Alfred Hitchcock's Top 4 Tips For Creating Tension

Monday 24 June 2019

Alfred Hitchcock's well-known maxim of the difference between surprise and suspense - between an audience seeing a bomb explode underneath a table, and knowing that there is a bomb ready to explode underneath the table - is as accurate today as it was during the master's heyday. I'll explore the principles the great director observed which made his stories so enjoyable and suspenseful to watch. 

Audience Knowledge

Hitchcock highlighted a famous scene from his film Sabotage (1936) in which a boy, unwittingly, carries a timebomb onto a bus. In his interviews with Francois Truffaut, Hitchcock recalled this as a situation “bound to work up great suspense in the audience”. 

We, the viewers, are aware of the bomb, and Hitch frequently reminds us that it’s ready to blow. When it does, we feel the shock of the moment, but we’ve also had our nerves stretched to breaking point by the anticipation of it. 

Likewise, think of any horror film; we can see the masked lunatic or the fanged monster lurking in the shadows, but our young heroine doesn’t until it’s too late. 

There’s a guilty thrill for audiences in knowing more than a character does – especially when it puts them in danger. 

In Hitchcock’s oeuvre, the killers of Dial M for Murder and Frenzy are always one step ahead of their victims: that’s suspense in a nutshell.

Hitchcock often precedes some of his more thrilling moments with a scene in which one character watches another. In Psycho, the most famous murder scene of all time is preceded by a moment in which Norman Bates watches his victim Marion Crane undressing and showering. It’s a deeply uncomfortable and tense moment in which, as viewers, we feel complicit in Norman’s transgression. 

Conversely, in Rear Window (1954), the tension reaches a climax when the murder suspect – whom our hero Jeff has watched through a camera lens for the whole film – finally looks back at his watcher. It’s a chilling moment; we the audience have been watching along the whole time, and we’re implicated along with Jeff. 

The power balance between the two men shifts, and ol’ Jimmy Stewart is forced to fight for his life. Hitchcock plays with the audience’s innate curiosity: he gives us what we want, but makes us suffer for it. 

The Wrong Man

Often, Hitchcock’s protagonists are presumed guilty of a crime they didn’t commit. 

They must clear their name while chasing down or evading the true perpetrator. Hitchcock was so devoted to this trope that he named a film after it! He drew from his own fear of the police, and other authority figures, which he liked to claim stemmed from a traumatic experience from his childhood: being flung into a prison cell to teach him a lesson. 

Who among us can’t relate to the shame and horror of being accused of something we didn’t do? North by Northwest, Strangers on a Train, To Catch a Thief and more all trade on this very common anxiety, and Hitchcock exploits every bit of tension. 

It’s not bad enough that Hitch’s heroes have a villain to contend with: the police are after them too. Nonetheless, our protagonists are always vindicated by the time the film ends, giving us a moment to exhale at last.

In his infamous horror The Birds (1963), Hitchcock cuts back and forth between Melanie Daniels, waiting for her new love interest’s sister to finish school, and a large and ominous flock of birds perching on the school’s jungle gym. 

Hitchcock declines to show too much of the malevolent birds gathering – each time he cuts back, there are many more than before. 

He knows that we want to see it, rather than Tippi Hedren sitting on a bench, but he doesn’t give us what we want. It’s our mind’s eye, where we imagine the birds to be gathering, that creates suspense. 

Hitchcock creates as much tension by showing as he does by not showing.
Ben Taylor is a freelance writer and screenwriter based in London, UK. He is the lead writer for Electric Theater and has contributed to Film Stories magazine. 

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