Moments of suspense can completely transform your video content, but it’s not as simple as using the ‘Psycho’ music and hoping for the best. Learn how to nail suspense with Epidemic Sound ambassador Toba Courage.
What is suspense?
Suspense is the rollercoaster that keeps viewers on the edge of their seats. It creates a feeling of unease, threat, anxiety – basically, any of the emotions that tie knots in your stomach.
Suspense is often confused with shock and mystery, but it’s a little different. Mystery can help set up suspense, and shock can be the payoff. Neither of them are suspense. Suspense is the in-between feeling – it’s a story that takes you from A to B, white-knuckling it all the way.
You don’t always need suspense in your videos, though. If you’re reviewing something or conducting interviews, the content should be able to stand on its own legs. But if you’re creating narrative-based footage, suspense is key.
How do you create suspense in film and video?
Let’s rattle through some of the main steps for creating suspense in film, TV, and online content.
Use your shots to help tell the story
Let’s say you have a flight to catch in two hours, and you’re running late. The focus in all of these shots should revolve around being late. Quick, rushed cuts of watches, clocks, hands rifling through drawers; lots of shaky-cam, imperfect shots – the visuals should represent the feeling.
If you’re using a green screen rather than a physical space, ensure your subjects know what the finished article will look like. That way, they’ll be able to interact with the space like it’s there in front of them. The same goes for you as a filmmaker. Use the environment like it’s a character, thinking of how certain elements will tease that tension out of the viewer.
Use ‘character, conflict, resolution’ to chart your story
Every story needs a red thread to tie everything together. In movies, they’ll often use CCR: character, conflict, resolution.
- Character: Introduce viewers to the character. What are they like? What are their hopes, their dreams? What’s their job? Do they sleep well? You don’t have to lay the exposition on too thickly; subtle nods to a character’s situation, like unpaid bills or piles of unused gym equipment, can do the heavy lifting.
- Conflict: A situation rises, and the character has to figure out how to solve it. This is where the tension is built – we’ve already established who the character is, and this conflict must directly impact them. They have to rise to the occasion, learn something, face their fears, or just find their darn passport so they can get to the airport on time.
- Resolution: The conflict is solved and your character has grown, or is at least at peace.
Try out ‘problem, suspense, solution’
The ‘problem, suspense, solution’ (PSS) format can work a treat for longer social media videos, like on YouTube.
- Problem: Hook the viewer with the problem immediately. The video could even be titled after the problem, like ‘I HAD 2 HOURS TO MAKE A 4-HOUR TRIP’. You immediately establish the dilemma, and the viewer decides to watch based on that initial setup.
- Suspense: Everything from the beginning to the end of the video is pure suspense. How will you get to the airport in time? Throw any and every obstacle at them – who knew there was a herd of elephants on the loose at the same time your character was supposed to catch an taxi?
- Solution: You find a solution. You ride the elephants, whatever. You get to the airport.
Raise the stakes with more problems
You can always build more problems into a narrative to make the suspense even more crushing. Perhaps you find your bag but then can’t find your passport. Then you find your passport, but it’s out of date. Then you find your current passport, but you can’t find the keys to lock your apartment. As soon as you introduce a new problem, big or small, the suspense builds.
Naturally, not every story is the same. Different stories require different levels of suspense. If you’re feeling cheeky, you can even end your video dangling on a well-placed chunk of suspense – it could end before you get to the airport. Once you get to the airport, you can introduce even more problems, more suspense, more obstacles keeping people watching as you frantically run around trying to catch your flight.
Does music create suspense?
Music is a vital part of creating suspense in filmed content. The tempo, the timbre, the lyrics – it can all help build the atmosphere and crank up the suspense. If you mix the music correctly, you can make nail-biting content even more nail-biting. Finger-chewing, even.
Lucky for you, because music’s our specialty. We’re packing 40,000 top-drawer, royalty-free tracks, all available under one subscription and license. We’ve even got a ‘Suspense Music’ page, bubbling with literally hundreds of songs.
Top 5 tracks to create suspense in your videos
Here are five tracks you can use as background music for suspense-building. Fasten your seatbelt and hold tight.
Lennon Hutton – The Connection
Suspense can be drawn out for five seconds or five hours. Lennon Hutton hits the sweet spot, delivering two minutes of dark, pulsing ambience with ‘The Connection’. It never quite releases that tension, letting the eerie synth wash over you like a bad dream you can’t quite remember.
Cushy – Canines
Who thought that a song named after dogs could be so darn tense? ‘Canines’ by Cushy is a moody, threatening trap track, bustling along with 808 bluster and honking bass. Imagine the massive ‘BRAAAM’ note from ‘Inception’, but make it a banger.
Out to the World – Zeroing
Synthwave crashed into mainstream movies and TV with ‘Drive’ in 2011, and the sub-genre’s been making a ruckus ever since. Out to the World keep the stakes high with 'Zeroing', blending all those soothing bleeps and bloops into a thrilling ride.
Rymdklang Soundtracks – River of Tears
Percussive hits pulsing in the background, like heartbeats. Ominous synth and strings. Rattling, delicately plucked instrumentation, building and building to… heartbeats again. Yeah, Rymdklang Soundtracks have knocked it out of the proverbial park with 'River of Tears'.
Aiyo – Below Freezing
Go big or go home, right? Aiyo’s done the former, tip-toeing that electronic rock/pop line you might remember AWOLNATION doing in the early 2010s. ‘Below Freezing’ is an epic, piano-laced, guitar lick-laden good time – perfect for larger-than-life content.
What are the elements of suspense in film?
So, you've learned what suspense is, how you can use it in your content, and what some of the best tracks for building suspense are. Now, let’s wrap up with a handy checklist of the key elements and film techniques to create suspense.
- Setting: The scene should be set somewhere familiar to the audience, either literally or emotionally. Even if it’s in a space station or 65 million years ago, the environment needs to mean something, even if it just evokes a feeling.
- Relatable characters: Something about the character has to chime with the audience. Otherwise, they won’t care, and the suspense will be lifted. Something as small as how a character reacts to a certain situation can make them relatable.
- Conflict: There’s no suspense without conflict! Nothing to lose = nothing to care about.
- Camera angles: Experiment with framing your subjects. For example, shooting from a high angle makes your subject look smaller and more vulnerable.
- Dramatic irony: This is knowledge the audience has that the subject doesn’t. For example, viewers might have seen that the plane’s already taken off, but you’re still scrabbling to hail a taxi.
- Match editing to the mood: The more intense the emotions flow, the more intense the editing becomes. Quick edits, rushed shots, and wild angles will help portray feelings of stress and tension.
And if you’re still stuck for music ideas, don’t worry about it. Licensing and rights can be a headache, so let us take care of it. How? Royalty-free music.
Royalty-free music is music that you can use in content without having to pay royalties to artists or rights holders every time it’s played. But royalty-free music companies aren’t always alone in owning the rights to the music in their catalogs. This means you might still get copyright claims from other rights holders and lose the right to monetize your content when you publish it on digital platforms. Confusing, right? Let us take care of it.
We exclusively own the rights to all music in our catalog. This lets us offer you a subscription with a license including all necessary rights to use the music and sound effects from our catalog in your content. You can publish it anywhere online, without having to worry about problems with copyright. Additional fees or royalties? Forget about it.
It’s more than royalty-free. More like worry-free. Check out the 30-day free trial and start soundtracking the world today.