Key questions for this unit:

  • What is the difference between suspense and surprise?
  • How do film makers create suspense?
  • What skills can I use to create a suspense film

The Great Train Robbery


Jaws opening


Jaws – later scene





Some broad principles for creating suspense – what are the ‘rules’?

Notes taken from ‘Screenwriting Tricks for Authors’ – Alexandra Sokoloff:

1. ASK A CENTRAL QUESTION with your story. e.g. What is going to happen next, who or what is hiding in the dark corner?

2. STAKES. What do we FEAR is going to happen?

A good story makes the stakes crystal clear—from the very beginning of the story.  We know right up front in Silence of the Lambs that there’s a serial killer out there who will not stop killing young women until he is caught or killed. How do we know that? The characters say it, flat out, and not just once, and not just one character.

You need to tell your audience what they’re supposed to be afraid of.

What is scary in the physical environment, in the visual and in the symbolism of the space? How can you use sound to create chills? What is going through the character’s head that increases the danger of the experience?

4. You have to make the audience  CARE. Because if they don’t care about the characters, then they have no personal stake in the stakes.

5. You have to layer in all six senses—what it looks, smells, sounds, feels, tastes like—as well as what your characters sense is there, even though there’s no physical evidence for it. You have to create the effect of an adrenaline rush. In a  good suspense scene the pace can actually slow down, so that every detail stands out and every move takes ages to complete.


7. USE INTERIOR MONOLOGUE –  So we know what the character is thinking/feeling



1. Prepare an outline for a 2 minute sequence from a suspense film.

Note – this is just a small part of a much longer film and does not have to be a complete story in itself. (Don’t try to do too much).

In your outline, you must cover the 7 principles listed above.

At this stage, don’t worry about the specific film techniques you will use, but do design a scenario which you can film later.

A good place to start is with a discussion of what scares you.

2. Pitch your ideas to another group in the class and make a note of their feedback

3. Make adjustments to your ideas. Present a pitch to the producer (KB)

Suspense film teams

Filming roles

You will be given one of the following film roles. Let’s imagine the roles are to be  be determined by ‘drawing of lots’. How might the drawing of lots be made suspenseful?

  • Cinematographer
  • Editor
  • Sound Designer
  • Director

For the next exercise, sit with other people in the same role (not in your film team).

Film techniques that are used to create suspense:

Look carefully at the following film clips and make notes on the techniques that are used to create suspense.

Specifically, what will you be looking/ listening for if you are:

a) cinematographer

b) editor

c) sound designer

d) director 

Opening of Midnight Express



Cat People – swimming pool


Cat People – stalking





Silence of The Lambs



For full class discussion:


Duel – Chuck’s Cafe

The Lovely Bones   (1.39.06)

The Fellowship of The Rings   (at 52.21)


Armed with this new information about film techniques, go back to your film team and discuss how you will turn your suspense story ideas into a film extract.

Stages in the film production

1. Brainstorming


3. Location scouting

4.Script    See this example from Script – After.Life

5. Annotated script

6.  Storyboard – sketches  or still images for 3 key shots. You must also include notes for the various elements of the soundtrack (music, foley etc)

7. Design a production schedule

8. Production schedule – filming

8. Production – editing

8. Rough cut – critical friends exercise

9. Final cut

10. Suspense sequence reflection & evaluation (this document will be changed)





Before filming you need to complete the following skills checklists and demonstrate your skills to KB. This will involve you being tested.

Director pre-production skills

Sound Designer skills

Editor skills 

Cinematographer skills

Note: At the beginning of each session try to identify the following (10 minutes)

  • what you, as a group, intend to achieve
  • what you as an individual will contribute – link this to skills expected of you in your role as Director, Cinematographer, Editor, Sound Designer. Identify specific skills
  • Write up these notes quickly on you googlesite.
  • At the end of each session (or by the beginning of the next session), return to these notes and evaluate how successful you were in achieving your goals and using skills.

Remember to keep asking yourself this question:

“What am I contributing to the suspense of the film in my role as Editor, Cinematographer, Director or Sound Designer?”

These documents should serve as a reminder to you:

Camera Skills,

Sound Design


As Director, you have control over all of the above and work directly with the actors (known as ‘the talent’)



Day for night shooting



Suspense in Western movies

See this document