The Key to Editing Suspense

The order you arrange the shots in your edit is fundamental in film editing.

The structure of your sequence could hold back information from your character, but not your audience. Or, have your character know before the audience does.

We are going to start with a little history lesson. In 1920 a filmmaker called Lev Kuleshov performed an experiment to demonstrate that, depending on how your shots are assembled, the audience will attach different meanings or emotion to them.

Kuleshov Effect 1

Kuleshov cut three different sequences together. The first shot was always an expressionless close up of Ivan Mosjoukine who was a Russian actor. The shots that followed shows the actor reacting to a child in a coffin, a bowl of soup, and a woman laying on a sofa.

When you watch each sequence separately, you get a different meaning and emotion. The first is sadness, the second is hunger, and the third is lust.

We’ve created 3 different sequences with Richard. Let us know in the comments below what emotion you get and what you think Richard is thinking.

Kuleshov Effect.jpg
Kuleshov Effect 1.jpg
Kuleshov Effect 2.jpg
Kuleshov Effect 3.jpg

This whole experiment is called the Kuleshov effect. I’ve put a link in the description of this video if you want to learn more about it.

This was the early days of editing, and a lot has been learnt and edited since 1920, but his experiment and the effect it has on the audience is still important when making films today.

Now let's expand on this. Instead of changing the shot, let's change the order of the shots in a sequence.

We have created a short scene which takes place in a back alley. Police Officer Rusty Johnson, is investigating crimes that have happened in the area when he hears glass smashing.

Example 1


This sequence of shots is a question and answer sequence. It’s one the audience can easily follow along with and anticipate the outcome.

Shot A is of the Police Officer walking down the alley and asks the first questions: “where are the bad guys?” And “what was that noise?”.

Shot B asks a new question: “What has the Police Officer found?”

And shot C give us the answers. The Police Officer has found a bad guy committing a crime.

Example 2

Now let's change the order of the shots and put shot C after shot A and see how that plays out.

Shot A still asks the same question “where are the bad guys?” And “what was that noise?” but by changing the order, the context of the scene has changed and shot C becomes the answer to shot A “the bad guy is over here”. Shot C also asks another question, “will the bad get away before the Police Officer gets there?”.

The final shot of the sequence which is now shot B answers the questions, The Police Officer has found a bad guy committing a crime.

The order of this sequence allows the audience to share the information with the filmmaker by allowing them to know what the Police Officer is up against before the Police Officer does. By editing the sequence in this order it creates suspense because we know the Police Officer is getting closer to the bad guy, unlike the first example where we did not know the geography between the two characters.

Example 3


Let’s change the context of the scene again and have shot C first.

By showing the bad guy committing a crime at the start of the scene, a suspenseful situation is established for the rest of the scene, and again, the audience knows something the police officer does not.

When we cut to shot A, the tension is raised because we know the police officer has heard the bad guy and is close. Shot B now asks another question “has the police officer got there in time to stop the bad guy?”

By changing the structure of the sequence in these 3 examples, it allows us to change what the viewer knows and when.

There is no right or wrong answer when it comes to the order of the shots in a sequence, it all depends on the type of film you are making.

Placing your shots together is obviously done in the edit, but you can start to think of how each shot connects to each other in the storyboard and even when writing your script. Making the decision in the script and storyboard stage will allow you to plan and shoot for the editing.

If you start to change the sequence of shots for the first time in the edit, you may not have all of the coverage needed to do so. But the 3 examples we showed all worked and give the audience a different context to the scene, and it was all done in the edit, so it really just depends on the type of film you are making.

There are a couple of things you can think about to help you work out which is the best structure for your film.

Do you want to hold back information from your character but let the audience in on the secret?

Or have your character hide information from the audience and reveal something big in the end?

Think about the best time to reveal the bad guy to your audience. Revealing this early will create suspense and have your audience screaming at the screen telling your character not to trust them, but having it early might spoil the surprise.

In a murder mystery, where your character is finding clues about the killer, it might be best if the audience just goes along for the ride. Which is example 1 from the 3 that we spoke about.


A lot of the information for this episode was taken from the book Film directing shot by shot Steven D. Katz. I would highly recommend picking it up as it goes into a lot more detail about this subject and a bunch of others.

Film Directing Shot by Shot

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