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.

Stories as maps

A story is like a map.

A map is not the territory and a story is not exactly what happened.

A map erases certain features to bring others into relief.

A story is condensed.

Because it’s condensed, it has a POV, a POV about what to include and what to elide.

A story creates meaning like a map, by picking the events, their order, and their connections, just like a cartographer chooses the scale, center, and what to include on a map.

A story starts somewhere and ends somewhere, and these are not arbitrary points.

A story can be true and a lie or it can be fiction and deeply true.

A good map helps us understand the territory at the level of detail that’s important to us.

A good story helps us understand humans, cultures, relationships, or societies at the level of detail that’s important to us.

Marketing, Drama, and Tension

Ever since reading This is Marketing by Seth Godin, I’ve been thinking a lot about the similarities between marketing and dramatic storytelling.

There’s a flatness to a lot of marketing. It doesn’t move anyone. It looks like marketing (or advertising), but it’s not really marketing. It’s not engaging. It fails to create tension.

(I’m distinguishing here between advertising, which is one form of delivering a marketing message and marketing, which is more akin to persuasion and not necessarily commercial in nature)

Stories can be this way too. Have you ever read a screenplay that just. feels. so. hard. to. get. through? It’s not just “I’m not enjoying this”, it’s “my brain does not want to keep reading and I don’t know why it’s so hard to just keep reading.”

If there’s no tension, then you don’t want to know what happens next. A story without tension, without forward motion, is worse than nothing at all. I’d rather stare up at the sky and watch the clouds pass by than sit through a movie with a story that I don’t care about.

Anyway, it feels like there is something important here, that stories and marketing both rely on the same mechanism to capture attention or to propel action.

Tension moves a story forward. It makes us want to turn the page. It makes us interested in the product or an idea, it makes us want to purchase something or learn more about a political candidate or change our mind about something.

And it feels like discovering a secret, because once I saw it, I could see something that had been hidden all along.

Marketers get caught up in tactics, without thinking about how to move people. Dramatic writers (i.e. screenwriters and playwrights) create series of events that may be connected, but have no propulsion. No reason to care, no reason to want to know what happens next.

So they look like a screenplay but they’re empty in a way. Just because there’s a series of scenes doesn’t mean there’s drama. Just because an ad is displayed on Facebook doesn’t mean it’s marketing.

But we don’t talk about how to create tension. Sometimes we talk about structure or acts, but rarely about “how do you keep someone interested?” (more on this later).

Tension is value-neutral, an essential component of these practices. It can be used to sell harmful products and it can be used to keep you watching an empty TV show.

We’ve all made a purchase we regretted or finished a TV show or movie or book and felt empty at the end, propelled by tension to an unsatisfying or cheap ending.

Drama / melodrama / comedy / farce

I love this definition of the big four genres, by Sidney Lumet in Making Movies:

In drama, the characters should determine the story.

In melodrama, the story determines the characters. Melodrama makes the story line its highest priority, and everything is subservient to story.

For me, farce is the comic equivalent of melodrama and comedy the comic equivalent of drama.

Travailler, toujours travailler.

Roding then took Rilke outside for a tour of the grounds. As they walked, Roding began to tell Rilke about his life, but not in the way one might speak to a journalist on assignment. He understood that Rilke was a fellow artist, and so he framed his stories as lessons that the young poet might take as examples.

Above all else, he stressed to Rilke, Travailler, toujours travailler. You must work, always work, he said.

“To this I devoted my youth.” But it was not enough to make work, the word he preferred to “art”; one had to live it.

That meant renouncing the trappings of earthly pleasures, like fine wine, sedating sofas, even one’s own children, should they prove distracting form the pursuit.

— from You Must Change Your Life: The Story of Rainer Maria Rilke and Auguste Rodin by Rachel Corbett

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.

A Review of Highland 2 (vs. Final Draft)

This isn’t meant to be an in-depth review of every single feature. I’m going to share some of the things that I love about Highland 2 (just going to call it Highland from here on out) and a few things that I don’t love.

As background: I’ve been using Final Draft since 2011. Last year, I upgraded from version ~71 to version 10. Final Draft was never a joy to use, but it got the job done and I could ignore all the clutter and work around the idiosyncrasies and get my writing done.

And while I am pretty critical of Final Draft, I should say that it has been a big part of my life and work since I started using it. It helped me write hundreds of pages of scripts, including all of my films, several plays, and many many sketches. I’ve used it for over a thousand hours (maybe a few thousand?) and it has served me very well. I hope they can improve the user interface and modernize the software, because I want there to be multiple great choices in the marketplace.

