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Suspense is everywhere in film. It drives the cinematic experience of the story. It keeps audiences engaged and before any screenplay is produced, the presence of ongoing suspense structures in scripts being read by script readers, assistants, development executives, and producers is what keeps them turning those pages.
The best screenplays are those that keep audiences and readers in some state of invested excitement and anxiety throughout the experience of the story.
Jaws made us excited and anxious to learn when the shark was going to kill again, who that victim would be, and if there was any way to stop it.
The 40 Year-Old Virgin made us excited and anxious to see how Steve Carell’s Andy would finally lose his virginity and how he would fail time and time again during his quest to achieve that goal.
Raiders of the Lost Ark made us excited and anxious as we watched Indiana Jones travel around the globe trying to hunt down the Ark of the Covenant to keep it out of the hands of the Nazis.
Die Hard made us excited and anxious as we watched the barefoot and alone John McClane, trapped in a business tower full of terrorists. We wondered not just how he would survive, but how he’d save his wife and the other hostages before Hans Gruber and his minions destroyed the building.
There Will Be Blood made us excited and anxious as we watched the tyrannical oil tycoon Daniel Plainview rise to power—and then waited for the moment that his empire would come crashing down on him as he went further and further down the line of tyranny and evil.
Psycho made us wonder about the horror and dangers surrounding Norman Bates, his quaint roadside motel, and his mother’s house looming above.
All genres utilize suspense in one way, shape, or form—whether it is through action, adventure, scares, thrills, laughs, or drama.
There Is Psychology Behind How, When, and Why Suspense Works
Much research has been implemented throughout the years in search of those answers. Ed Lichtenstein and William F. Brewer proposed the theory of Structural Effect and its effect on how audiences and readers experience stories differently when three specific story structures are implemented.
Lichtenstein was the head of research at the Rochester Institute of Technology while Brewer was the head of the Department of Psychology at the University of Illinois. Their paper Stories are to Entertain: A Structural-Affect Theory of Stories came to some amazing and eye-opening conclusions that all screenwriters should consider when writing and structuring their screenplays. Within this paper, they focused on three major discourse structures which account for the enjoyment of a large proportion of stories.
We use these three structures—also known in some circles as the Tripod of Suspense Storytelling—as keys to understanding how these suspense structures in screenplays can change the overall experience that an audience or script reader has while your stories unfold.
This “tripod” consists of three different narrative structure types—surprise, suspense, and curiosity—that create specific and different types of emotions in the audience and reader. By using these structures to manipulate the order in which the screenplay events unfold, different psychological emotions of the audience or reader can be invoked—all while utilizing the same story elements, just in a different order.
Surprise within a screenplay is evoked by an unexpected event. The surprise event structure must contain critical plot or story information early on within the script. This critical information behind such a scene is omitted, without letting the audience or reader know that it has been omitted, and then is inserted later on in the script. This leads to the surprise of the reveal behind that unexpected event.
- Charles gets up from a chair
- He walks slowly towards the window
- The window breaks and Charles falls dead
- The sound of a gunshot echoes in the distance
A scene showcasing a sniper taking aim has been omitted from this sequence, causing a surprise to unfold as we are never made aware of the presence of a sniper—thus the gunshot is a shocking event that would have otherwise been expected had the sniper been revealed in a scene leading up to Charles walking towards the window and later falling dead.
Suspense is evoked by showcasing scenes in chronological order, beginning with an initiating moment that will likely lead to significant consequences for the character(s). This causes the audience or reader to be invested and engaged by the story out of concern for the character(s) involved.
- A sniper is waiting outside of the house
- Within the house, Charles gets up from the chair
- He walks slowly toward the window
- The window suddenly shatters and the sound of a gunshot rings out
- Charles falls dead
The interesting aspect of this structure change is that the audience or reader are those that are placed in suspense. The character knows nothing about the sniper and the danger that lies beyond the window they stand in front of. But because the audience or reader sees the sniper waiting outside of the house, suspense is built because we know that danger is looming.
This is a major emotional difference between the Surprise Structure where we are affected not by information we know—as in this Suspense Structure—but by information we don’t know with the element of shock and surprise that follows the gunshot.
Curiosity is evoked by presenting the final outcome of the story first. By essentially showing the ending towards the beginning—or at least the event that leads to the final ending—we will become curious as to how this event came about. This draws us in with suspense as we watch the characters, their actions, and their reactions lead us to the answers we’ve been waiting for.
- Charles is dead
- All we see is broken glass around his dead body
- The police examine the scene and find the broken glass
- Who killed him? How? And why?
This is a standard suspense device utilized in most great detective stories and mysteries. We see the end result first, and are left in suspense as we wait to see the answers to “Who, what, when, where, and why?”
Look no further than The Usual Suspects for a perfect cinematic example of the curiosity structure.
We know Gabrial Byrne’s Keaton is going to die. This is an event that happens at the end of the film and later leads to a major reveal to end the movie. However, we are shown this moment at the beginning, so we find ourselves curious to learn who killed him, who witnessed that killing, and why. More and more questions loom as the usual suspects of a crime are gathered and Keaton is one of them—is one of these other suspects the man that killed Keaton?
- Keaton lays badly wounded on a ship docked in the San Pedro Bay
- He is confronted by a mysterious figure whom he calls “Keyser”
- The mysterious figure shoots him dead and sets fire to the ship
- It is implied that someone is hidden and has witnessed this moment
- The usual suspects are gathered into a room under suspicion of an earlier heist
- How are they connected? Is one of them Keaton’s killer?
Another great example is the opening of Christopher Nolan’s Memento.
In the opening shot—brilliantly showcased in reverse from end to beginning—we learn that Guy Pearce’s Leonard has found his wife’s killer, and that killer appears to be Teddy. However, as the film unfolds in unique “order” we see that Teddy appears to be Leonard’s friend. Our curiosity is heightened as that “fact” is tested with each added scene.
The below curiosity structure plays in reverse, but still starts with an event that intrigues us.
- Leonard shoots his wife’s killer
- His supposed wife’s killer is his friend
- His supposed wife’s killer is acting like his friend
- His supposed wife’s killer was actually killed long ago and Leonard is going through his investigation process to give his life meaning