5 Tips for Building Better Cinematic Suspense

Cinematic suspense, whether the final product will be on TV or in movie theaters, starts with the script. So remember to add the following mix to what you’re writing ASAP: (Yes, even to those that are defined as camera techniques. After all, it’s the script that tells the director to use them)


by Caleb Davis

If you are like me, then you appreciate a film that is so suspenseful it quite literally brings you to the edge of your seat. It’s in those moments, when a film is not a series of shots but rather a cohesive, frightful and nerve racking story, that it has accomplished its goal of creating suspense.

What are common filmmaking techniques for creating suspense? I’ve listed out my favorites below. Use these tips and examples to help improve your film’s suspenseful edge.

Tip #1: Give You Character Breathing Room

Many films today utilize a fast cutting routine of quick edits and spastic pacing that encourages a quick cheap suspense. For deeply suspenseful editing, try giving your characters a few extra seconds of screen time. Create a slow, methodical pacing in your scene, showcasing close-ups.

If you are in the process of revealing an important plot element, or simply establishing the anxious nature of the character surrounding their situation, allow the shot to linger before cutting away. The longer you hold on your character, the more anxious the audience will become when the stakes get high.

Tip #2: Time Your Reveal

Suspense in film is based around the anticipation of an upcoming event, and how the story unfolds in the attempt to get there. As you decide where to place your reveal, allow your cuts to build without becoming too hasty. As we can see in this example from The Dark Knight, music plays an important role in building the tension until the reveal.

Read it all at Premium Beat

A Few Thoughts about TRANSPARENT

Hey, we understand that Amazon’s TRANSPARENT is a big deal show. Critics love it. It makes us feel. But when all is said, is TRANSPARENT really a sitcom? Is it – wait for it – funny?

transparent headerby Ken Levine

Emmy voting has begun.

TRANSPARENT is a wonderful show. It is filled with rich characters, novel situations, tremendous heart, superb performances, inspired writing, and it courageously tackles a delicate subject with compassion and conviction. It’s far and away the best new show of the current season.

But I’m not voting for it.


Because it was submitted as a “Best Comedy” candidate.

I’m sorry, but TRANSPARENT is not a comedy. There are humorous touches, but it is a deeply affecting drama. It’s like a rightfielder winning the Cy Young Award for Best Pitcher because he’s got a good arm and throws accurately from rightfield. He’s not PITCHING. Or a girl from Italy comes to the U.S. on a work visa and wins Miss America.

If TRANSPARENT was vying for “Best Drama” I would vote for it in a second. I would cheerfully vote for it over MAD MEN. And sorry Jon Hamm, but I would vote for Jeffrey Tambor. I’d also vote for Amy Landecker, but not if I have to judge on the basis of comic chops.

Just because TRANSPARENT is a half-hour doesn’t make it a comedy.

The objective of a comedy should be to make people LAUGH. And yet, that goal is viewed as being almost unimportant. Comedy again gets no respect. It’s lightweight, frivolous. Anybody can do comedy. So to gain respect, comedies must now be dramas disguised as comedies.

Here’s the dirty little secret: Anybody CAN’T do comedy. Writing comedy is HARD….

Read it all at Ken Levine’s blog

Diana Black on Building Dramatic Conflict and Tension

tennis hell

The Tennis Match
by Diana Black

Humans tend to thrive on conflict; without a ‘them’, it’s harder to define an ‘us’. A tennis match or a TV drama; it’s all the same for the observer – how to win and how not to lose – Survival 101. The most memorable of battles are not the slam dunk variety. We want ‘blood’ with a ‘fight to the death’ between two equally matched rivals. We sit on the sidelines with bated breath; licking our slavering chops at the smell of victory or, succumbing to despair with the smell of defeat. No one wants to be a loser.

The classic example of a prelude to the ‘Tennis Match’ comes from Edward Albee’s Whose Afraid of Virginia Woolf(1962). For the illiterate among you, spend a few moments of your precious time viewing the late great Robert Burton and Elizabeth Taylor at their best and most vicious in the characters of George and Martha; the film version directed by Mike Nichols. It’s an ugly yet breath-taking example of just how nasty it can get when the gloves come off in a toxic relationship.

