What “Raiders” Can Teach Us About Suspense Writing

Toht (left) and Belloq

Toht (left) and Belloq: two villains who make this film such a fun ride.(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Friday night I went to the local IMAX theater with my son to see Raiders of the Lost Ark (limited engagement) on the big screen again…this time even bigger.  Somehow seeing Belloq‘s head explode at the end of the film in 5 story glory was just as terrifyingly fun as the last time I watched the film in the theater with my Dad so many years ago.

I made some observations while watching this film for what seems like the millionth time, and these observations have to do with why the film still makes me sit at the edge of my seat in absolute suspense.

1.  Escalating Peril – If Spielberg can do one thing well it is to cause the viewer to become more and more nervous with each shot without sending them running for home.  The opening sequence in the ancient Amazon temple, the layers of deadly traps, the spiders, all point to an inevitable conclusion that Indy will snag the little golden fertility god (did anyone else notice its eyes moving?).  At first we are following some men through the jungle with the heretofore faceless Indiana Jones and they find hints of danger along the way (the poison blow darts, the birds in the Mayan relief).  We then find the remains of Indy’s predecessor who wandered into the light only to be impaled, the pit, then the darts in the walls, and finally the giant boulder.  Spielberg is using a method of building the suspense a little at a time so as to draw us in carefully and then surprise us with the boulder, but just when we think the boulder escape is the final problem Indy loses the idol to Belloq and is chased by the Hovitos.  Suspense writers should build peril slowly throughout their text to create the same slow lead in for readers.  In this way, when the final danger arises, it is somewhat unexpected but then delightful to scream about.

2.  Comic Relief – Too many suspense writers are too serious with their text.  Spielberg is not.  Nearly every scene of the film is full of humorous moments.  I feel that Toht, the German Gestapo agent is probably the funniest character in the film next to Sallah.  Even though the character is absolutely evil and relishes in delivering pain and despair, we all laugh when Toht runs out screaming into the snow bank to cool down his burning hand or when he pulls out what seems to be a hand-to-hand weapon only to reveal it is a coat hanger for his leather jacket.  There is constant bantering humor between the characters of Marian Ravenwood, Indy and Sallah.  Even the fight with the large bald German near the flying wing is full of laughs.  Who can keep a straight face when Indy takes one on the jaw and his knees wobble as he falls down.  Suspense writers need to sprinkle their dangerous elements with laughter so the reader can enjoy their ride down the dangerous roller coaster of prose.  This takes practice and careful planning so as not to go overboard with the humor.  Suspense is meant to thrill and scare, after all.

3.  The Balance – Finally, the heroes and villains should balance out.  This is never more poignantly stated than in the scene just after Indy thinks Marian has died in the truck explosion and he has a face to face conversation with his nemesis Belloq.  Belloq admits that “it would only take a nudge” to cause Indy to be just like Belloq, and this is true.  Belloq is an archaeologist and an adventurer just like Indy, but Indy’s principles cause him to do good rather than evil.  The suspense comes from seeing just how far Indy will go toward becoming more like Belloq, such as when he threatens to blow the Ark of the Covenant “back to God” or says to Belloq: “You wanna go meet God?  Let’s go see him together.  I got nothing better to do.”

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2 thoughts on “What “Raiders” Can Teach Us About Suspense Writing

  1. Oh Roger, I’m thrilled with your analysis here – on one of my favorite series (aside from LOTR, of course) ever! I’m in total agreement with Jeffrey and with you on all counts; Spielberg is a master of his craft; which is why his movies are so entertaining and enduring. My fav of the Indiana Jones series is the one with Sean Connery playing his dad – some of the most delightful and funniest scenes I’ve ever seen in that one! These are movies I’d actually pay to watch again and again. (And of course, every time they’re on tv I watch, lol.) Great post! ~ Julie 🙂

  2. Yes on all three counts. Raiders is superbly crafted in so many ways, but if the story itself didn’t have these basics down, it wouldn’t have been as successful or enduring.

    Expanding a bit on the first point: not only does each individual sequence in the movie crank up the peril at the appropriate rate, but the sequences themselves raise the stakes as they go. In that opening sequence, the worst than can happen is Indy getting himself killed. As the story progresses, additional targets come into the the story, in the form of Marion and Sallah. We care about the threats to them because Indy cares–his fear (and grief!) for them are ours. Then, at the end, the stakes transcend the personal and become existential, as the Nazis seem on the verge of capturing the Ark and its “untold power.”

    The result is a structure that incorporates the best of both the serials from which the movie draws its inspiration and standard movie character arcs.

    I need to see if it’s coming through town soon!

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