To keep your audience on the edge of their seats, give them a cliff-hanger — literally.
Early movies were called cliff hangers because each segment ended with an event that would keep people on the edge of their seat, such as having the heroine tied to train tracks with a train fast approaching. With such a scene like that, an audience couldn’t help but want to see what happens next.
That’s what a cliff hanger does. It holds the audience in suspense and then it relieves that suspense. Before the audience’s attention wanders, the story starts up another sequence that grabs the audience’s attention, leaves them with a cliff hanger, and keeps the audience glued to the edge of their seats.
Think of a thriller like “Jurassic Park.” Like most movies, “Jurassic Park” contains multiple cliff hangers such as when the computer programmer tries to sneak off with the dinosaur embryos and we’ll left wondering, “Will he get away with it?”
Another cliff hanger occurs when the T-Rex breaks free and we’re glued to our seats wondering, “Will the humans get away from it?”
Still another cliff hanger occurs when the two kids and the paleontologist are climbing the electric fence and we’re wondering, “Will they make it over in time before the electricity comes back on?”
Cliff hangers essentially tease the audience along until the final climax. What happens when you get rid of a cliff hanger? You have a boring movie.
In every movie, we always want to know what happens next. Take away this anticipation and you’re left with just wondering, “What’s going on and why should I care?”
Every movie creates a major cliff hanger as we wonder, “Will the hero get what he wants?” Think of “Grease” where we wonder if the boy and girl will ever get together again. Think of “Up” where we wonder if the old man will ever find happiness again? Think of “Finding Nemo” where we wonder if the fish will ever rescue his son?
The three-act structure of every movie starts out with Act I simply defining a problem and getting us interested in, “What happens next?”
Act II complicates the problem and keeps us wondering, “Will the hero win?” Act III shows the hero battling the villain and ultimately answers the initial question of “What happens next? In this case, Act III tells us what happens and that’s the end of the movie.
As soon as Act III answers the question posed by Act I, the story is over. What happens during a movie is that you have multiple questions that keeps the audience asking, “What happens next?”
Here’s the trick. After you pose one question that gets the audience wondering, “What happens next?” you pose a second question that keeps the audience wondering what happens next. Then you answer the first question of what happens but now the audience is still glued to their seats wondering about the second question.
In other words, don’t answer a question without posing another one. This insures that the audience is always wondering, “What happens next” and keeps suspense going, which ultimately makes your movie interesting.