RONALD SHUSETT’S many writing credits include story credit on Alien, as well as screenplay credit on Total Recall and Freejack. He also has producer credit on Total Recall and executive producer credit on Minority Report and Alien.
A great deal has changed in the world of screenwriting since Alien was first released, but there are certain rules that remain immutable. The lesson that I learned and used to great success in the writing of Alien still holds true today: Suspense is about emotional investment in characters, and a suspenseful scene is always classier—and scarier—than a shocking scene.
I grew up idolizing Alfred Hitchcock, which is probably why I write so much mystery, suspense and films with tension. When I was younger, I studied interviews with Hitchcock, and I remember him using this example of well-crafted suspense that I think screenwriters will benefit from hearing. Hitchcock explained that if there’s a bomb under a table and the reader of the script doesn’t know the bomb is there, and suddenly it explodes and someone is killed, there is no suspense. The scene is shocking, but it’s not suspenseful. If a writer wants to make that scene suspenseful, he lets the reader know there’s a bomb under the table. The characters don’t know, but the reader does. Then the writer keeps cutting back and forth, showing the timer getting closer to zero. Cut to above the table, and they’re talking, then cut to the timer, and then the bomb goes off. That, Hitchcock explained, is suspense. The first scene is shock, is impact, but Hitchcock preferred the classier second scene, which involved the reader in the script. The best way to sum up suspense, then, is that it creates tension.
So how do you create suspense and tension in a script? First, you have to make the script compelling. You must always be pulling the reader forward with each scene. Then there is the careful balancing act of revealing just enough to make the reader wonder what’s going to happen next. Revealing too much information allows the reader to predict what happens and deflates any suspense or tension that has been built up in the script. Of course you also have to tell the reader just enough that he doesn’t lose interest. If in the first half-hour of the script the reader can’t tell what’s going on, he will get frustrated. A lot of writers make the mistake of not giving the reader enough information to involve him in the script. New writers think that mystery will involve the reader, but sometimes mystery will lose or confuse instead.
PATIENCE IS A VIRTUE
Building suspense requires patience more than anything else. Many writers think that they have to shock the audience right away because they are competing with movies that overwhelm the audience in the first reel. Instead, you must have the patience to set the story up correctly and create an emotional investment in the characters. At the same time, you can’t be 30 or 40 minutes into the script and have nothing happening, even if it’s just a red herring. Your first “shock” doesn’t have to be a big one, but by the end of 30 pages or so, you need to have established what you are doing with the script.
For example, if you’re writing a mystery script, perhaps you could plant a guy with a red beard. Who is he? Why is he there in the corner? Why is he following that guy? Then later, you show the same guy in the restaurant following the main character. Now you have bought yourself some time to do character scenes, and then you can start peeling back the mystery a little, like the layers of an onion.
SHOCK VERSUS SUSPENSE
One of the best ways to create suspense and tension in a script is to give the reader an emotional investment in the characters. If you open with a kid playing in the street, and pull back to reveal that the kid is in the crosshairs of somebody’s gun sights, then you have shock but no real, true suspense. The suspense is lacking because the reader has no emotional investment in the kid. The scene is more of a mechanical exercise for the audience. Now, if you show three short scenes with the kid getting ready for school, his dad kissing him goodbye, his family celebrating his birthday, then your scene becomes 10 times more suspenseful because the audience knows the kid.
You don’t need a cute kid in distress to create suspense or engage the reader. You just need fascinating characters. New writers often make the mistake of assuming that they always need sympathetic characters. Characters that engage the reader can be good, lovable, exciting, heroic characters, or they can be evil and sinister. Throughout the history of movies, great villains are probably the most memorable and most interesting characters. Take, for example, Bonnie and Clyde, characters who were bank robbers and killers and generally bad people. Audiences were compelled by the movie not because the characters were sympathetic but because they were fascinating. What makes characters fascinating is often how they respond to situations where the stakes are very serious, often life or death. Be sure that your characters have everything on the line.
MINIMAL CHARACTER DEVELOPMENT FOR MAXIMUM EFFECT
In suspense films, you have to deliver a great deal of character development in a small number of poignant, carefully crafted scenes. If you spend too much time delving into the psyche of each character, you will slow the pace and lose the suspense you’ve been working so hard to build.
In Alien, we lost a great example of revealing character with one line. When the crew is driving the creature back with flamethrowers, we have an opportunity to reveal the character of Parker (played by Yaphet Kotto, an African-American man who is 6’4” and 250 pounds).
I’m warning you, that thing comes out at you,
you use the flamethrower to drive it back to the one opening.
You don’t start racing at its face. You keep away and shoot a jet of flame.
I don’t want any heroics out of you, Parker.
The camera zooms in for a CLOSE UP shot of Yaphet’s black face.
Do I look like Flash Gordon to you?
