HOW TO BUILD TENSION – A MOVIE MASTERCLASS FOR MYSTERY WRITERS
BLOG POST FOR BOOK REVIEWS AND MORE BY KATHY
Before I started writing I worked in film editing for many years and the dynamics of storytelling have stayed with me. Film editing is about drawing the audience into the story and I’ve tried to put the lessons I’ve learned in the cutting room to good use on the page.
In BLOOD AND BONE – the third in the Alice Madison series – there are a number of moments where I have thought okay, how am I going to make this so gripping that a reader will want to miss their train stop to keep reading?
Don’t get me wrong: films and books are completely different media but at heart they do share the same objective – to involve the audience or the reader in a story that will engage, charm, amuse, scare, thrill and, most of all, make it impossible to think about anything else.
I write crime fiction and I’m in the business of tension, twists, moral dilemmas and the complete spectrum of human behaviour from brightest hero to darkest villain – the richness of the crime fiction tapestry is one of the reasons I was attracted to the genre in the first place – and occasionally I see a scene in a film that keeps me on the edge of my seat to such a degree that I must understand how and why it works so well. Why is that particular moment in the story the bit the audience will remember and talk about when they leave the cinema?
The Waterloo Station scene in THE BOURNE ULTIMATUM is that kind of scene. Director Paul Greengrass and his team – most of the crew have worked on a number of his films – are responsible for some of the shiniest moments of filmmaking of the last decade (I recommend UNITED 93, the chronicle of the hijacked flight on September 11, 2001 where the passengers rebelled against the terrorists and managed to get the plane to crash – sacrificing themselves to avoid mass casualties on the ground. The fact that the audience knows exactly what will happen and still can’t turn away should tell you something about the skill of these storytellers).
While UNITED 93 is a kind of drama/documentary; THE BOURNE ULTIMATUM is all drama. Jason Bourne must talk to a journalist but the reporter becomes a target for his enemies. In the middle of Waterloo Station in London, at the peak of the rush hour, the deadliest game of chess is played and an innocent life is at stake.
What interests me in the scene is how the director and the editor (Christopher Rouse) have layered the various elements to create a moment of almost epic dimensions: the crowd filling the huge hall is a moving, shifting forest that hides Bourne and the reporter from danger; Bourne is trying to keep the man safe circling around him like a hawk and giving him instructions on a burner cell phone; the action on the ground – taut, gripping – is punctuated by cuts to the CIA room thousands of miles away where the operatives are watching on dozens of screens and trying to direct the agents to their prey. If this was not enough, an assassin is on his way.
The camera moves and pans as if it were a human eye catching the action or suddenly focusing on a sharp detail. The pace is fast and unforgiving; the mood is one of impending doom. We cut from the live action in the station to the monitors in the CIA room in a fluid rhythm that only increases the tension.
After my brief, unequal description, wouldn’t you want to know the fate of the reporter? Will the agents catch him and kidnap him? Will the assassin shoot him through the crowd?
I’m afraid I’m not telling. The joy is in the viewing.
For my part, I keep watching movies, reading books, and trying to make the reader who chances on my stories forget where they are and miss their stop on the train.