There are few things that can keep an audience more engaged in a film than suspense. But what is suspense, exactly? That feeling of intense anticipation can be found in various genres and have an audience leaning forward with their eyes glued to the screen. Understanding what suspense is and how it differs from other states like shock and mystery is essential to putting an audience on the edge of their seats. In this article, we’ll take a look at the elements of suspenses that distinguishes it from anything else. We’ll also take a look at a few basic ways to create suspense in the story you are telling. 

Watch: Sound Design & Suspense in Drive

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what is suspense?

First, let’s define suspense

Suspense is a unique state that many filmmakers aim to put an audience in. Before we dive into the “how” in creating suspense we must first take a look at the “what” by analyzing the definition of suspense. 


What is suspense?

Suspense is a state of uncertainty or excitement regarding a specific outcome. Suspense is typically coupled with feelings of anxiousness and anticipation. In storytelling, it is used to keep an audience deeply engaged in what is occurring. Suspense can be found in various genres, including comedies, but it is most commonly used in thrillers. Mystery and shock are often confused with suspense, but have different key characteristics that differentiate the terms. 

Elements of suspense:

  • Instability
  • Uncertainty
  • Clear stakes and consequences
  • Pay off

define suspense

Suspense vs. mystery and shock

The term “suspenseful” is commonly used to describe examples of various movie genres like mystery, horror, even action. While this may be true for some, many are mistakenly described as suspense when they are more accurately a work of mystery or shock. What’s the difference? The differences between suspense, mystery and shock lie in information and perspective. 

Differences between suspense mystery and shock

Differences between suspense, mystery, and shock

In mystery, audiences are often given a limited amount of information and a limited perspective that allows them to intellectually dissect what has already happened. That's the key, the timing of the event here is in the past.

Most horror and action films operate on shock rather than suspense. Shock allows action or an event to unfold in real time in front of the audience. The audience perspective is also more subjective allowing them to experience the story with a character. They also typically know the same information that the character does. 

Movies that operate on suspense give the audience a more objective perspective. This objective perspective allows the audience to know more information than characters in the story do. The result is anticipation in what will happen once a character learns or experiences the information that the audience knows. 

Alfred Hitchcock is a master at creating suspense because he fully understood the differences between suspense, shock, and mystery. In the video essay below, Entertain The Elk dives into how Hitchcock creates suspense with the elements we discussed above. 

How Hitchcock Creates Suspense

Although suspense can be executed in a variety of creative ways throughout a variety of genres, there are a few fundamental elements of suspense. Now that we’ve distinguished suspense from shock and mystery, let’s take a look at the various elements that go into creating suspense. 

how to setup suspense?

Introduce instability

Suspense cannot be created by throwing the audience directly into chaos or turmoil. The chaos has to develop in order for the suspense to grow. A key part of executing this is by establishing stability and introducing instability. 

An example of this can be found in Inglourious Basterds, one of Quentin Tarantino’s best films. In the opening scene, a family on a simple French farm is taking on their daily chores. This is their stability. 

Suddenly, a Nazi motorcade approaches. Here, Tarantino introduces the instability. What ensues is one of the most suspenseful opening scenes in recent cinema.

In our video analysis of this opening scene below, we breakdown Tarantino’s directing style and the elements of suspense that Tarantino uses to keep the audience completely hooked.

How Tarantino Keeps You Hooked  •  Subscribe on YouTube

Introducing instability creates a desire in the audience for a return to stability. The road to getting back to a point of stability is then filled with moments of suspense that begin with uncertainty. 

WHAT IS suspense USED FOR?

Create uncertainty

Once instability is introduced, the audience will question the motivation of the force of the instability. In Inglourious Basterds, audiences will wonder “Why is Colonel Hans Landa here? What will he find?”

Another great example of this can be found in Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite. When the Kim family executes a mischievous plan to get the whole family a job working for a wealthy family, they get a maid fired in the process.

In the most pivotal moment of the film, the fired maid mysteriously appears at the door to retrieve something in the basement. What is it? Why is she here? The Kim family and the audience do not know. This is the uncertainty. 

This moment sets up one of the best plot twists of the last decade. Insider breaks down how Bong Joon-ho sets up the suspense with this moment in their video analysis below. 

How 'Parasite' Delivered One Of The Best Twists In Cinema  •  10 Minutes of Perfection

Both instability and uncertainty are key elements of suspense, but they are also characteristics of mystery. What differentiates the two? Like we discussed above, in suspense, audiences typically know information that a character in the story doesn't. This information commonly raises the stakes.


Raise the stakes

To develop general uncertainty into suspense, the audience must know what is specifically at stake. Understanding the stakes creates an emotional investment in what is occuring. In Inglourious Basterds, the stakes are raised when Tarantino shows us people hiding beneath the floorboards. 

In No Country for Old Men, one of the Coen Brothers’ best films, the stakes are set early on. The antagonist hit man, Anton Chigurh, is introduced as a psychopath who has no hesitation for murder. So when he starts walking with a gun at the same motel complex that the protagonist Llewelyn Moss is hiding in, we understand what’s at stake — Llewelyn’s life. 

No Country for Old Men  •  Motel Shootout Scene

Making it clear to the audience that a character’s life is at stake heightens their emotional investment and elevates a scene’s suspense. When we do not understand what is at stake, we are simply left with uncertainty and mystery. 


Suspense needs a pay off

A suspenseful scene creates anxiety and apprehension in the audience. Their anticipation of an outcome can only be realized once the outcome occurs. This is why suspense needs a pay off. A payoff acts as a resolution whether or not that resolution is good or bad for a character. 

In Orson Welles’ famous opening for a Touch of Evil, the explosion of the bomb was the pay off the audience anticipated for so long. Had the bomb not gone off, the audience would still have felt the suspense, but it would not have helped keep them engaged in the ongoing story. 

Touch of Evil  •  Opening Scene

When done effectively, suspense is one of the most potent ways to engage an audience. When creating it, it takes patience and intentionality. Suspense is often a slow burn that utilizes all of the elements we discussed above, but tailors them to a specific story. Take a look at the story you are telling and look for opportunities for suspense to hook your audience.


The Best Thriller Films of All Time

Suspense is an integral part of various film genres. However, it is perhaps most important to that of the thriller genre. To learn more about suspense and how to effectively create it, watch and analyze some of the best thrillers of all time which you can check out in our next article. 

Up Next: Best Thrillers Ever →
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