That line was just incredible. Everyone was roaring. Ultimately, the studio made us take that bit out because they thought it could be misconstrued as a racial joke. Losing the line broke Yaphet’s heart, because he knew what a showstopper it was. The line provided humor and told us what we needed to know about Parker. It was our way of achieving effective character development with minimal language.
New writers who have never seen their work translated from the page to the screen
“In my opinion, a suspense movie won’t read effectively unless you have the camera directions that clue the reader in so he can visualize what the scene would look like on the screen.”
find it difficult to know what will and will not work in terms of creating suspense in a script. There are two things a screenwriter must consider when deciding if his script is effectively creating suspense. First, does the script create tension for the reader and make him want to turn each page? Second, is the script written cinematically and in such a way that the director has a map for creating the scene and the suspense? Generally, a new writer doesn’t understand the geographics of writing the scene. He just writes:
She enters the room, it’s shadowy, and it’s bare.
The writer doesn’t understand the value of being specific about the scene. Giving details is not tedious if you write it artfully.
Write details such as:
Someone approaches a doorknob.
INTERCUT – CLOSE EXTREME, THE KNOB TURNS.
She doesn’t know who’s on the other side of the door. Someone walks in. It’s only her husband.
By contrast, most aspiring writers just write the room as a whole. New writers think the it’ll be suspenseful, but if the director just shoots wide, the scene falls flat on the screen and seems extraneous. So write your script to read well on the page and translate well to the screen when the team gets together to make the movie.
BREAKING THE RULES Many of you are probably in shock because I, the screenwriter, just used camera direction. In my opinion, a suspense movie won’t read effectively unless you have the camera directions that clue the reader in so he can visualize what the scene would look like on the screen. So you do a screen close, which you wouldn’t do in just a drama. For example, you zoom back or slow zoom in to a poker. The reader visualizes the poker, and then you tell them there’s blood on the end of it.
Using direction can get sticky. I think that writers should risk it, but don’t put in any more than you absolutely need. Only use direction in moments when you feel that there is a certain mood that has to be created and that the reader won’t be able to picture the scene without it.
I tell writers to study the classics because doing so is the one thing that I think made our collaboration with Ridley Scott on Alien so successful. Ridley told Dan O’Bannon, my writing partner, and me that he wanted to make the most compelling, unpretentious B-movie ever made. Ridley said that his job was to make the scene look like the year 2001. Our job was to tell him what movies to study for how suspense is generated. We gave him a list including The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Psycho and Night of the Living Dead. We watched many of the great suspense classics together and saw how the suspense was built up, how to misdirect the audience’s attention, to make the audience think the shock is coming and then hit them from another direction.
Think of the scene in Alien where you see the little creature falling from the ceiling for the first time. You think the creature is under the table. Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) puts her face there, and the audience yells, “Don’t do that! It’s there!” Then the creature falls right on her shoulder from above, and the audience jumps out of its pants. We learned that trick from watching the classic suspense movies.
That scene would have fallen flat if the creature didn’t fall on her shoulder like that—and if your attention had not been diverted under the table. That is effective misdirection. Readers will not be frightened if the scare comes from where they expect it to come. If the scare happens a moment before or a moment after they expect it, that’s what shocks them.
LESS IS MORE
My favorite, and perhaps the most amazing scene of Alien is, of course, the chest-burster. That’s the scene that made the movie and that made history. If you go back and carefully analyze the movie after the chest-burster scene, there is no blood thereafter throughout the entire movie, except a little dribble going down Veronica Cartwright’s (Lambert) leg. The chest-burster scene scares the audience so much that after that scene, the one little dribble of blood is all we need to show in the rest of the movie.
If a reader or an audience is already so scared, if the suspense has built them up to this point where they are dying to know what is going to happen next, you don’t have to overdo the gore. That is the beauty of involving the audience—their imaginations fill in the blanks, and what they imagine is probably more scary then anything we can convincingly put on the screen. Less is more, and less gore makes a classier movie.
For the rest of the movie, we kept the audience on the edge of their seats and kept the “boo! scares” coming at the right time and place, coming out of nowhere and grabbing them. After the chest-burster scene, the rest of the scares came out of suspense that was written into the script.
Don’t lose confidence in yourself because a lot of people are misguided in this business. With Alien, we just got very lucky. We got the script to Allen Ladd, Jr., who had good instincts. A lot of people on the Twentieth Century Fox board told him not to buy, not even to option it from us. Ladd had the faith to make the movie even though it could have been a bad joke. To make mattes worse, the costs were mounting. The more we designed it, the more the film was becoming three times the average major studio budget. Today, the average major studio budget is $35 to $40 million. Alien would have been $120 million to produce. Nobody had any credentials in the whole movie. The cast, the director, the stars, nobody. So somebody had to have a lot of faith in us.
The moral to the story is, of course, if you have something good, someone will recognize it. However, it may take you months or even years to come across the person who believes in you.
Originally published in Script Magazine Sept/Oct 2003
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