Creating suspense in the thriller genre
Before this site, I'd read a thriller and say yeah that worked or no that didn't work. Maybe, by osmosis, I'd be able to apply what the author had done well to my own work.
Since we've been doing these reviews, though, I've had to figure out WHY I think a script works. A process which has led to the following list of suspense creating techniques for the thriller genre:
1. Imaginary information (showing alternate versions of the truth)
2. Necessary information (giving a character something that needs doing and allowing him/her not to do it)
3. Distracting information (at a critical moment, reversing the trajectory of a scene by way of a scream, gunshot, etc)
4. Random information (I called this the lucky break or the bad break)
5. Withholding information (a character says the equivalent of ‘this changes everything, and then doesn’t tell you how)
6. Camouflaged information (taking a familiar object and calling it by a more complex name)
7. Highlighted information (taking an ordinary object, or action and drawing excessive attention to it)
8. Crowding information (making one thread in your story easy to figure out so that another, more important, thread is missed)
9. Glazing information (Think of your character like a dressed-up dish. You, the cook, coat them with all sorts of traits which is their representation of what they are to the world. If the “glaze” hides what they really are and yet is CONSISTENT with what they really are, you’ve pulled this technique off.)
10. Impossible information (presenting sensorial evidence to a character in your story which is flatly contradicted by what the character knows to be the truth)
I'm thinking that by pulling (with as much variety as possible) from this list as you design your plot points, you can't fail to create suspense.
I was wondering if this idea strikes you writers as plausible, and if there is anything you know of that could be added to the list. I've been adding to is as I come across something new in a review.
Well, I think suspense is useful in any script- not just thrillers.
And I think it's important to have the characters in suspense, not just the reader. For example the cliched character-has-amnesia schtick. Great way to keep tje character in suspense. Plus, the reader is wondering when they'll get their memory back. Perfect example: "Total Recall" (original one)
Does amnesia fall under any of your 10 above?
In books, my favorite form of suspense is the shifting view point; Have action going on, then throw in a chapter break. Next chapter, BAM. You've gone flashback. Or maybe from a different perspective. Think Pulp Fiction. It was so irritating to keep jumping around, making you wait to see how a mini story was going to end. TV's "Heroes" was built around this.
Roy, I love this genre. These are very helpful tools for honing a plot. I hadn't really thought of this kind of approach when I wrote my screenplays (both are in this genre), but I can see where this list might have been of assistance during the writing process. I do have a question on #9, to be sure I understand it correctly. If a character deliberately misrepresents himself to the other characters in a story, for a specific purpose, would this be considered glazing? Foster Cole, the protagonist in BURNED (I realize you haven't read it yet, so I don't want to spoil it for you), might be doing this. He is working throughout the story to gain the trust of his "kidnappers", misrepresenting himself to them in order to get the upper hand. Well, that's not altogether accurate. He always had the upper hand, I suppose. I guess what I'm searching for here is does the glazing come from the character's environment or his place within the story, or can it originate from within the character, himself, as in the case of my Foster Cole character?
Thanks for this list!
I thought of glazing as being misdirection for the reader/audience... like Arnold in Total Recall. We think he's just a humble working class husband, thrown into a world of espionage. Then we, and he, find out he's a bad ass super spy.
Robert Downey's Sherlock Holmes might fit this too: a scruffy, eccentric, apparently crazy person, who turns out to be a super genius crime solver. If you'd never heard of Sherlock Holmes before.
I propose that Glazing goes hand in hand with Character Arcing. A character who arcs does change, while a glazed character is revealed, without necessarily changing.
You bring up a lot of great points. You do want suspense in every story. By doing these reviews I've come to look at the writer/reader partnership as an exchange of information. You know a story is successful when the reader HAS to get the information only the writer has.
Originally Posted by CEMartin2
In that sense every story is a mystery or, at least, a discovery.
Your point about keeping the characters in suspense is also important. Of course, if I say too much here, I'll start talking about arcs again
Amnesia is interesting. Memento immediately leaps to mind even though the issue there wasn't amnesia. For sure in that story, the reader is rooting for the recovery of Guy Pearce's knowledge-- since the recovery of the memory was impossible.
Man, CE, as I look through the list now, I think Memento would be a perfect script to look at in terms of this list. I can see 5 techniques from the list used in the movie without even thinking hard.
You may have just convinced me of what the next reader favorite will be.
Last edited by Roy; 05-30-2012 at 04:53 PM.
Thanks for the thanks This list is new to me too. I didn't begin it until The Numbers Station review. It's grown since then as I've reviewed more thrillers.
Originally Posted by MichaelJennings
As for your question, I originally meant it for it to come from the character-- so, exactly what you've done with your Foster Cole.
I think it would work if it came from the environment as well. Off the top of my head, it occurs to me that this could be the technique M Night used to lend all that gravity to his twist in The Sixth Sense. I'll have to think about that some more.
Fantastic list Roy. Here are two more:
Tip of the Iceberg - Whenever you answer a question by giving the reader information, you always want to raise another, deeper question. Never answer a question without raising at least one more immediately after or at the same time. This is particularly useful during major transition points, set pieces, etc.
Breadcrumbing - Pace the information by doling it out in little snippets, little breadcrumbs of information if you will. Never dump a bunch of answers or the solution to a huge clue all at once. This keeps the reader on their tiptoes.
Fantastic list though Roy.
BTW if anybody has the numbers station script, I'd love to get my hands on it, hint hint.
Originally Posted by Classy Vandal
Excellent additions. I'll look for these in future reviews.
I absolutely love writing in this genre; it's just ridiculously fun.
One of my favorite ways to use the genre is to play with the overused tropes. I try to convince the reader that a situation or circumstance is bound to turn out one way (by laying the groundwork like most other films in the genre), then turning everything upside down, hopefully in a direction that wasn't as obvious as the reader had expected.