For the past week, I’ve been using Highland every day, working two-three hours per day on the first draft of a comedy screenplay. I’m using the Pro version but the free version includes most of the features of the Pro version.

(more…)
  1. I honestly can’t remember what version I was using. 

Screenwriting as a professional fascination

Screenwriting, as a professional fascination, is built on desires for personal approval that can be as fruitless and full of wish-thinking as gambling-addiction. Screenwriting is not filmmaking, it’s a part of filmmaking, it’s one of the blueprints, but it is not a good litmus test for the quality of a movie, clearly; Studios sign huge checks to great screenplays to then receive the worst Rotten Tomatoes scores in history. The Thunder Road Screenplay received multiple 3/10 ratings on The Blacklist. Yesterday, The Academy’s screenplay library reached out to have it added to their collection. The screenplay for Dunkirk is 70 pages. The only thing (Academy Award Winning Screenwriter) Diablo Cody knew about screenwriting when she wrote Juno was that “the dialogue is in the middle.” It’s ok to suck at writing screenplays if you know what will make a great movie and if you want to understand how people engage with movies in 2018, don’t study the script for Seabiscuit, get a Reddit Account like a normal person.

Jim Cummings

Shout it from the rooftops!

I really like what Jim has to say about independent filmmaking. It’s refreshing and intelligent.

The crap +1 fallacy

Another gem I picked up at Austin Film Festival: the crap +1 fallacy.

The fallacy is that you see a bad movie and think that all you have to do to succeed is write something a little better. 

It’s a fallacy because you can’t see the myriad reasons why the movie didn’t end up well–the missteps, the studio interference, actor problems, mistakes, and concessions that made a bad movie out of a good script. Your screenplay isn’t competing with the crappy final version of a movie — it’s competing with the good script that got mangled after it was purchased.

I get this completely, but I have seen films at festivals where I thought “oh, I can make something better than this” and that has been an effective motivator for me at times. 

The Not Actually Crap corollary: the movie was bad but made a ton of money. Sure, to your refined taste it was an artistic failure, but to the fat cat investors it was a resounding success.

Also known as You Are Not the Audience (YANTA). Hint: the audience is probably teenage boys or Chinese moviegoers.

Everyone is writing TV pilots

One thing I noticed at AFF was that a LOT of people are writing TV pilots. It seems like every aspiring-to-be-professional writer I met had entered a pilot into the screenwriting contest or was working on a pilot or was trying to break into TV with their pilot. 

I had a conversation with a woman who was developing a pilot for a show that was an autobiographical story of how she found love later in life. I liked the story. I think it would be a good rom-com.

I asked her if it wouldn’t be better as a movie. As someone who lives in Austin, she has virtually no chance of that pilot getting made. First it has to be a great concept. I like the idea but it’s not like earth-shattering and the audience is somewhat limited. 

Second, she has to get the idea into the hands of people that can make it a reality, which is basically a few different studios or Netflix or Amazon or Apple. 

She doesn’t really have connections there. And it’s very rare that a first-time writer just gets a show made like that.

I told her that it would be much easier to make as a movie. You just have to find a producer that wants to make it. It’s much easier to find an indie producer than a willing TV executive, especially since there are so many possible budget ranges. You could do her idea for $200k, $500k, $1 million, or $20 million. 

It’s still hard; it’s still a longshot. I just see a better path there. And it’s her story. She wants it to be told. You can make a movie through sheer force of will. You cannot make a TV show that way. There are just too many factors outside of your control.

She could also write a play, a really funny play. All of these strategies hinge on the material being really good, although honestly, the indie feature route has the least reliance on having a good script.

A lot of the people with pilots in Austin were people that lived in not Los Angeles. It’s pretty damn hard to break into TV if you’re not in Los Angeles. I’m not really sure what their career strategy is. Maybe it’s submitting to contests, hoping to win one that gets them a manager? There are many ways in but I know that if my main goal in life was to write for television that I would have moved to L.A. years ago. 

I went to a panel with the director of filmmaker labs at Film Independent. She said that comedy features are very much underrepresented in their submissions for the screenwriting lab.

I think everyone who wants to write comedy went over to the pilot side, which in one way makes sense because there are more writing jobs in TV, but then again, there’s only a loose connection between the jobs and what gets you the job. 

Why not zig when others are zagging?





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