Billy Marshall Stoneking discusses how to build mystery and suspense in your screenplay.
Interestingly enough, when it comes to dramatic screen storytelling, the writer that offered the most practical advice was Charles Dickens.
His salutary pronouncement to storytellers was founded – as might be expected – upon his deep appreciation of audience: “Make them laugh, make them cry, make them WAIT.” Sound advice, and a timely reminder to any screenwriter toying with the notion that audience is extraneous to the story that is trying to get itself told.
In forging an intimate relationship with one’s audience, the successful screenwriter invariably works with two, essential audience-related story elements, namely MYSTERY and SUSPENSE, which manifest as visual and verbal “utterances” that function to stimulate an audience’s interest in and identification and involvement with the characters.
The efficacy of these two elementals for evoking interest in and identification with the characters, as well as a passionate emotional involvement with the story, is proportional to the degree to which they encourage attention (a tension) and generate and build energy through the promotion of perplexity, anticipation and contrast.
This is the presence that is not present – the hidden catalyst or inexplicable disturbance that forces choice and action. As mystery, it stands within, behind and beyond the goals and plans of every dramatic character. It is both secret and puzzle, as well as the source of the audience’s most important questions and doubts concerning the identity of the characters, their back-stories and their present situation.
When an audience is alert to the possibility that a character’s actions might actually hide more than they reveal, when questions concerning “what”, “why”, and “who” give rise to an uneasiness that provokes uncertainty and increasing anxiety, you can be sure that mystery is afoot.
This gives the audience in a position of privileged perception. When an audience sees or hears something that threatens the wellbeing of a character with which it identifies, but is not perceived by the character her/himself, suspense thrives. The shower scene in Psycho is an obvious example. The playground scene is The Birds is another. The audience sees the birds in the playground or the murderer coming into the steamy bathroom; the character doesn’t.
Mystery hides information from audience in order to make it ask “how come?”. Suspense hides or withholds information from the characters (or dramatis personae) in order to make the audience wonder “what now?”.
This is often an ingredient of suspense insofar as the audience experiences a disparity between a character’s understanding of a situation and the situation itself. The audience is aware of the disparity; the character is not. The apprehension of dramatic irony works to conduct the audience into a more intense, emotional interaction with the characters by stimulating the audience’s anxieties.
The perceivable contrasts (ironies) that exist between what a character believes to be the case and what really is the case; the unresolved mystery of what is wondered at but not answered; and the unrelieved suspense of “what next?” build energy both inside and outside the script.
Indeed, when successfully realised, mystery and suspense are capable of keeping an audience engaged and involved in the action even when the story itself lacks a substantial dramatic problem.