Alfred Hitchcock: how to build suspense and captivate your audience

Why does the suspense writer keep his audience waiting? The answer is revealed at the end of this article (just before the action summary.)

But first, we talk about how Alfred Hitchcock learnt his craft. And became the master of suspense.

Hitchcock got into the movie business when the movies were still black and white. And without audio. The first 18 movies he worked on as a production manager or art director were all silent movies. 

And after that, when he moved to Hollywood from London, Hitchcock was faced with the Hays Code. A set of moral guidelines that all studios had to follow. Which meant no violence or crime, no vulgarity, no sex. There could be no greyness – good always had to win against evil.

To circumvent both these restrictions, Hitchcock had to be clever. To make the movies he liked – full of murder and obsession and sexual frustration, Hitchcock had to do this through implication, rather than blatant exhibition.

To become better at his craft, what Hitchcock would do is sit through movies. But he would not watch the screen. He would watch the audience watch the screen. He would observe their reactions and learn what worked in keeping the audience captivated. He observed what made them lean ahead in their seats and what made them recoil in shock. What made them pay attention and what parts bored them.

It’s during this process that he understood the difference between surprise and suspense. A surprise is impactful but lasts for mere seconds. Where in, suspense can keep the audience captivated for the entire movie!

So how do you build suspense?

“Peek-a-boo” the mother hides herself.

“I see you” the mother reveals herself. 

And the baby giggles and giggles. 

You play this 40 times in a row and the baby is still captivated. 

What’s going on? Why doesn’t the baby get bored?

For a small baby, there is no object permanence. They are still cognitively developing and so their brains don’t recognize clearly how people and objects exist when out of sight. Peek-a-boo creates anticipation and then resolution. Which is why it never gets boring even after repetitions.

It’s this anticipation and delayed gratification that is at the root of suspense. 

With surprise, there is no anticipation. Tension is momentary. And so while surprise can jolt the audience, it does not captivate them. Suspense captivates. Retains the attention.

But we are not babies. We don’t face object impermanence. So what to do? What did Hitchcock do?

The bomb under the table

Hitchcock: “There is a distinct difference between ‘suspense’ and ‘surprise’, and yet many pictures continually confuse the two. I’ll explain what I mean. We are now having a very innocent little chat. Let’s suppose that there is a bomb underneath this table between us. Nothing happens, and then all of a sudden, ‘Boom!’ There is an explosion. The public is surprised, but prior to this surprise, it has seen an absolutely ordinary scene, of no special consequence.

Now, let us take a suspense situation. The bomb is underneath the table and the public knows it, probably because they have seen the anarchist place it there. The public is aware the bomb is going to explode at one o’clock and there is a clock in the decor. The public can see that it is a quarter to one. In these conditions, the same innocuous conversation becomes fascinating because the public is participating in the scene. The audience is longing to warn the characters on the screen: ‘You shouldn’t be talking about such trivial matters. There is a bomb beneath you and it is about to explode!’

In the first case we have given the public fifteen seconds of surprise at the moment of the explosion. In the second we have provided them with fifteen minutes of suspense. The conclusion is that whenever possible the public must be informed.”

Information imbalance

Suspense needs audience engagement. You want the audience to know what will happen. But you control the pacing of the reveal. Pacing can prolong anticipation.

We are rhythmic creations. We want everything to be resolved. Uncertainty creates tension in our mind. That’s what suspense is all about.

  • Create expectations. Let people know what will happen. But then
  • Delay gratification. Don’t connect the dots right away.

Reveal bit by bit. And you will heighten the anticipation. You will make your audience drool. That’s how even boring things can go viral: with suspenseful pacing.

The video that got 2 billion views

Ryan Kaji started a youtube channel reviewing toys when he was 6 years old. His one video is in youtube’s top 10 watched videos. It has amassed over 2 billion views. What’s so special about it?

Kaji simply doesn’t simply show us the toy and tell us why he likes them. That would be boring. No anticipation means weak gratification.

So Kaji first runs around the field hunting for easter eggs. And then there is a whole process of unboxing. One by one these easter eggs are opened revealing a new toy. Kaji is then simply being playful – giving more attention to a few toys and less to a few others – in the natural process of playing.

There is not a single word uttered on the selling points of the toys.

It’s simply: creating expectation. And then delaying gratification.

Millions of years of biology have conditioned us to remain alert when faced with the unknown. When things are unresolved. Delaying the resolution creates suspense.

That’s why a suspense writer keeps his audience waiting. Because suspense stems from the verb suspend. To hold something back.

Action Summary:

  • Tell the people what they should expect. But then pace the delivery. Engage them. And delay their gratification. That’s the way to keep their attention and win their love.
  • Reveal the what. Delay the how.