How to Add Claustrophobic Suspense to Your Screenplay

By Eric Owusu · March 5, 2015

John Michael Hayes’ 1953 screenplay Rear Window gave us one of the greatest and most suspenseful films ever. It has several elements that have lent themselves well to pop culture, spoofs, and reimaginings in several forms of media. The main aspect of the screenplay and subsequent film that make it as iconic as it is, oddly enough, is the confined setting and closed-off feel it subjects audiences and its main protagonist to. Audiences love the suspense of it all, especially since it mainly takes place in two apartments and a New York City apartment building courtyard.

If you’re looking to craft a screenplay that has some of the claustrophobic elements that make Rear Window such a classic, I definitely advise you to first and foremost read the screenplay. Secondarily, follow these steps:

Set The Tone of the Screenplay

The opening action in the screenplay shows us the residents of L.B. Jefferies’ apartment building. But it does so via a long shot from the inside of Jefferies’ apartment, as if we are looking out of his window at all of his neighbors. Instead of us being in each resident’s apartment, Jefferies’ view of them from his apartment is the audiences’ view of and intro to them. It lets us know early that the candid watching of these neighbors is an important part of the screenplay and lends itself to the plot, themes, and tone of the action the audience will watch unfold.

It is important to set the tone of any screenplay early, but especially suspenseful ones, as in Rear Window. It lets the audience know what they’re in for, what they should be paying attention to and whose eyes we’ll be watching through.

Show The Protagonist’s Frustration

In Rear Window, Jefferies is watching his neighbors through the rear window of his apartment because he has a broken leg and can’t do much else. It is established early on that he broke his leg while on the job as a photographer, information that lends itself well to painting him as an active and inquisitive person. He isn’t shy about complaining sarcastically and frankly about his broken leg and being confined to his apartment for another week. Be sure to show not only the crappy situation your protagonist is in, but also their displeasure in regards to the situation.

There are other films where protagonists in tight and confined situations are obviously distraught because of their situations, like in 2010’s Buried and Devil. Those films feature a man buried alive with limited oxygen and a group of strangers trapped in elevator with the devil. With Rear Window, the stakes aren’t life and death until the final scenes, but it is still important to establish your protagonist’s hardship so that it can escalate and build into a Hitchcockian climax where their claustrophobic situation culminates into a harrowing scene.

Have the characters say why being pent up bothers them and show it in your scenes, rather than just having characters explain it with exposition.

Also, show the audience why the trapped protagonist has to get out of their situation. Jefferies wants to investigate his neighbor Thorwald, the antagonist, and see if anything nefarious is going on in Thorwald’s apartment. He can’t do that from his apartment so he asks his girlfriend Lisa to help him. Giving the protagonist a clear motivation to change their situation helps the audience see the urgency tied in with the protagonist achieving their goals and escaping their claustrophobic prison. And to go along with that…

Show the Obstacles They Face In Escaping

Towards the end of Rear Window, Jefferies puts his girlfriend and himself in grave danger. Thorwald almost does away with Lisa in his apartment and eventually almost kills Jefferies in his apartment. The theme of being enclosed in apartments rises to a boil in these moments of the screenplay. Both Lisa and Jefferies need to escape their enclosures to survive their situation when the antagonist blocks them in. When showing your protagonist attempt to save the day or escape danger, heighten the suspense with obstacles that make it seem like our hero or heroine is doomed.

It’s very difficult to convincingly convey suspense and terror on paper. These tips won’t guarantee you’ll get there, but they are certainly a good starting point. Include situations you’ve dealt with where your back was against the wall. Were you confined to a wheelchair? Stuck in a hospital bed? Elevator? Have you ever literally been stuck dangling from a window? Answer these questions in order to write your claustrophobic screenplay.



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