Perhaps one of the most vital screenplay elements a writer may utilize is the means of building and maintaining suspense. The art of suspense is not only relatable to action or thriller films. Rather, it’s the ability to keep a screenplay unpredictable from beginning to end. Throughout my experience, I’ve noticed scripts that call upon audience expectations, while being mysterious in whether or not they are met, attract the attention of not only industry professionals, but also audiences.
Building and maintaining screenplay suspense through the formation of expectations is an advanced-level screenwriting method, but when accomplished guarantees positive results.
For examples sake, let’s imagine your main character is a senior in college. It’s understood through audience empathy and story hints that this character has worked hard to not only attend university, but continue to his last year. The expectation created is that of the character finally graduating. Throughout the first part of the script, you foster and navigate this expectation through dialogue and appropriate action sequences. Suddenly, to the horror of the audience, the character chooses to quit college and move to a different city to begin a physical relationship with an online pen-pal.
Since you as the screenwriter navigated audience expectations to assume the character would graduate on time, you are in a perfect position to add suspense while dashing this expectation and dramatically altering and enhancing the level of suspense through opposite character choices.
Selectively Meet Expectations
If your screenplay was filled with fostering certain expectations and never meeting them, the audience would feel tricked. It’s vital to always meet certain expectations to maintain audience attention and trust. However, it’s even more important to point out the use of the word “certain.” Not every expectation should be met as this leads to predictability. Predictability is a screenwriters worst nightmare.
Instead, keep audiences satisfied while playing on their desire of unpredictability by only meeting a select number of expectations. For every expectation you meet, alter the outcome of at least one major expectation. This formula seems to produce the most interesting and vibrant screenplays.