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So, how much should I tell the audience? How to exercise the art of suspense. The story I am working on is a sort of crime drama and the question in these kinds of stories is always: how much are you telling the audience? And what effect does this decision have on the story and the impact you want the story to have. Back to kindergarten screenwriting.
This subject came up as I was talking to a friend about the art of suspense, but also trying to figure out for myself which option I like the most in this story. What I remember about it, but want to read about more again, is:
1) We know LESS THAN the protagonist.
We see things happening on screen and see the protagonist make plans and do stuff, but don’t know or see everything he is doing and we feel the suspense because we’re wondering if it will turn out ok and if yes, how? It usually shows the cleverness of the protagonist, when it is revealed how it turns out and why. Very intelligent choices and we are then impressed by how clever they were, coming up with these solutions out of our sight. Breaking Bad uses this a lot, where we see Walt and Jesse often say ‘I know how’ and we don’t know, until we see them doing it, the movie The Next Three Days (2010) also comes to mind.
2) We know the SAME AS the protagonist.
This heightens the suspense as we, just like the protagonist, have no idea what’s coming, his guess is as good as ours, but that means that also the danger is revealed to him at the same time as it is revealed to us. This evokes a different physical response as when we know less than the protagonist. Most horror and other scary, thriller movies made to let us jump out of our seats have this.
3) We know MORE THAN the protagonist.
We know what’s coming, the suspense comes from the question whether the protagonist (or another character) will discover what we already know, in time to avoid the danger or other consequences. This is called dramatic irony. This again evokes a different response in the audience and is a different kind of suspense. We know what can happen, but we are powerless to intervene. Breaking Bad uses this as well a lot. We know that Walt is Heisenberg, but his brother-in-law FBI agent Hank Schrader doesn’t know. And we wonder if he will discover it and what will happen if he does and we’re yelling at the TV when we see something is about to get uncovered and how will this get avoided. The Hitchcock movie Rope (1948) also uses this technique to name only one other example of the many examples out there.
Most movies and series use a combination of these suspense techniques and I need to figure out what kind of response I want to evoke from the audience with my story. Do I want to leave them in the dark about what’s going on, having them wonder and ‘inform’ them later? Do I want to scare the shit out of them? Or do I want to have them yell at the TV trying to prevent the protagonist from the imminent danger they know already? Or all of the above? And then in which part? I don’t know yet. I know the story I want to tell, well, most of it, but not sure how to reveal all those details of the story to the audience. I guess I will have to play with it and see what feels right, ask friends what they think about it in the different versions. But perhaps I don’t have to answer this just yet.
Something to be aware of in the movies I watch in the coming time and what it evokes in me and what I want my story to evoke. More homework.