Creating SuspenseSuspense is much more than a genre. Just like conflict, suspense is something that every screenplay should have, regardless of the genre. It is a fundamental quality of good storytelling, and vital if you want to keep the audience’s attention.

Over the course of the last few years, the term “story-driven” has been labeled as formulaic. As a result, more and more writers are trying to avoid formula by writing stories that are completely devoid of suspense. But you don’t have to sacrifice original or unpredictable storytelling in order to keep the audience interested in what is going on.

Building Obstacles

Every character must have a goal. There must be a reason why they want to continue reaching for the goal waiting for them at the end of the movie. In order to make a story interesting, a character should have obstacles blocking his or her path.

The more obstacles you have, the more the character will have to work to overcome them. These can be particularly helpful when it comes to character development, as you can reveal more about a character’s personality or back story with well-conceived obstacles.

The best kinds of obstacles you can have in your screenplay are other characters. That way, instead of having to think of various road blocks for your main protagonist to get around, another character can regroup and find another means of impeding the protagonist’s journey. Antagonists are particularly good at this, as they have their own agendas, which can help you come up with ideas.

Remember, though, that the antagonist doesn’t need to be a villain in order to be an obstacle. It could be someone who morally objects to what the main character wants to do, and there are few things quite as interesting as an antagonist we can either understand or empathize with.

Raising the Stakes

The higher the stakes are, the more suspense you will create.  However, that doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to put the lives of your characters at risk in order to achieve that. The simplest and yet most effective way of raising the stakes is to make something incredibly important to the main character, and then put that thing at risk. If it’s possible, you should aim to do that for the entirety of your screenplay.

Say, for example, the most important thing to your character is his or her marriage, and someone has an affair, thus putting the marriage at risk. An ordinary marriage has been turned on its head, and in the process, the stakes have been raised. If your character is then fighting for his or her marriage throughout the script, the audience will be waiting with bated breath to see what happens next.

Taking an ordinary everyday life situation turning it upside down is a great way to intrigue your audience, giving them a solid base from which to empathize with the character. Take for example, Die Hard. John McClane is a cop on his way to Los Angeles to be with his wife and children over Christmas. When he gets there, he and his wife, Holly, have an argument. We can see that his marriage is threatened, but he still loves her. Then, out of nowhere, a group of terrorists take over the building where Holly works, and she is taken hostage. It’s left up to McClane to try to save her and the rest of the hostages. What was a perfectly ordinary situation (a Christmas visit) is turned on its head (a terrorist attack), and McClane now risks his own life to save his estranged wife.

Time Running Out

Few things are as suspenseful as a ticking clock. Time is running out before the bomb goes off, and the character is trying everything to disarm it.

Obviously it doesn’t have to be a literal bomb, but the fear of time running out is an effective tool. Say for example, someone has been poisoned with an unknown substance and the doctor has to find a cure quickly before the poison kills the patient. In this example, the stakes are high because someone’s life hangs in the balance.  The only thing missing are some obstacles, and this is a story with plenty of suspense.

Just remember that your characters are supposed to be real people, and for that reason, they should be slaves to time like the rest of us. In some cases, the ticking clock could be a deadline the character has no control over. Having no control over it, he or she must give in to it. Moreover, because we all experience some form of deadline regularly in our day-to-day lives, there are loads of deadlines that you could put your character up against.

Obviously, these three ideas – building obstacles, raising the stakes and time running out – can’t be present during every single scene of your screenplay.  Still, it’s helpful to remember them if you’re stuck and you know you won’t have another plot twist for a good 20 pages or so. The vast majority of writers often run into trouble during the middle of the story. They know how it will start and how it will end, but it’s getting there that’s the problem. Instead of relying too much on dialogue or allowing your characters to stand around for long periods of time talking, it’s best to look at these three ideas and see if you can put them into your story. By the end of it all, you should have an engaging screenplay that will stand out above the rest.