5 Tips for Building Better Cinematic Suspense

Cinematic suspense, whether the final product will be on TV or in movie theaters, starts with the script. So remember to add the following mix to what you’re writing ASAP: (Yes, even to those that are defined as camera techniques. After all, it’s the script that tells the director to use them)


by Caleb Davis

If you are like me, then you appreciate a film that is so suspenseful it quite literally brings you to the edge of your seat. It’s in those moments, when a film is not a series of shots but rather a cohesive, frightful and nerve racking story, that it has accomplished its goal of creating suspense.

What are common filmmaking techniques for creating suspense? I’ve listed out my favorites below. Use these tips and examples to help improve your film’s suspenseful edge.

Tip #1: Give You Character Breathing Room

Many films today utilize a fast cutting routine of quick edits and spastic pacing that encourages a quick cheap suspense. For deeply suspenseful editing, try giving your characters a few extra seconds of screen time. Create a slow, methodical pacing in your scene, showcasing close-ups.

If you are in the process of revealing an important plot element, or simply establishing the anxious nature of the character surrounding their situation, allow the shot to linger before cutting away. The longer you hold on your character, the more anxious the audience will become when the stakes get high.

Tip #2: Time Your Reveal

Suspense in film is based around the anticipation of an upcoming event, and how the story unfolds in the attempt to get there. As you decide where to place your reveal, allow your cuts to build without becoming too hasty. As we can see in this example from The Dark Knight, music plays an important role in building the tension until the reveal.

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