Increasing the Tension and Suspense in a Scene

Here’s the wrong way to look at writing a scene. Slap together a handful of exciting scenes and then spend the rest of your screenplay creating scenes that do nothing but setup the far more exciting scenes. If you do this approach (which far too many novices do), you’ll likely write a screenplay that’s 80% boring and 20% interesting, which means you have a 100% chance of getting rejected.

Instead of thinking of scenes only as ways to provide exposition and push the story along towards more exciting scenes, a far better approach is to make every scene exciting. To do that, focus on these two techniques:

  • Increase the risk
  • Identify what could be lost

There’s a simple scene in “Five Easy Pieces” where Jack Nicholson orders toast. That might seem boring but the scene becomes far more interesting when the waitress says they don’t serve toast. Rather than simply give up, Jack Nicolson increases the risk by insisting he wants toast to the point where he orders a BLT sandwich but asks that the waitress omit everything but the toasted bread.

In this scene, conflict increases the risk because now both the waitress and jack Nicolson don’t want to lose face and give in to the other person. It’s a trivial issue but because that conflict increases the risk for both characters, it makes that scene far more interesting than a scene that exists solely to dump exposition to the reader.

Action movie scenes offer a much easier way to see how increasing risk makes the scene more interesting. In “Star Wars,” Luke and Obi-wan are trying to board the Millennium Falcon to leave for Princess Leia’s planet when storm troopers burst into the star port and start shooting at them, forcing Hans to shoot back.

That scene increases the risk for Luke and makes us wonder if he’ll be able to take off as planned or if he’ll be caught or even killed. By simply increasing the risk to a character, any scene can become far more intriguing.

Similarly, a scene can focus on what could be lost. In the beginning of “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” Indiana Jones has retrieved an artifact and now the entire cavern is collapsing around him, forcing him to flee. Not only must Indiana Jones escape with his life (increased risk), but he must also get out with the artifact (what could be lost).

Since we can clearly see the risk and what could be lost in this opening scene, it grabs our attention.

So when writing your own scenes, keep this guideline in mind. Increase the risk to one or more characters and identify what could be lost. If you can do both in every scene, you’ll create a far more engaging screenplay where every scene is interesting, and that will make an entire screenplay that’s interesting as well.

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