How On-Screen SMS Conversations Drive Narrative Tension in Movies

Filmmakers and directors use several different techniques to help create tension through the stories that they create. Some are more familiar than others, with sounds and visuals being known widely as being effective methods. 

However, one option that can sometimes be overlooked and not always be as respected by audiences is the use of on-screen SMS messages. This particular technique can have a variety of impacts on the narrative that is being witnessed, especially as it can evoke a mixture of emotions to be experienced by those who see the messages that are said. 

Why do directors and filmmakers look to use this technique? 

The technique provides directors with a lot of versatility when used, as they can use it in various ways. 

It can be used to add tension without the need for additional words or scenes being created, thus making it a simple method in which can be rather cost-productive. It can also be a method that is relatable to audiences, as most will have experienced something very similar happen to them. This can help to evoke more natural emotions, as people will understand how tension can be built effectively through this method. 

Of course, adding the method in can also be something that can be very time effective. It’s possible to add the actual overlay of the on-screen SMS message at the end of filming during the post-production stage. 

Editors are able to use templates that allow them to do this without too much effort. Adding text in Premiere Pro has become the go-to option for so many, as the program has made it very simple to achieve the desired results. It also allows directors to not have to spend time trying to capture shots of a phone screen, which could potentially cause more issues than required.  

For instance, they may not have an agreement to show a certain phone within their film, or they may not have the time required to try and get the right shot of the phone. With this method, they don’t even have to send an actual SMS, as they can just give off the appearance that they did. 

Character development can be achieved 

One of the biggest ways in which an on-screen SMS message can help drive the tension that is desired to be created within a movie is through character development. 

A simple message can be relayed to a character who can then decide to act in a variety of ways. Do they respond to the message by becoming scared of what it contains? Do they become angry with its content? Are they happy with what they see? There are so many ways in which a message can be received and reacted to, all of which can push the narrative of the movie’s plot and create the desired tension that is desired. 

The way the character acts can provide audiences with an insight into their personalities, adding an extra dimension and layer to them in a simple way that doesn’t require a lot of additional work or explanation through other various actions that might be required to produce the same result. 

SMS messages can add ambiguity 

We’ve all been receivers of an SMS that doesn’t quite make sense or leaves vital information out that can make us question its context. It’s possible to receive messages without knowing the full picture, leaving it difficult to know what the right response is. 

Filmmakers have been able to use on-screen SMS messaging to create this exact scenario, thus creating a level of ambiguity surrounding it. While the character who receives the message won’t know what it means, nor will the audience, thus building tension. Questions like “What does the message mean?” “What could happen if it’s answered?” Where does it lead us to?” can all be asked immediately. 

Creates additional scenarios 

It’s also possible to have characters ignore the SMS message but give audiences a view of what has been written, which can add an element of narrative tension to the scenes that are being witnessed. Viewers can start to ask why the character has decided to ignore the message, with delayed responses upping the ante and potentially causing feelings of anxiety by those wanting to know what is happening. 

At the same time, an on-screen SMS message can be used to create tension when viewing it from the sender’s point of view. For instance, we could see the sendee typing and deleting certain aspects of their message several times as they look to try and get their words out. This can add tension, as it’s clear they want to get the right message out, and this sense can be heightened until the message is answered. 

On-screen SMS: simple yet effective 

The use of an on-screen SMS can help to drive the narrative of a film and build tension in a very simple yet effective way. It’s a relatable scenario that most have experienced in their lifetime; therefore, it becomes very easy to become engaged and believe when seen on screen.  


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Written by Catie Moore

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