Every film needs suspense. At the foundational level, a story poses a question in the beginning and answers it by the end. The suspense is the anticipation for that answer. But what are the elements of suspense films?
And how do we go about building suspense with film technique?
Let’s look at how film is the perfect medium for creating suspense using Gore Verbinski’s 2002 remake of The Ring as our case study.
Watch: How to Create Suspenseful Scenes
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Elements of Suspense: Definitions
Why is suspense important?
Suspense comes from the root verb “to suspend” or to hold something back. We know something is going to happen but we don’t know when or how. This anxiety or tension is what keeps your audience engaged — they WANT TO KNOW WHAT HAPPENS NEXT!
It is easy to pose a question. Any film can introduce a character and give them a problem to solve. The difficulty is keeping the audience engaged for two hours as we delay the resolution to that problem.
All suspense films create and sustain suspense differently but there are some core elements of suspense that are required.
It all starts with the screenplay.
Script analysis for suspense
As a director, your job is to analyze the script and find creative ways to visualize what's on the page. A well-written script will give you a starting point but it is ultimately your vision that makes it to the screen.
Unlike novels, screenplays are supposed to minimal when it comes to description. The director takes their cues from the script and there's an art to "breaking down a script" so that you can maximize the visual impact.
Take this example: "A woman walks down a hallway with a knife in her hand, waiting for the killer to jump out at any moment."
So, how do you turn that sentence in a suspenseful moment?
It's all about asking questions: What is the woman wearing? How big is the knife? Is it shiny or dull? Is the hallway pitch black or is there ambient moonlight coming in? Should you use wide shots, close-ups, or a combination? Do we hear only the creaking floorboards or is there brooding music on the soundtrack?
The answers to these questions should add up to scene that will get the heart pumping. Such is the task of a director.
In the next section, we'll dissect how each filmmaking technique can be used to create suspense with examples from The Ring.
HOW TO CREATE SUSPENSE
Building suspense with film technique
Now that we’ve discussed the elements of suspense required in the story, let’s examine how filmmakers can use the various tools at their disposal to turn that “page turner” in the best suspense films.
Almost every department in a film’s production can be used towards sustaining and building suspense. Music, sound design, editing, cinematography, and production design can all greatly impact the quality of suspense.
Within cinematography, we have a multitude of strategies for building suspense. The way we light the room, the use of shadows and light is crucial. Camera movement can be a very effective tool. Before you shoot a tense scene, learn how to move the camera.
Frame composition can also create tension simply by how large or small you capture your subject.
One aspect of frame composition that is used in many suspense films is empty space. When a portion of the frame is left empty, the first effect is a sense of imbalance. Something is missing and this creates anxiety, even if subconsciously.
In this scene, Rachel is watching a video of Samara in the hospital. Behind her, is an empty doorway that gets illuminated each time the lighthouse searchlight passes by.
We know that someone or something is going to appear in that doorway. But we don’t know who/what and we don’t know when. Eventually, on the third time we cut back to this shot, our expectations are paid off.
Building suspense is the first step. You’ve also got to give the audience the payoff. This is how you can use a simple composition and lighting technique to ratchet up the tension. Learn more lighting techniques here.
Outside of cinematography, the visuals are highly dependent on production design. The colors of props, costumes or even the architecture of a room are also opportunities for building suspense.
One way to design your sets for suspense is to show us something we’ve never seen before. Whether this is a strange shade of orange paint on the walls or a floor plan that doesn’t make logical sense like in The Shining.
If there is something off about the space, we are immediately on edge.
There is a particular location in The Ring that achieves this combination of strange and familiar: Samara’s bedroom.
We’ve collected images from the scene using StudioBinder so you can see for yourself just how unsettling a room can be. Check it out below.
It is constructed in the rafters of a large horse barn and resembles a birdhouse floating in the air. Rachel and Noah must climb an unnaturally long ladder to get there--the same ladder we see in “the video.”
Already, the strangeness of this space is clear.
Once they climb to the top, the room they find is mostly normal. It is aged with yellowing wallpaper with a thick layer of dust, but normal nonetheless.
But is it too normal?
Like everything else in this space, the “hyper-normal” set is made to give us unease. A rocking horse, a single chair, a television set, a spinning carousel music box. Objects you’d find in a girl’s bedroom but here they just don’t feel right.
