There are thousands of books that explain what suspense is and how to create it in the master scenes of a thriller movie.
Despite any ideas you may have on the subject, there are two main ways: the use of editing and sound.
There are movies that have extraordinary scripts and actors, but at key moments they fail to capture the audience.
Conversely, others are not as great but rise above the competition to create scenes with great tension and anticipation.
But before we talk in more detail about these movies, let’s first clarify what suspense really is.
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Fear and Terror
One of the main differences when creating a suspense scene is whether we want to go for fear or terror.
Let’s take an example that Alfred Hitchcock always liked to give to explain the heart of his work.
The brilliant English director talked about a scene with two men talking as they sit while there is a bomb under their table.
Wanting to create fear, we could show them talking and slowly lower the frame below their legs.
At that point, we slowly zoom in on the explosive, towards the timer with a countdown that has one minute left.
The characters would continue to talk quietly and the tension builds in the audience, aware of what they don’t know.
If we want to create terror, however, we should do exactly the opposite.
In this case, we don’t have to see the bomb at all, but the dialogue of the two characters must totally absorb our attention.
When the explosion happens we would rightly be struck with sudden shock and dazed.
Yet that shock keeps the subsequent scenes in suspense fearing it might happen again if we can handle it.
Fear and terror are the main elements of horror films as well, working exactly as they do in thrillers.
To achieve suspense in a movie it is better to mix them wisely, without abusing too much only one aspect.
Focusing the expectation only on tension or sudden shocks, in fact, we get exactly the opposite effect.
The result would be to cheapen the whole film with mechanisms that the audience expects, nullifying the surprise effect.
Instead, the best method is always to look for something different, working out a mechanism that alters the narrative flow.
The clever deception of editing
When we talk about movies, whatever genre they are, your main weapon is obviously the camera.
You must therefore learn how to use this important tool of the trade to perfection.
Likewise, you must learn how to work on what you have shot, editing it with the best possible rhythm and sound.
You can create tension even without any editing, as Brian De Palma does in his best films.
Let’s look at Snake Eyes, for example, a thriller where Nicolas Cage investigates a murder occurring in a boxing match.
The beginning is simply extraordinary, more than 12 minutes of seamless that should be screened in every film school.
In them, we get to know all the characters in the story by following the protagonist until the fatal moment of the killing.
Then for the rest of the movie the director splits those 12 minutes to display them from different points of view.
With this choice, De Palma does checkmate in two moves, and we are not even talking about one of his best movies.
The questions that this example answers are two: what to show and how to choose to show it.
Ask yourself this question before you even start shooting and half your work will already be done.
The magic of sounds, music and silence
Of course, in addition to what we see, what we hear matters a lot.
Moreover, what we don’t hear counts even more since the silence handling is one of the highlights of any film.
To make you understand let’s take one of the best westerns in the history of cinema: Once Upon a Time in the West.
The beginning is a perfect example of what I mean by the perfect use of silence in a movie.
Three criminals are waiting for Charles Bronson to arrive at a station, with the agreement to take him to their boss.
Obviously, this is a trap to kill Bronson as soon as he gets off the train.
These three men waiting in this empty station amidst nothingness is a 10-minute poem of silence and moving images.
However, Sergio Leone does not leave the scene completely mute, rather he cleverly uses natural noises as a soundtrack.
Speaking of music and suspense, when we talk about Leone we must mention his great composer and friend Ennio Morricone.
In this case, we can see how the two work beautifully together in the final shootout of The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.
Three men stare at each other, waiting for the first move while Morricone’s superb music rises to a bloody climax.
A perfect mix of sound, music, and editing that we find in the manuals of every film school in the world.
What suspense movies to watch?
After these little theoretical tips on what it takes to create suspense in a movie, shall we move on to practice?
First of all, let’s get into the specifics with some masterpieces by Alfred Hitchcock, the master of this genre.
I suggest you then buy this book, full of quotes and intriguing episodes:
I can’t say if these are the absolute best among the great director’s works, but definitely, they are the ones I love the most.
As an addition, here are seven other movies that in one way or another tell a story always on the edge of tension.
I hope this article will help you in your cinematic research and journey, encouraging you to hang in there.
Likewise, I’d love to know if you enjoyed the movies I recommended and if you don’t have any to suggest.
Unfortunately, no one always knows everything and any friendly advice is always welcome.
So let’s help each other since there are so many movies and no one can know them all.