When a writer thinks of creating suspense, we often think of building tension through pacing and/or action. But there are any number of ways to build suspense — it’s less about what you portray and more about how you portray it. (The same goes for storytelling in general: it’s better to have a humdrum story idea that’s told brilliantly than to have the greatest story idea ever but execute it horribly.)
Here’s a perfect example. The clip above comes from the 2002 Tom Clancy movie, The Sum of All Fears. If you’ve never seen it, I’ll be straight with you: it’s not that great a movie. But this scene is utterly brilliant.
Sum was an attempted reboot of the Jack Ryan franchise with Ben Affleck taking over as a younger version of the main character (12 years before Chris Pine did the exact same thing). Ryan spends most of the movie attempting to track down a missing nuclear bomb, and this sequence, roughly in the middle of the film, is when his search comes to a head. He phones his boss — played by Morgan Freeman — to tell him that he has a lead on the bomb, which has recently been seen at a harbor in Baltimore. Unbeknownst to Ryan, Freeman’s character and the U.S. President himself are in Baltimore at that exact moment, attending a highly publicized football game.
Watch how the suspense builds when Freeman’s character slowly realizes what Ryan’s report means. What’s so fantastic about this scene is that it builds suspense in an atypical way. There’s no action, no explosions or gunshots, nor any other standard suspense tropes that we’re used to. Taken out of context, you probably wouldn’t even know anything is amiss at this football game. It looks like all American fun, business as usual. But the music and the expression on Freeman’s face sell the truth of the scene.
Obviously, movies and books are quite different, and novelists employ different tools to create suspense than filmmakers do. But this scene always inspires me as a writer because it creates exquisite, heart-pounding suspense in a completely outside-the-box way.