Being aware of the tools you have at your disposal before starting to tell your story, and using them when you start writing, is much better than trying to utilise them to improve or fix your screenplay after you have finished your first draft.
Surprise the dictionary tells us, is “a feeling of astonishment or shock caused by something unexpected”. Horror of course is generally associated with the use of this technique when writers and directors use it to make the audience jump in their seats, but it’s fair to say that this tool is not a “one trick pony” and can be used to reveal information in an interesting way in all genres.
There are two ways that the writer can do this. The first is to use surprise in a way that affects the characters; that is for something to happen in the story that a character does not see coming. The second is to use surprise in a way that it affects the audience; where the viewer (or reader) does not see something coming that the characters already know. In addition a writer can utilise the double whammy where they use both at the same time for maximum effect.
Not every surprise needs to be earth moving, and if used to different degrees throughout a story, these incidents can help the writer build the narrative in a dramatic way that grips and captivates the audience.
Story surprises come in all shapes and sizes and if a writer builds lots of them into a story-line they will help keep the dramatic action moving forward. Each one should be seen as an opportunity to introduce new information and set the stage for a new emotion and reaction, or if you reverse engineer that thought, every time you need to introduce new information or are trying to evoke a new emotion, try and do it in a surprising manner.
Suspense is a writer’s tool that takes planning and hard work to execute. According to the Oxford English dictionary it is “a state or feeling of excited expectation or anxious uncertainty about what may happen”. Based entirely on anticipation (as opposed to surprise,) when used by a skilled craftsman, suspense can build uncertainty and tension in either the audience or the characters or both.
The key word when executing suspense is “build”, and build means using a trickle-down approach to releasing clues as to what might happen later in the story. When implemented effectively suspense shapes expectations and is directly proportionate to the sum of incidents that together build up to a major event. If you carefully plan each occurrence and the frequency of these incidents, you will be able to control the emotions of your audience and ensure that they are always fully engaged in your story.
Both surprise and suspense can result in an incident that is either good or bad. By providing the audience with exactly what they anticipate, or by delivering the opposite of what they expect, the writer is in a position to use both these tools to manipulate their characters and the emotions of the audience in a way that will keep them involved and invested in the story, effectively taking them both on a roller-coaster ride that will keep the audience glued to the screen wanting more.