Thousands of different directors and authors have their own ideas of what suspense is, how it works in thrillers, and how to create it in the main scenes of a film.
Despite the ideas one may have on the subject, there are only two main ways: the skillful use of editing and how it is mixed with the sound compartment.
Some films have outstanding scripts and actors, but these thrillers fail to keep the tension high at critical moments, or they permanently solve the problem with the usual easy jumpscares suitable for every occasion.
Others, on the other hand, while not having the same means, far outperform the competition and create scenes of great anticipation where, in a sense, the expectation of fear is almost more important than the fear itself.
But before discussing these films in detail, let us first clarify what suspense is.
Fear and terror
One of the main differences in creating a suspense scene is whether we want to focus on fear or terror.
Let’s take an example that Alfred Hitchcock always liked to give to explain the heart of his work and, indeed, basically of his entire long and prolific career.
The brilliant British director talked about a scene with two men talking, comfortably seated in a restaurant, while a bomb is under their table.
Wanting to create fear and slowly ratchet up the tension, we could show them talking and lower the shot below their legs, slowly zooming in on the explosive toward the timer, counting down with one minute to go.
The characters would continue whispering, oblivious to the danger, while the tension would build in the audience, aware of what the protagonists in the scene do not know.
However, if we want to create panic and terror, we must do the opposite. In this case, we must not see the bomb at all because the audience must not know it is there: the two characters’ dialogue must absorb the attention without leaving room for anything else.
Therefore, when the explosion happens suddenly, we would rightly be struck by a shock that, besides frightening us immediately, will keep us in suspense for the following scenes, in fear that it might happen again.
This is basically also the concept of so-called jumpscare, a powerful cinematic medium that should not be abused, however, lest it quickly lapse into ridicule.
Indeed, the mistake too many modern horror filmmakers make is to abuse these bogeys at total volume, perhaps after an extended scene of silence, replaying the jumpscare over and over again and detracting from the entire film by a mechanism that the audience ends up expecting, nullifying any surprise effect.
Instead, the best method is always to try something different, devising a mechanism that alters the narrative flow and keeping the story’s pace always on the edge of tension, choosing few but compelling moments to frighten or shock the viewer.
The artful deception of editing
When it comes to films, whatever genre they may be, every filmmaker’s primary weapon is obviously the camera.
You must, therefore, know how to use this vital tool of the trade to perfection, just as it is equally important to learn how to work on what you have shot, editing it as, for example, one of Mr. Hitchcock’s best heirs does: Brian De Palma.
The beginning is simply extraordinary, more than 12 minutes in a sequence plan that should be shown in every film school to explain the term’s true meaning.
In this time frame, with no editing breaks, we get acquainted with all the main characters in the story, following the protagonist to the fatal moment of the murder in the middle of the crowd, witnessing the clash between the two boxers.
After this long carousel ride all in one breath, for the rest of the film, the director continually divides and reexamines those 12 minutes from the different points of view of the other characters, with his usual montage of virtuoso shots and multiple angles in the same frame.
With this choice, De Palma does checkmate in two moves: creating suspense and terror without giving pause to the viewer, who is always with his breath in his throat, and keeping in mind that, after all, we are not even talking about one of his best films.
The questions this example answers are twofold: 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 and even what we don’t hear in the film matters a lot because the management of silence is one of the most essential foundations of any thriller.
To show you what I mean, let’s take one of the best Westerns in film history, obviously directed by the legendary Sergio Leone: Once Upon a Time in the West.
The beginning exemplifies what I mean about using silence to perfection in a technically formidable and emotionally infallible sequence.
In this scene, three criminals are waiting for the main character, Charles Bronson, whose train is about to arrive at an old, dilapidated, deserted station.
As a bit of trivia, these three men in the intentions were to be Clint Eastwood, Eli Wallach, and Lee Van Cleef: that is, the protagonists of the earlier “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” in a sort of passing of the baton (which unfortunately never happened) at the end of the beloved director’s much-loved Dollars Trilogy.
Anyway, these three men are waiting in this empty station in the middle of nowhere, doing absolutely nothing, and let me tell you: this sequence is a 10-minute poem of silence and moving images.
However, Sergio Leone does not leave the scene wholly silent but cleverly uses natural noises as a soundtrack: the buzzing of a fly annoying a gunfighter, the squeak of a mill in the distance, or even just a drop of water falling uninterruptedly on the edge of a hat.
Moving from sound to actual music, when talking about Leone, one cannot fail to 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, the famous Triello (triple duel) that is one of the most studied scenes in every film school in every corner of the world.
Three men stare at each other, waiting for the others to make the first move, while the superb voice of Morricone’s instruments, already part of the legend before the film even ends, soars like an endless ecstasy of musical notes to a bloody and surprising climax.
Never an end to learning
I hope this article will help you in your search and journey in cinema, so different for each of us, encouraging you to hang in there if perhaps inside you aspire to become a filmmaker someday.
Likewise, I would love to know if you liked the films I recommended and if you have others to suggest, whether they are thrillers or not, since no matter how short or long our experience is; unfortunately, no one always knows everything, and any friendly advice is always welcome.
So let’s help each other since there are so many films and no one can know them all, but rather it is just the taste of discovery that makes everything even more delicious.