Five Tips for Ramping up the Tension

Halloween’s around the corner, and to celebrate we’re looking at techniques for building scares that you can use on your next horror project. These tension-ramping techniques will keep your audience on the edge of their seat, pleading “please don’t go in there…”

Set your tone

Setting a cohesive tone for your piece is essential for putting your audience in the right frame of mind – that is, ready to be scared senseless. The tone is created by the collaboration of the different departments to create a particular mood and atmosphere for a scene or project. Spend time defining the tone of your piece with your department heads, so that everyone can contribute to ensuring the film has inherently scary vibe. Get the tone right and you’ll have the hairs on the back of your viewers’ necks standing up before you’ve even begun.

Employ suspense

Suspense is the balance between what the audience knows (and doesn’t know) and what the characters know. How you reveal this imbalance, and shift it slightly throughout the film, will always be tantalising for a viewer. Hinting to the audience that something bad is going to happen to a character, while the character is totally unaware of it, will make everyday activities instantly suspenseful. Gradually remind your audience of this looming danger and you’ll keep them on the edge of their seats.

Don’t show everything

That’s right, you can make your project better by using fewer visual effects. The audience's imagination is far more powerful than any VFX team, and their mind will cater to their deepest fears. Rather than try to create it perfectly (and risk getting it wrong), simply allude to a creature from the deep with sound, editing, and subtle cinematography and trust that the audience’s imagination take care of the rest. Let the audience scare themselves, and you’ll have a stronger project for it.

Keep sound design subtle

Sound design is an incredibly powerful tool and there are many things you can do with it to enhance your project. But be prudent: when creating a particularly tense moment, your sound design should always be subtle. Eerily quiet moments will have your audience moving forward in their seats, pulling them into the scene; use music and sound FX sparingly and be judicious about when you do decide to go loud.

Simple scores pack an emotional punch

When it comes to building scares, simplicity is always key. As well as minimising your sound FX, keep the score simple too. It’s not just a hunch: science has found that music that relies on one or just a few instruments, and that uses dissonant sounds and minor chords, like the scores from Jaws or Halloween, has deeper connections with the viewer's subconscious, making them feel instinctively afraid of what’s about to happen.

It can be surprising to realise, but horror films are often at their scariest when they leave plenty out. Think minimal sound design, a spookily pared-back soundtrack, and a mere hint of shadows in the corner – if you’ve set your tone right and built some tension between what the audience knows and what the characters do, the viewer’s imagination will more than take care of the rest.

What's your favorite suspense-filled horror film? Any recommendations for Halloween? Let us know in the comments below!