Martha: I looked at you tonight and you weren’t there!… I’m not gonna give a damn what I do…
George: You try and I’ll beat you at your own game.
Martha: Is that a threat, George, huh?
George: That’s a threat, Martha.
Martha: You’re gonna get it, baby.
George: Be careful, Martha. I’ll rip you to pieces.
Martha: You’re not man enough. You haven’t the guts!
George: Total war?
Martha: Total!

And then he wins, delivering a crushing defeat, albeit a necessary one in order for them to ‘move on’ psychologically; yet they love one another.

As writers – even those of us who are nice, fine-and-upstanding people – we have no choice but to put the characters through hell. The viewers, en masse, a primitive and ghastly lot, don’t want to see a quick fight. No, no, no… the characters must suffer a terrible defeat or after going through hell, be gloriously triumphant.

That means, like George and Martha, it’s ‘game on’ for young and old – quite disgusting, yet people pay big money for such a voyeuristic experience.

What of the ‘ball’ in the tennis match? For your TV Pilot to be received favorably, ‘it’ must never be dropped, not ever. The ball is the energy level you’ve maintained via the dramatic tension you’ve created (or not) with both characters ruthlessly determined to get their objective – one way or another.

You may have created dramatic tension via plot twists, oscillating the characters and the audience between hope and fear, or revealing character in a way that the viewer or gatekeeper never saw coming.

It could be as a result of the vile tactics used with no qualms, scene-by-scene, until the battle is resoundingly won; unless you have a character in self-destruct mode. Verbal manifestations of Kapow!, Zap!, Crunch! are hurled at the other; even when delivered with a gentle voice and a smile.

Neither gives a damn about the other because they can’t afford to.

They may consciously know that to win means getting ugly and some will struggle with the cruelty of their actions but they’re driven all the same till the bitter end. Or, totally incensed and on a rampage, they’re unaware of the carnage until it is too late.

It’s your choice as the writer but such had better be there or your chances of getting that TV Pilot green-lit are slim to nonexistent.

There – do you feel the tension?  (“We call it development hell.”)


Diana Black is an Australian actress and writer. TVWriter™ is proud to call her a member of our Advanced Online Workshop.

Diana Vaccarelli sees BANSHEE


by Diana Vaccarelli

A coworker and I were discussing television and what shows we love to watch. He highly recommended Banshee on Cinemax. After hearing his enthusiasm and love for the show I decided to sit down and watch a few episodes one afternoon.

The series centers on an ex-­convict and master thief who as he assumes the identity of the new Sheriff of Banshee, Pennsylvania. Calling himself by the sheriff’s name, Lucas Hood, the protagonist continues his criminal activities while bringing his own brand of justice to the small Amish town.

The pilot starts with a man leaving prison. He searches for his lost love, Anna, and finds her  hiding in Banshee, PA, married and with two children. Feeling angry and hurt, he goes to the nearby roadhouse for a drink – well, lots more than one drink – and meets the newly hired Sheriff, Lucas Hood – who hasn’t yet checked in and not only isn’t known by anyone in town but hasn’t ever been seen by anyone.

Before not very long, a group of thugs enter the bar and demand money from the owner. The new sheriff fights them, and our lead tries his best to help, but the sheriff is murdered. In the heat of the moment, our protagonist decides to assume the identity of the deceased, and from that moment on, he is the one and only Sheriff Lucas Hood.

“Lucas Hood” is portrayed with high energy and intense anger by Anthony Starr. Starr’s performance is simply brilliant and has kept me engaged episode after episode. Watching him perform this role, I have felt solidly connected with the character and no matter what’s going on I find myself rooting for him to succeed against all odds.

Now that we’ve talked about our hero, let’s talk about the continuing villain of the series, Kai Proctor, who has everyone in Banshee tightly under his thumb. Ulrich Thomsen portrays Proctor with a kind of grace and elegance not often seen in a baddie. He shows us the character has positive feelings as well as negative ones and is especially impressive when he comes to the aid of a group of Amish people who are being harassed.

TVWriter™’s Beloved Leader, Larry Brody, has talked to me about his problems with Banshee. Particularly problematic for him is the idea of a “mail order sheriff. Not only does that aspect of the series not bother me, I actively like it because what we end up with is a show where not even the viewer knows the true name of our hero. This is a new take for a television series, which already brings it up several notches.

I also like the gritty camerawork and realistic violence. They remind me of old Scorsese films like Mean Streets and Goodfellas. This aspect, combined with the unique hero, brings us 180 degrees away from the typical, Law and Order style police procedural.

