What is suspense?

Epistemic status: This is an attempt to write down what I think I know and understand about suspense — it’s a bit of a work in progress and I’ll update it as I think about it more. I’m writing it down and putting it out into the internet because it forces me to clarify and organize my thinking around this thing which I think is essential and yet often overlooked when it comes to how we talk about how to write.

For whatever reason, suspense seems to be thought of as a genre in of itself or a genre element reserved mainly for thrillers and mysteries.

For me, it’s an essential element of storytelling, something baked into the foundation of a good story — a prerequisite, a necessary condition.

Suspense is about keeping the reader wanting to keep on reading (or watching).

If boredom is the death of a story and interest is the opposite, then suspense is the emotional state of the interested reader or viewer.

Creating suspense means to put the audience in a suspended state, an incomplete state.

Human beings feel anxiety or tension when something is uncertain, undecided, or mysterious.

You can think of suspense as a kind of open loop. When you open the loop, the audience feels suspense that is not resolved until the loop is closed.

Suspense is an emotional state that can only be resolved by finding out what happens, by answering the question, by closing the loop.

Stories make a kind of promise.

When a loop is opened in a story, there’s an implicit promise that it will be closed by the end of the story. If you don’t close the loop, the audience will leave with unresolved tension, and possibly anger at being misled, or contempt at having the loop/promise closed in a way that is unsatisfying (deus ex machina or just shitty writing).

An unresolved loop can compel the audience to return next week (as in a cliffhanger) or just drive them nuts (as in an ending that doesn’t resolve enough).

Suspense is created by drawing the audience’s attention to something.

A woman looking at a tree feels nothing, but if you tell her that the tree could fall at any moment, she will be in a state of suspense: her mind will be focused on the possibility of the tree falling and the state will not be resolved until the tree falls or something happens to resolve her suspended state (e.g. convincing her that you were just kidding or that actually the tree won’t fall, of putting up a support to prevent the tree from falling).

To create suspense, you have to draw the audience’s attention to some uncertainty, mystery, or undecided outcome.

Two detectives looking at a dead body: one says that it’s on overdose. The other one says “no, I think it’s murder.”

Creating suspense similar to positioning in advertising or marketing, where you can change how someone feels about something just by pointing something out or posing them a question. Suspense has this in common with marketing: it’s about tension, tension that propels people towards action (buy this thing, keep reading, keep watching, etc.)

Sports have suspense built in naturally: who will win the game? Will the shot go into the goal?

But unlike stories, sports are only suspenseful in real time. If you know the outcome, watching a game is boring. How many people re-watch their favorite games vs. how many people re-watch their favorite movies?

[I’m still trying to figure out why stories are so different from sporting events when it comes to spoilers. People have been watching Hamlet for centuries and we all know what happens and how it happens, but there’s still something rewarding about going through it again.]

Sports are illustrative in another way: the uncertainty of an outcome isn’t enough to create suspense. You have to care who wins. The biggest, most improbably comeback in cricket is utterly boring to me. I can’t care about it, no matter how much I try. You couldn’t pay me to care about it.

So, stories need to open up a suspense loop, but they also need to make you care about what’s going to happen.

I think that people over-emphasize the role of character in how much we care. It’s not that character doesn’t matter, it’s just that it isn’t essential to creating a compelling story.

Certain story genres have suspense built in — mystery, thrillers, noirs. That’s why we associate suspense with those genres, but dramas and comedies and everything else need to keep the audience interested.

A body is found and the detective says it’s a murder but you don’t know who committed it.

But suspense isn’t confined to media — we use it all the time when we tell each other stories or gossip:

Someone says “did you hear about Jane?” or “did you hear about Jane’s relationship?” This can hook someone into a conversation or story much better than saying “Jane got divorced.”

A story about Jane’s divorce can have many suspense loops open.

The loops can be chained together or nested.

