Screenwriting 101: Creating Suspense and Tension

Photo courtesy of
Photo courtesy of Della Galton

By Brock Cooper (doddleNEWS)

Every screenplay, no matter the genre, needs some type of suspense to keep the viewer interested for the duration. Without suspense and tension, the film can drag on like a beached whale. Will they get there in time to save the girl? It’s that moment when they grab on to their seats and can’t wait to see what happens next.

In television, it’s usually the time right before the commercial break, so you stay tuned to see what happens next. How do you create that kind of tension and suspense?


Deadlines are a natural way to create suspense, because everything that happens from then on will either help or hamper them to the final destination. There is a bomb hidden in the city, and they only have 24 hours to find it. The hero’s daughter has been kidnapped and has only 12 hours to get $1 million, or she’s dead. Tension builds as the clock ticks and they get closer to the resolution. It builds as the hero is hampered by the police, natural obstacles and even the villain.


It’s always thrilling when the audience knows something that the protagonist doesn’t. The intensity builds as they wait for the hero to figure it out, or get caught in the trap. It’s when the audience finds out that the hero’s best friend is a traitor and he’s been ordered to kill the hero.

It’s when you know there is a bomb under the car and the hero is walking to it. The audience knows the evil monster is in the next room and the hero is about to walk in.

Up the Ante

It’s bad enough when your hero is trying to solve a difficult problem, but when things become suddenly more desperate, it’s suspense gold. The hero has only 12 hours to find the bomb, but the villain changes the rules and makes it just 6 hours. The idea is to raise the stakes by adding a new element to the building tension.

Another example would be the protagonist finds out his crush is leaving for another job, and only has a day to tell her he loves her, but finds out he’s not the only one after her.


Yes, while the writer may have little to do with choosing the soundtrack, it can have a significant impact on tension. You can have a note in the screenplay suggesting creepy music, etc. The hero is searching for the evil monster and comes to a closed door. The music rises to a crescendo as the audience holds on tight to see if the monster is on the other side.

Increase Pressure

It’s one thing for the hero to be confident and another for him to be apathetic. If the hero doesn’t act like he’s worried or under pressure, then the audience won’t feel it either. You can have the hero become more and more unglued as the films nears the resolution.

It’s like a fight in Rocky. Our hero gets the crap kicked out of them again and again. In their heads, the audience knows that Rocky isn’t going to lose, but that little seed of doubt grows with every punch he takes. He seems to be getting weaker and weaker, but suddenly surges forward for the win.

You need to have tension from the very beginning, and let it build right on through to the resolution. Identify what the tension is in the first act, so the audience it clued into what the hero is facing. The task should be daunting and the audience should always be on the edge of their seat.

Check out more of Brock’s screenwriting 101 articles here!

Image: Della Galton

About doddle 16509 Articles
Doddlenews is the news division of the Digital Production Buzz, a leading online resource for filmmakers, covering news, reviews and tutorials for the video and film industry, along with movie and TV news, and podcasting.

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