The surest way to keep an audience on the edge of their seats is to keep them in suspense. To do this, you start with something interesting but fail to provide an answer. As long as this hidden information is interesting in some way, audiences will stay intrigued as long as you promise to reveal the answer later and release subtle hints of the answer along the way.
On a blatant level, there’s an odd movie called “Frank,” which is about a musical genius who hides his face inside a giant paper head. Because this is so odd, it immediately grabs our attention because we want to know what Frank actually looks like and why he covers his head all the time.
“Frank” is an example of creating a mystery and holding back the answer. Most movies simply hide the goal of the villain. In “Star Wars,” we get hints of Darth Vader’s goal right from the start. He captures Princess Leia, he sends stormtroopers after some information that Princess Leia hid in R2D2, and he has a Death Star that can blow up entire planets. What we don’t know is why he;’s doing all this. Eventually we find out it’s because he wants to find and destroy the rebel base, which was his goal from the very beginning.
Movies with frame scenes give us a glimpse of the future and then return to the past. Now we want to know how the future occurs. In the opening scene in “Pulp Fiction,” we see two people robbing a coffee shop. Now we want to know the events leading up to this robbery.
Sometimes the suspense isn’t what the hero is doing, but how will he do it. In “Django Unchained,” the hero wants to rescue his wife out of slavery. The goal is clear but the method he will do it is a mystery, especially when the odds are so heavily stacked against him. In these types of stories, the hero often creates a plan that seems to work right up until it fails dramatically. Then the hero has to improvise in a hurry to defeat the villain in the end.
So several ways to create suspense include:
- Withhold an answer (such as why a man would hide his face from everyone in “Frank”)
- Withhold the villain’s goal (such as what is Darth Vader trying to do in “Star Was”)
- Show us the future, then flashback to the past (such as the opening scene in “Pulp Fiction”)
- Show us the hero’s goal but make us wonder how the hero can possibly achieve it (such as in “Django Unchained”)
Suspense is crucial to grabbing your audience’s attention and holding it throughout your entire story. Fail to grab your audiences attention and your story will falter.