If you’re looking for something fresh and often fascinating, I highly recommend Banshee. Lucas Hood is truly a Robin Hood for our times.


Classic Alice Capture

This web series reached the 1,000,000 views mark a couple of weeks ago, and it deserves every one of them. Here’s why:

Find out all about CLASSIC ALICE HERE

John Ostrander on Making Your Characters Miserable


by John Ostrander

Stranger Than Fiction, a 2006 film from director Marc Forster (Finding Neverland, Monster’s Ball, and World War Z, among others), is a favorite of Mary’s and mine. It that starred Will Farrell in a very atypical Will Farrell role, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Dustin Hoffman, Queen Latifah, and Emma Thompson.

The story concerns an IRS auditor named Harold Crick who starts to hear a narrator in his head. The voice turns out to be a world famous author who is writing a story about an IRS auditor named Harold Crick. The author, Karen Eiffel, always kills off her main character at the end of the book. The real Harold’s only hope to survive is to find the reclusive author and convince her not to kill him. Eventually, they meet.

Karen Eiffel, understandably, is freaked to encounter an actual Harold Crick. He’s just as she pictured him. They both know that if she kills him off in prose, he will die in reality. She is confronted with the reality of what she does; Harold Crick isn’t just a creature of her imagination. He’s a flesh and blood person.

As a writer, I find that notion unnerving.

I had the opportunity a few weeks ago to have a somewhat similar experience. At the Motor City Con I got a chance to meet the actor, Michael Rowe, who was playing Floyd Lawton – Deadshot – on the TV series Arrow. And, yes, a bit of Stranger Than Fiction ran through my head. Of course, Mike Rowe is not Deadshot; he was perfectly nice and friendly and complimentary. However, I had a few nanoseconds of feeling, well, anxious.

When it comes right down to it, I don’t think I would want to meet most of my characters face to face. Why? Because I’m the guy who makes their lives miserable. I can see most of them wanting to take a swing at me – or worse. For them, I am the Creator. I incarnate their lives and their adventures. I’m god. Notthe god but a god (as spake Bill Murray in Groundhog’s Day).

Have you ever had a day when you really just wanted to haul off and hit your Creator? I know I have and I’m an agnostic. When my late wife Kim was dying, I was sitting in the car at one point, hitting the steering wheel and cussing out God. I thought we had a deal; I would accept her death and she would die without pain. That day she was in excruciating pain.

I talked it over with my pastor, The Rev Phillip Wilson, and he thought my cussing out God was a good thing. He said that the Bible had lots of instances where the human argued or yelled at God. Towards the end of the story of Job, the title character learns that all his troubles stem from a bet between God and Satan and lets loose on Yahweh for destroying his life. Job was justified if you ask me.

God’s answer? Essentially, God skirts the issue and demands, “Hey, where were you when I created everything?” He tells Job that he’d better button it. Not a real answer but I can see why Job didn’t press the issue. This is Yahweh after all who drowned the earth in a fit of pique.

So why do I do it? Why do I make my characters’ lives so miserable?

It’s for the sake of the story.

When we were first married, Kim used to ask me how would I react in such and such a situation. How would I feel?  (I could get myself into trouble by suggesting that this is the sort of speculative question some women like to ask their men. I don’t want to get in trouble by saying that, although I admit to thinking it.) I would always answer “I dunno. Ask me when we get there.”

I felt and feel that’s a fair answer. We don’t know how we would react in a given situation or facing this or that pressure. We only know how we’d like to think we would act but until you’re in that moment, you don’t know. You can’t until you’re actually faced with the situation.

How we react in those situations reveal who we really are – not who we think we are or hope we would be. In a story, it reveals character. The tougher the situation, the clearer we see who the character really is. It’s one of the rules about character. It’s not what they say, it’s what they do that really matters – just like in life.

By putting my characters through the wringer, I reveal who they are and the reader, by vicarious experience, may learn something more of who they are. That makes the whole exercise worthwhile. That can make the story compelling and memorable.

So what I do to my characters is not out of sadism (well, not only out of sadism) but for the sake of the story.

However, I still wouldn’t want to meet GrimJack or most of my other characters in a darkened alley in the middle of the night.


John Ostrander is one of LB’s favorite writers in any medium. This post originally appeared in his blog at ComicMix.