Features and Columns · Movies

The Elements of Suspense: How 3 Different Directors Build Tension

Oh my god, who put this bomb under my table? Hitchcock! Not again!
The Thing Suspense
Universal Pictures
By  · Published on October 24th, 2022

Welcome to The Queue — your daily distraction of curated video content sourced from across the web. Today, we’re watching a video essay that looks at how three directors — David Fincher, John Carpenter, and Nicolas Winding Refn — handle the elements of suspense.


Watching a suspense-riddled scene is easily one of the most exhilarating movie-going experiences out there. It’s that incredible feeling: your stomach in knots, leaning forward in your seat like the screen is a magnet, desperately wanting to flee but being unable to tear your eyes away. That’s the good stuff.

Building suspense is an art, not a science. That said, while there aren’t “rules,” there is something of a taxonomy when it comes to crafting a dread-soaked scene. As the video essay below proposes, the essential building blocks are threefold: time, stakes, and uncertainty.

Arguably, that first characteristic makes this kind of suspense especially cinematic. The way a scene is edited and how it portrays the passage of time is something only movies can do. Even a more vague characteristic like “uncertainty” assumes a distinctly cinematic edge when it’s communicated via cinematography.

But, as always, examples are the best illustration of these kinds of things. And the video essay below has three top-tier scenes that emblematize each of the three principles of creating a suspenseful scene: the banker robbery from Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive; the blood test scene from John Carpenter’s The Thing, and the basement scene from David Fincher’s Zodiac.

Watch “The 3 Essential Elements of Suspense Explained — How Fincher, Carpenter, and Refn Create Suspense”:


Who made this?

This video essay on how three different directors approach the elements of suspense is created by StudioBinder. This production management software creator also happens to produce wildly informative video essays. They tend to focus on the mechanics of filmmaking itself, from staging to pitches and directorial techniques. You can check out their YouTube account here.

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Meg Shields is the humble farm boy of your dreams and a senior contributor at Film School Rejects. She currently runs three columns at FSR: The Queue, How'd They Do That?, and Horrorscope. She is also a curator for One Perfect Shot and a freelance writer for hire. Meg can be found screaming about John Boorman's 'Excalibur' on Twitter here: @TheWorstNun. (She/Her).