Five movie/television scenes that will inspire your suspense writing
I pay attention when another author’s book captivates my attention. I’ll analyze the detail, pace, prose, and voice, and try to figure out what exactly it was that grabbed me. But, just as often, I’ll analyze an intriguing movie or television show to help my own suspense writing. Why did that show hook me? What about that movie made me hold my breath?
Here are five big- and little-screen examples of elevating suspense above the ordinary and how they will help you with your own storytelling.
Breaking Bad (Pilot)
This is a classic what-the-hell-is-happening episode, with the viewer thrown into instant chaos. A man wearing nothing but his underwear and a gas mask frantically tries to control his RV as he speeds through the desert. Cut to bodies on the floor, sliding back and forth. RV careens into a ditch, driver gets out. He’s middle-aged, scared, and somehow relatable. There’s an instant sense that he’s not a bad guy, so we decide—for no real reason—to root for him. As he records a farewell to his wife and son with a video camera, we hear the approach of sirens.
Are you kidding me? Watch the first few minutes and tell me you don’t care what happens next. I won’t believe you if you do.
How this helps your writing: Throw your reader immediately into the fire. No setup—just straight to the flames. But keep the chaos simple, or your reader might get too confused to care.
Jaws (The Indianapolis Speech)
This is the epitome of a riveting monologue. Slow, steady, controlled, accented by the soft creaking of boat rocking on gentle waters. Nighttime. Robert Shaw, as Quint, tells his two boatmates a horrifying story about sharks. But listen to the words. The casual asides. Watch his face. The slight grins. His pauses as he sips his drinks. All those little motions and breaks make the impact sentences punch you in the gut. “When he comes at you, he doesn’t seem to be living. Until he bites you, and those black eyes roll over white.”
How this helps your writing: The key to tension is often the lack of anything big happening. Keep it subtle. In this case, it’s just a guy talking, telling a soft-voiced story. But the impact words (bite, scream, blood) fall into a poetic rhythm, dropping sporadically at the beginning of the speech and then falling like rain as the story reaches its climax. Robert Shaw hardly talks above a whisper in this scene. He doesn’t have to.
Fargo, Season 1 (Pilot) – There Be Dragons scene
The movie Fargo is a gem and a study unto itself, but season one of the eponymous television series is a treasure trove for writers. Case in point: toward the end of the pilot episode, Lorne Malvo (Billy Bob Thornton) is pulled over at night for speeding by small-town cop Gus Grimly (Colin Hanks). Hanks’s aw-shucks, Midwest attitude is beautifully contrasted by Thornton’s dead-eyed, emotionless delivery. When Hanks asks for his license and registration, Thornton counters with a chillingly honest assessment of what will happen next. It’s tense and original, with even a reference to old-world maps using there be dragons to indicate unexplored territories.
How this helps your writing: You know what makes an evil character particularly scary? One
Harvey Keitel and Tim Roth appear in Reservoir Dogs, an official selection of the From the Collection program at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute.
who is understated and true to his or her twisted beliefs. Thornton’s only weapons in this scene are his words and his confidence, both of which are used to full effect. Make your bad guy or girl believe fully in what they are doing, and have them do their horrible deeds with a detached calm. Now that’s scary. See also: Chigurh (No Country for Old Men).
The whole fucking thing. Watch the whole thing, then watch it again. Then read the story, then watch the movie again. Go. Now.
How this helps your writing: There is no greater sympathetic character than Andy Dufresne. And it’s not just because he’s innocent: it’s because every person watching or reading Shawshank pictures themselves in Dufresne’s shoes. His story is ultimately one long game of what would you do? If you can make your reader exist in your protagonist’s shoes for the whole story, it’s hard to falter.
Reservoir Dogs (Tipping Scene)
There is no substitute for clever writing, and mining small, humorous nuggets in a scene can vastly bolster a dramatic overall storyline. This has to be done very carefully; if not done well, it will appear as if the writer is trying too hard. Watch the scene where Mr. Pink (Steve Buscemi) dines with his would-be heist mates and unleashes a barrage about why he doesn’t believe in tipping. It’s short, unexpected, and funny; moreover, it offers a very humanistic insight to a character we know very little about. Even better? The hatred Mr. Pink’s position brings out in the other criminals. While the monologue paints Mr. Pink in a Libertarian shade, it elevates the other crooks to a Robin Hood level. Sure, they’ll steal diamonds from the rich, but God forbid you stiff a waitress her tip.
How this helps your writing: Quirky and funny in small doses will make any work of suspense that much more memorable. Moreover, it keeps the reader just a little off-balance, making scenes of tension and violence all the more jarring. But don’t overdo it, or you will take the reader too far out of the story to care.
USA Today bestselling author Carter Wilson explores the depths of psychological tension and paranoia in his dark, domestic thrillers. Carter is a two-time winner of both the Colorado Book Award and the International Book Award, and his novels have received critical acclaim including multiple starred reviews from Publishers Weekly and Library Journal.
His highly anticipated fifth novel, Mister Tender’s Girl, will be released in February 2018 by Sourcebooks Landmark.