A Lesson in Suspense

In Monday’s post, “Excellent Example of Flashback,” I presented screenwriter Gregory Poirier’s expertise in writing the season finale of Missing. If you didn’t see the post, you may want to go back and read it, but for a quick reminder: Ex-CIA agent, Becca Winstone is on the hunt for her kidnapped son. As she is having flashbacks illustrating how much she despises torture, the woman who knows the whereabouts of her son is in the other room, being interrogated by an active agent who is limited in the means of extracting information. The flashbacks serve as a stark contrast between Becca, the agent, and Becca, the mother.

And Poirier’s first lesson in developing tension is in how he presents the question: How far is Becca, the mother, willing to go to get her son back?

The dual events of Becca’s flashbacks and Dax’s interrogation of Violet elicit that very question from the viewer. The flashbacks serve as an illustration of Becca’s past and opinion of torture, while the interrogation serves to foreshadow what will come next. The viewer isn’t surprised when Becca wants access to Violet.

We’ve seen her expertise as a trained CIA agent. We know what she’s capable of . . . and what she’s not. She despises torture and could not allow a bad guy to be subjected to it. As we wait for the inevitable, the suspense mounts: What will Becca do?

Becca enters the room and sits on the table facing Violet, who is restrained to a chair. Although I don’t remember the exact words she used, her voice was reasonable, quiet. Almost casual. Becca’s in business mode. She’s not a mother here. How long can she maintain her poise?–a question Poirier elicits in his development of this suspenseful scene.

Violet spits at her, letting everyone know she’s not going to cooperate.

What will Becca do?

After a few words, still reasonable, still casual, she walks out of the room and joins agent Dax Miller and others. In a quiet, professional tone, she asks for a knife, a rubber hose, a pair of pliers, a tub of water, and a car battery. When asked what she planned to do, she says: “I’m going to get my son back.” And just in case the viewer isn’t on to what’s happening, Poirier has Dax say, “There’s only so much I can do as an agent. Becca’s not an agent.”

But the suspense isn’t lightened by the implications presented. Becca’s a tough woman. There’s still a chance she won’t violate her conscience–maybe she won’t have to.

Soon, we reenter the room where Violet sits, still restrained in her chair. Now, Poirier shifts the focus of his suspense-building techniques. While we, the viewers, sit glued to our easy chairs and wonder what Becca will do, Violet watches her place known objects of torture on the table. Now we get to witness the cockiness drain out of the woman as her own suspense grows.

Once she has placed the items in Violet’s full view, Becca plants her backside on the table again. Her voice is still calm and level, but her words are chilling. She reminds Violet that she is not under the restraints placed upon the CIA. She also lets the woman know that she will do whatever it takes to get her son back. Whatever. It. Takes.

Then she tells Violet exactly what she’s going to do to her, starting with breaking each finger at each knuckle. “They say the thumb hurts the worst, but really, after the other four are broken, who can tell?”

Even though she remains silent, Violet visibly melts as Becca describes in detail the gruesome things she’ll do to make her talk. And it’s ugly. Just listening from the comfort of my living room, I could picture in my head everything Becca described, and cringe as deeply as if she were threatening to do this to me. She leans forward, pins Violet with her eyes, and tells her she won’t let her die. “You’ll want to, but I’ll make sure it doesn’t happen.”

Frightening stuff, but it’s all talk. The question isn’t answered: What will Becca do?

After one more show of bluff and bluster on Violet’s part, Becca grabs the pliers. As she struggles to peel Violet’s fingers away from the chair arm they’re clamped to, the viewer is whisked to the other room, where we hear a sharp crack and a primal scream.

All suspense ends on the echoing notes. Question answered.

It’s over now. How do you save your character?

I’ll tell you Friday.


Related posts:

Excellent Example of Flashback” (#1 in the Missing series)

Action/Reaction” (#3 in the Missing series)

About Linda W. Yezak

Author/Freelance Editor/Speaker (writing and editing topics).
This entry was posted in Writing, Writing Tips and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to A Lesson in Suspense

  1. Ah! And now the suspense builds at 777 Peppermint Place as readers await the final blog post…thanks Linda!


  2. The suspense hooked me just in reading your description! I’m really going to have to check this show out.


  3. Linda Yezak says:

    Believe it or not, Greg Poirier just RT’d an ad for this post. I checked his tweets for today, and found out that Missing is for sure being discontinued. I really wish I knew how to fight for the show!

    Anyway, from what I understand, the first and only season should be released on DVD in June. I hope.


  4. ceciliamariepulliam says:

    Oh wow. I am on edge just reading your description! Well done, Linda. Are you sure you don’t want to write suspense novels? I’d be your first fan!


    • Linda Yezak says:

      Yes, I wanted to write suspense novels. But I stink at it. I can write the actual suspenseful scenes, but building a story seems impossible. I’d love to try again, though . . .


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