What if you could learn three pivotal lessons on suspense writing from the master of suspense himself, Alfred Hitchcock?
Suspense thrillers are some of the most entertaining — and sometimes agonizing, in a good way — movies to watch. For script readers, they are some of the best reads in a pile of otherwise forgetful cookie-cutter and trend-chasing screenplays.
When written well, suspense thrillers are remembered. When written poorly, they are easily forgotten.
Here are three simple and straightforward writing lessons on suspense that will help you craft nail-biting scenes, sequences, and stories — from the mouth of Hitch himself, complete with our own elaboration.
1. The Difference Between Mystery and Suspense
“There’s a great confusion between the words ‘mystery’ and ‘suspense’ — and the two things are actually miles apart. You see, mystery is an intellectual process, like in a whodunnit. But suspense is essentially an emotional process. Therefore, you can only get the suspense element going by giving the audience information.”
What Hitch is referring to is the fact that with mysteries, you are merely holding back information from the audience. You’re posing a question — “Who did it?” — and you’re withholding that information from the audience to mystify them. The problem with this is that there’s no emotional engagement with the audience.
Withholding information is objective. We don’t know who did it because the writer hasn’t told us yet. Yes, we can become invested by being presented with multiple options to the answer to that question — like we see in films like The Hateful Eight and Murder on the Orient Express — but that’s just a mere curiosity.
With suspense thrillers, you give the audience information to build an emotional response.
Mystery versus Suspense is essentially Withholding Information versus Sharing Information.
2. The “Bomb Under the Table” Analogy
“Four people are sitting around a table, talking about baseball or whatever you’d like. Five minutes of it. Very dull. Suddenly a bomb goes off. Blows the people to smithereens. What does the audience have? Ten seconds of shock. Now, take the same scene and tell the audience there is a bomb under that table and [it] will go off in five minutes. Well, the whole emotion of the audience is totally different, because you’ve given them that information.”
This is perhaps the most brilliant analogy to writing great suspense. It can be applied to singular scenes, sequences, and moments within a script. And it can also be applied to a whole suspense story. And the best suspense screenplays offer them all in various degrees — big and small.
When the audience knows that the bomb underneath that table is going to go off in five minutes, but the characters don’t know, that otherwise mundane five minutes of baseball talk becomes much more enthralling because the audience knows what is about to happen.
Compare this to the alternative of withheld information leading to just ten seconds of shock and it’s easy to see which is the more suspenseful option.
Hitch’s suspenseful option does what every film should attempt to do, it offers them a cathartic experience and forces them to be engaged in the story. The audience wants those four people to stop talking about baseball because there’s a damn bomb that’s going to blow them to smithereens!
There’s another difference between these two versions of the same scene that should occur though.
In the suspense version, where the audience is given the information about the bomb beforehand when that five minutes is up, the bomb must never go off!
That’s another example of incorporating the audience into the cinematic experience. You’ve built them into a frenzied state and when you deny them the proper relief (seeing the results of the bomb going off), they’re going to be angry.
For a contemporary example, look no further than the suspense thriller A Quiet Place.
In the below scene, we’re introduced to a family living in a post-apocalyptic world, scavenging for supplies in a store. We’re clearly shown that for whatever reason, they are not supposed to make any noise — not even the slightest sound. At this point, we don’t know why.
When the youngest boy is caught holding an electronic toy, the family freezes. The father quickly, but quietly, takes the toy away from him, removing the batteries within. As the family moves out of the building, the boy’s older sister feels bad for her little brother. She offers the toy to him with a smile and index finger to her lips, motioning for him to be quiet. When she leaves, the boy looks back to the batteries, making sure no one is looking, and quickly takes the batteries with him.
This is exactly what Hitch is talking about — giving the audience information. And if you watch the scene, you’ll experience the suspense that was created because of that information.
Warning: Spoilers Ahead in the clip and following two paragraphs!
Don’t shy away from giving the reader or the audience information. You should be doing that, as long as you use that information to draw them to the edge of their seats.
Yes, this example went against Hitch’s insistence on not “letting the bomb go off” (the boy does turn on the toy), but the film further integrated the audience by having us question whether or not the movie was going to actually kill a child in the opening minutes of the film.
A similar example can be found in the classic Silence of the Lambs.
Clarice is checking out a lead in the case. Little does she know that the man she is visiting is the very serial killer she has been trying to track down. She doesn’t know — but we do.
The result is a few minutes of utter suspense as we wait to see if, when, and how Clarice is going to realize who this man really is.
A minute later, we’re given more information that Clarice doesn’t know. She’s now in the basement. There’s no light. It’s pitch black. She knows the serial killer is down there somewhere, but she can’t see anything. But we can.
Here from Hitch himself on this subject.
3. Leave the Shock and Horror to the Audience’s Own Imagination
“There is one difference between what I prefer to make and very often what you see. And that is to convey, visually, certain elements in storytelling that transfer itself to the mind of the audience. Whereas other films make visual statements so that the audience becomes a spectator… that’s why you see a lot of blood on the screen. There’s no subtlety about it because you present it to the audience in the visual form, and that’s it. Whereas I prefer to suggest something and let the audience figure it out.”
Yes, there are plenty of times when Hitch himself showed the blood — at least what was considered shocking back in the Sixties.
But if you pay attention, you’ll see that he gave us just enough while leaving plenty to the imagination.
But let’s shift to another cinematic master, Steven Spielberg, for an example. In Jaws, we rarely see the shark. While this was a clear result of technical limitations (the shark was infamously not working), that result offered some of the best suspense we had seen since Hitch’s days.
She never sees the shark. In fact, we never see it either. But we’re given that piece of information that she does not have so the suspense of the moment is heightened.
And then she is attacked from whatever lurks beneath the surface of the water. The attack is brutal, without even once showing blood or any physical carnage. We’re left with our own imagination to figure out what happened.
The three lessons in suspense from Alfred Hitchcock are better than any secret formula or any long, boring hindsight is 20/20 breakdown of how to write suspense. This is all you need to know.
Ken Miyamoto has worked in the film industry for nearly two decades, most notably as a studio liaison for Sony Studios and then as a script reader and story analyst for Sony Pictures. Make sure to read his growing archive of posts at ScreenCraft for more inspiration.
He has many studio meetings under his belt as a produced screenwriter, meeting with the likes of Sony, Dreamworks, Universal, Disney, Warner Brothers, as well as many production and management companies. He has had a previous development deal with Lionsgate, as well as multiple writing assignments, including the produced miniseries Blackout, starring Anne Heche, Sean Patrick Flanery, Billy Zane, James Brolin, Haylie Duff, Brian Bloom, Eric La Salle, and Bruce Boxleitner. Follow Ken on Twitter @KenMovies