The sooner we leave this haunted and haunting room, the better. That is exactly the quality you want to imbue in a set designed to heighten suspense.
Of all the filmmaking elements, editing is probably the most important when it comes to suspense films. Remember, time is crucial in suspense and editing can manipulate time in important and interesting ways.
When editing suspense films, your number one mission is to slow things down. The manipulation of time and the delay of events is the definition of suspense.
Did You Know?
The tree with the fiery red leaves featured in the movie is a Japanese maple. The fruit of this tree is known as a "samara."
Let’s look at this scene near the end of The Ring and discuss how editing comes into play.
Rachel and Noah have uncovered the well underneath the cabin. They are peering down into it while something is happening in the room above them.
First, the TV turns itself on. By this point in the film, we know what that means. Then water starts to seep onto the floor from under the TV. Nails begin to slowly rise out of the floorboards.
In between each of these spooky shots, we cut back to Rachel and Noah, completely unaware of what’s happening above them. This mini-suspense sequence lasts over one minute and twenty seconds. We see the TV and nails rises 7 separate times intercut with our characters.
This is how you delay a simple series of events for maximum impact.
But editing a film these days is more than cutting and arranging the shots. Color design or color grading can be applied to give your scenes that extra pop.
In Verbinski’s film, one of the first elements you notice is the prevalence of the color green. Many scenes are tinted green: nighttime interiors and daytime exteriors alike.
Why? Green is a strange choice, right?
But this strangeness is exactly why it was chosen. This unnatural color is meant to work on us subconsciously. It puts us on edge, it reminds us that something is just not right here.
Suspense films thrive with more explicit techniques like editing or cinematography, but color can be just as effective. We “feel” the color more than we “see” it.
Sound is what convinces us that there is a larger world outside the frame. To engage our ears, as well as our eyes, will give your scene a depth and a richness that all the best suspense movies achieve.
If a character is walking down a dark hallway, we need to hear each creak of the floorboards. If there is a bomb set to go off in 30 seconds, we need to hear that ticking clock.
In The Ring, certain sounds that are typically uninteresting become terrifying. The static of the TV or the ringing of a telephone, in this context, are very important sounds.
It’s not enough to feature these sounds in the film. They must be exaggerated as well. The ringing phone should be LOUD.
When Noah watches as Samara comes out of his TV, sound design is critical. The side of the TV is dripping and we hear every drop. As Samara crawls along the floor, we hear her palm slipping against the wood. When Noah crashes against the shelves and litters the floor with broken glass, we hear the crunch under his hands and knees.
We also hear unnatural sounds like the eerie, high-pitched loop on the soundtrack of “the video.” There’s the whoosh when Samara suddenly transports across the room towards Noah.
This mix of exaggerated natural and unnatural sounds is what makes this scene so scary. Images can be frightening but sound is what makes them real.
How does music create suspense in movies? Like sound design, suspenseful music is a surefire way to create suspense. Music is so effective, in fact, that many filmmakers will rely on it too heavily.
Like any of these elements we’ve discussed, music needs to be done tastefully and complementary. It should work in tandem with the editing and cinematography, not dominate them.
In fact, a lack of music can be just as suspenseful as any piece of music.
Let’s look at this moment from The Ring where music plays a minor but crucial role.
In this dream sequence, Rachel takes a drink of water and starts coughing immediately. She ends up pulling a long string attached to an electrode out of her mouth. The first part of this scene contains no music but it slowly creeps in before she leaves the kitchen and heads down the hallway.
As Rachel approaches Aiden’s room and opens the door, the volume increases slightly and a new, upper register harmonic is added. It’s still a single note, stretched out and droning.
To call it music is a stretch. There is no melody or rhythm. It is a tone played softly, hovering just above the surface to give texture to the soundtrack.
In a suspense sequence like this, the composer is not the star of the show but they are part of the team. Just because you don’t hear the music doesn’t mean it’s not working.
The best scary movies
The Ring is one of the scariest movies because it understands how film technique can be used effectively. If you're in a frightening mood, your next stop will not disappoint. We've created a list of the Top 10 scariest movies, where you can see more examples of film technique at its finest. How do they use sound design in The Exorcist or in The Haunting? Why is the design of The Babadook so chilling? Read on...we dare you.