A chained loop goes like this:

  • Did you hear about Jane? [No, what happened?]
  • She got a divorce, but you won’t believe why. [Now I want to know why + the details].
  • Well it started when her husband found a box of fireworks in her garage. [Opens multiple new loops: why were there fireworks? Who put them there? How did her husband find them? How could this possibly lead to a divorce?]
  • And so on.

(a skilled storyteller brings a lot more than suspense — they omit superfluous details, they pace it well, they tell it with style, pick a good subject. etc.)

Some techniques for opening up a loop::

  • A question the audience wants answered (where’s he going, why is she in a hurry)
  • A puzzle.
  • A mystery.
  • Something unexplained (the ghost at the beginning of Hamlet).
  • An unexplained fact or phenomenon.
  • Any uncertain outcome.

A basic chain for a bank robbery story might look like this:

  1. Who is she?
  2. Why is she talking to this other woman?
  3. Why does she need to talk to her in private?
  4. Are they going to rob the bank?
  5. How are they going to get into the bank?
  6. How will they disable the security?
  7. How will they break into the vault?
  8. How will they get the money out?
  9. Will the police come?
  10. Will they escape the police?
  11. Will they get to keep the money?
  12. Will they still be friends after this?

Related: Editing and Forwards.

Reasons to watch movies

To go on an adventure (without personal risk).

To learn about a new culture or country; to see how other people live.

To have something to talk about with your friends.

To challenge your ideas or worldview, or to confirm it.

To laugh and have a good time.

To be scared.

To cry.

To feel understood.

To argue about something.

To escape the pain of your present life.

To participate in the culture, to be “in the know” or “in the conversation.”

To raise your status.

To develop taste.

To learn about fashion.

To rebel.

To be inspired.

To sit in an air-conditioned dark room for a while.

To distract yourself.

To share an experience with friends.

To have something to recommend to others (raise your status).

To be part of a group (“people like us watch movies like this”).

To connect with other humans.

To have something to talk about.

To have and accomplish a goal (“I’m going to watch all of the films of Ingmar Bergman.”)

To learn how to make your own movies.

To learn how not to make your own movies.

To find a new identity or a new way to live.

To watch an actor that you like watching.

To be completely engaged and lost in a story.

To remind ourselves to be more x or y.

To have something to hate or dislike or define ourselves against.

To critique or learn to be critical.

To give notes or help someone who is making the movie.

To understand someone else (through the movies they like).

To get turned on / in the mood for sex (alone or with partner(s)).

Catharsis.

Bohm on creativity, order, art, and mediocrity

Epistemic status: these thoughts are based on a book that I’m still in the middle of. I’m more trying to work out my thinking than I am trying to tell you what to think or how to make movies. Also, I have taken three physics classes in my life and none of them had a lot of math.1

I’m reading On Creativity by David Bohm, which I discovered through Guillaume Wolf’s You Are a Message.

I’m only on page 34. It’s one of those read-a-page-and-then-think-for-10 minutes kind of books.

Bohm starts by talking about how the physical universe is ordered. It’s a structure of many ordered objects or systems within a hierarchy of orders.

(more…)
  1. In college I took an intro to physics class. The one memory I have is of the professor looking up to see a kid leaving in the middle of his lecture. In his thick Russian accent, he asked the student “where are you going?” and the student said “I have something important to go to” and with a bewildered look, the professor said “more important than Newton?” and I thought that was just the funniest thing. 

Sociological vs. Psychological Storytelling

From The Real Reason Fans Hate the Last Season of Game of Thrones by Zynep Tufecki:

At its best, GOT was a beast as rare as a friendly dragon in King’s Landing: it was sociological and institutional storytelling in a medium dominated by the psychological and the individual. This structural storytelling era of the show lasted through the seasons when it was based on the novels by George R. R. Martin, who seemed to specialize in having characters evolve in response to the broader institutional settings, incentives and norms that surround them.

What they did is something different, but in many ways more fundamental: Benioff and Weiss steer the narrative lane away from the sociological and shifted to the psychological. That’s the main, and often only, way Hollywood and most television writers tell stories.

