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How To Leverage Suspense In Your Script Writing Style

Using A Scene From Pulp Fiction As An Example

 

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August 10, 2015 9 comments
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There is one vital ingredient that sets the script writing style of screenplays that sell apart from those they don’t… SUSPENSE. And, no, this isn’t only true for all you Thriller and Horror writers out there. 

If you want an agent or manager to absolutely fall in love with your screenplay—no matter what the genre—it’s essential you know how to leverage your script writing style in order to create suspense, and in this post we’re going to show you how to do exactly that.

We’re not going to talk about how to create suspense through the usual avenues of dialogue, plot or characters, though, but how to do it through your scriptwriting style.

How Leverage Suspense In Your Script Writing Style

If you’ve read the great book Cinematic Storytelling by Jennifer Van Sijll, you may remember her analysis of the “adrenalin shot” scene in Pulp Fiction. This technique not only generates much more suspense in a scene, but also creates a leaner, more focussed script writing style. And who can argue with that?

So, let’s see how it’s achieved. Here’s the screenwriting style many less-experienced writers might employ when tackling the adrenaline shot scene in Pulp Fiction:

script writing style

AMATEUR SCRIPT WRITING STYLE VERSION

Vincent holds the needle above his head. He is ready to plunge it in Mia’s chest.

VINCENT
Count to three.

LANCE
One… Two… Three!

Vincent plunges the needle hard into her chest. Mia’s eyes pop open and she bolts upright, screaming.

Now, let’s take a look at how Tarantino actually wrote the scene.. You can also watch it here: 

PROFESSIONAL SCRIPT WRITING STYLE VERSION

Vincent lifts the needle up above his head in a stabbing motion. He looks down on Mia.

Mia is fading fast. Soon nothing will help her.

Vincent’s eyes narrow, ready to do this.

VINCENT
Count to three.

LANCE
One…

RED DOT on Mia’s body.

Needle raised ready to strike.

LANCE (O.S)
…two…

Jody’s face is alive with anticipation.

NEEDLE in the air, poised like a rattler ready to strike.

LANCE (O.S)
…three!

The needle leaves frame, THRUSTING down hard.

Vincent brings the needle down hard, STABBING Mia in the chest.

Mia’s head is JOLTED from the impact.

The syringe plunger is pushed down, PUMPING the adrenalin out through the needle.

Mia’s eyes POP WIDE OPEN and she lets out a HELLISH cry of the banshee. She BOLTS UP in a sitting position, needle stuck in her chest – SCREAMING.

Create Suspense In Your Script Writing Style By Extending Time

script writing style

The main difference between the two script writing styles is the amount of suspense generated. The first has very little but the second is full of tension. But how does Tarantino achieve this?

As Jennifer points out in the book, it’s all about extending time. The first version is closer to real time. In real life, Vincent would take a moment to prepare himself, lift up the needle above his head, wait for Lance’s three second countdown and plunge it in.

This is what happens in the first version, but in Tarantino’s version everything is slowed down, thus increasing the amount of suspense as we wait for Vincent to plunge the needle into Mia’s chest.

He does this by using cutaways and reaction shots of the other characters in the scene.

In Your Screenplay Writing Style, Use Each Line As Shot

Also, instead of using camera angles, such as “CLOSE UP,” “MEDIUM SHOT,” or “WIDE,” etc. each line of description implies each of these shots. “Vincent’s eyes narrow,” “The red dot on Mia’s chest,” etc. all serve to increase our anxiety because we’re literally left waiting for it to happen.

By expanding time to create suspense, the writer lets the audience know this is an important moment in the film.

It’s a great script writing style technique you can use in those critical scenes, such as major act breaks and at the climax, and is very effective at heightening suspense.

Script readers, agents, managers, etc. LOVE this kind of writing because it utilizes suspense in such an effective way and looks much cleaner on the page—just like a professional screenplay.

If you haven’t already done so, pick up a copy of Jennifer’s book, Cinematic Storytelling to learn even more about this technique on how to create suspense in your script writing style. It’s designed for filmmakers but contains a ton of great info for screenwriters too.

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What do you think of this technique to leverage suspense in your script writing style? What techniques do you use? Let us know what you think in the comments section below.

script writing style

9 Comments
  1. Mateen says:

    Thanks for this fantastic article. I was looking for good advice on how to create suspense for ages! Really great stuff!!

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      No problem, Mateen, glad you found it helpful.

  2. Mo says:

    Hello
    I am looking for an agent. My screenplay is horror written for low budget production.
    Thanks.

  3. Harvey Dent says:

    Simple but cool. Thanks SRP.

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      You’re welcome!

  4. Claudia C says:

    Really good info here. Thanks for the example.

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Thanks Claudia!

  5. Julian says:

    I would like some information on how Aronofsky achieves his stylistic and narrative techniques on the page in movies like Mother and Black Swan. Thank you.

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