At some point, your mind gets lazy and takes the quick way out. Well, the chilling music building in the background aides the mind. Well, the acting is superb and you really feel for the character. Well, maybe I'm duped into nail-biting because it's a Hitchcock film and I expect it to be intense. You can apply any of those theories to receive a half-baked answer, but the truth is, none of those peripheral things really matter.
So what does?
I call them knowledge-bombs. Name it whatever you will-- information distribution, insight, fictional communion. It's all the same idea. Suspense is almost always about what the involved players know and don't know, and that includes the audience. For instance, you *know* there's an item on the ground behind the murderer that will give away the hero's well crafted plan for revenge. The murderer *doesn't know* but all he needs to do is turn around and it's right there. This potential plot-bomb will blow up at that point. So that's tension. Suspense is the prolonging of the tension. In this case, the murderer backs up one step, and the item is literally resting (almost touching) their shoe. They bend down to scratch their leg, their gaze only inches away from the item. The closer we come to seeing this bit of knowledge revealed, the more captivated we are with waiting for it. If the characters are interesting all the better, of course, but even that's not always essential. Sometimes people just want to see a good explosion.
Benjamin Kane Ethridge is the Bram Stoker Award winning author of the novel BLACK & ORANGE and NIGHTMARE BALLAD. For his master's thesis he wrote, "CAUSES OF UNEASE: The Rhetoric of Horror Fiction and Film." Available in an ivory tower near you. Benjamin lives in Southern California with his wife and two creatures who possess stunning resemblances to human children. When he isn't writing, reading, videogaming, Benjamin's defending California's waterways and sewers from pollution.Say hi and drop a line at firstname.lastname@example.org