This is an important shift to dissect because whether we tell our stories primarily from a sociological or psychological point of view has great consequences for how we deal with our world and the problems we encounter.

Reading this article made me realize why I love about my favorite TV shows, The Wire and Deadwood, and why I find it so hard to find any shows in the modern landscape that I connect with on the same level.

It also made me realize that the stories I tend to write have a tendency towards the sociological instead of the psychological (I don’t think any story is 100% on either side of the spectrum).

It’s hard for me to limit something to just one or two main characters — I usually get bored and want to bring in more characters or throw a couple characters into many different situations where they interact with people from different parts of society or with different POVs. Or I start with a collection of ideas that I want to work through comedically or dramatically, and then map the characters or the situations to those ideas.

And I honestly get kind of bored just thinking about a single character overcoming their demons or whatever, and the typical screenwriting advice of “put your character in a bad place and then make their life hell” kind of bores me as well.

So it’s really refreshing to have someone put a name on a different kind of writing that I knew existed but had never seen put into words.

And come to think of it, my love for sociological storytelling probably also explains my love for The Office, which inspired the amazing series of sociological essays, The Gervais Principle. And it’s probably why I love Buñuel so much.

Same Boat

My friend and producer, Josh Itzkowitz, produced a film called Same Boat, a sci-fi comedy that was guerilla-filmed on a major cruise liner.

It’s very funny.

I think you should go to the Same Boat website and watch the trailer and sign up for their mailing list so you can see it when it’s available.

Film inspired by paintings

Just found these comparison videos by Vugar Efendi:

Is your film worth 8 cents an hour?

Oh man. Amazon is slashing royalties for video makers uploading to Prime Video:

For those that upload either episodic video shows or individual titles through Prime Video Direct, the program pays out royalties at set rates based on the aggregate hours viewed per title. In the U.S., Amazon paid between 6 cents and 15 cents per hour viewed in 2018; a similar sliding scale also exists for other Amazon markets the PVD program is offered including the U.K., Germany and Japan, according to a rate card.

Starting in April, Amazon is implementing changes to its U.S. rate card that will drop prices to between 4 cents and 10 cents per hour streamed, according to an email sent to Prime Video Direct account holders obtained by Digiday.


So let’s say you make an indie film and you get 100,000 hours of streaming (50k people watch a two-hour film) at 8 cents per hour. That adds up to $8,000.

It’s tough out on the long tail.

Deadwood returns

The Golden Age of Television is back, in movie form.

The Passage

God I love this short:

The Passage

It’s like when people say “shorts should really be under 15 minutes, unless…”

This is the unless.

The cut back to the guys struggling with the mannequin is magic.

Newsletter: Berlin + Feature Film Update

Reposted from today’s newsletter:

It’s December and for most Chicagoans that means turning inward to look deep inside ourselves and ask the age-old question: am I really going to do this fucking winter thing again?

“No! No, I am not!” I declared to myself while waiting for Amazon autoplay to kick in the next episode of Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.

I am going somewhere that is two degrees warmer on average, slightly less windy, but even grayer and rainier. That place is Berlin and I hear that it is NOT lovely this time of year. I don’t care. Coffee tastes better in the winter. And it’s a great time to GET STUFF DONE.

Anyway, I’m going for a month.

// still-untitled feature film update

I spent a weekend in November in NYC with Anna, the editor. The movie is like almost there. I screened a rough cut for some friends this week and the consensus was “it’s like almost there, but here’s 20 things you should think about or change.”

So, back to editing. ETA is still TBD but looking at Q2 FY2019.

Also, I’m really proud of this movie! It’s really weird! I’m still very shocked but eternally grateful that my friends read the script and said “we should make this.” I think half of doing anything big is just having friends who will shrug their shoulders and say “yeah, why not?”

Here’s a picture of the production from when it was summer:

(photo by Jeanne Donegan)

Have you seen The Favourite yet? It’s so so funny. And good.





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