Curiosity may have killed the cat, but it’s what makes a story live and breathe.

by JoslynChase in Reading, Suspense, Thrill
Suspense is an essential story element

Cats in suspense

Fascinating and vivid description is lovely. Scintillating dialogue is a definite plus. Intimate peeks into characterization are wonderful to have in a story, but what keeps us turning the pages is that curiosity, the desire to answer the burning question…

What happens next?

Pretty much every kind of story benefits from the addition of surprise, mystery, and suspense. Let’s talk a little bit about the difference between these elements. After 29 years of marriage, my husband has come to realize and appreciate that I don’t like surprises. Even the good ones. A wonderful surprise is fun and thrilling—at the moment it happens, and for a period of time afterward. But I tend to feel cheated by such a surprise, deprived of the anticipation of something good that, to me, is a very large part of the enjoyment.

So, while surprise is good, in my book, suspense is usually better.

When asked to describe the difference between surprise and suspense, Alfred Hitchcock came up with an interesting illustration. I’ll paraphrase it like this: If an audience is watching a couple having dinner at a restaurant and suddenly a bomb underneath their table explodes—that’s surprise. Bang! We didn’t see it coming and it shocks or thrills us, giving us fifteen seconds, or so, of heightened emotion.

Suspense versus surprise

But if the audience sees the villain plant the bomb, and set a timer, and then sees the couple come in and sit at the table and listens to them talk while the minutes click by on the clock above their table and the bomb ticks away beneath—that’s suspense. We bite our fingernails, wondering what will happen. Will the couple find the bomb and avoid getting blown to smithereens? The suspense approach gives us fifteen minutes, or so, of escalating emotional involvement.

Human nature, hijacked by suspense.

In an interview with famed French movie director, Francois Truffaut, Hitchcock went into more detail about surprise and suspense and how they affect us, as the audience. He gave examples of how people automatically root for the character they perceive is in danger, even if it’s the bad guy.

Our fears and sympathies go out to someone in a perilous position.

Think of the movie Valkyrie. Most people, watching the scene where the bomb is under the table, are not thinking, “Oh good, the Nazis are about to get what’s coming to them.” Our logical minds may come to that conclusion, but our instinct is to think, “Watch out! There’s a bomb!”

Hitchcock gives another example of an audience watching a character searching through someone’s room, then seeing the person who lives in that room coming up the stairs. In an agony of suspense, we feel like warning him, “Be careful, you’re about to be caught!” even if he’s not a likable character.

Suspense grabs hold on our emotions and gives them a good twist

Suspense grabs ahold of our emotions and gives them a good twist.

Watching or reading a good, suspenseful story is a cathartic experience. We get caught up, ride the wave, and feel the release when the story is resolved. Earlier, I said that pretty much every kind of story benefits from the addition of surprise, mystery, and suspense, and I’ve talked about the difference between surprise and suspense, but I haven’t touched on mystery. And now, I’m going to keep you in suspense, because that is a topic for another post.

Which do you prefer—surprise or suspense? Tell me about it in the comments below. I’d love to hear about it.

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