy Virtue”, “Lifeboat”, “Bon Voyage”, “Aventure Malgache”, “Elstree Calling”, “Dial M for Murder”, “Stage Fright”, “Champagne”, “Spellbound”, “I Confess”, and “The Trouble with Harry”, with glances at “Vertigo” and several others.

Professional screenwriter William C. Martell takes you into the world of The Master Of Suspense and shows you the daring experiments that changed cinema. Over 77,000 words.

UK Folks Click Here.

German Folks Click Here.

French Folks Click Here.

Espania Folks Click Here.

Canadian Folks Click Here.

- Bill

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