Six impossible things

Surprise and Suspense

Alfred Hitchcock gave a famous definition of the difference between surprise and suspense. It boils down to this: If a bunch of guys are playing poker and suddenly a bomb goes off under the table, that’s a surprise. It’s not what the viewer expects. If, however, the viewer knows the bomb is there from the start, and watches the timer ticking down toward zero while the men play on, oblivious, that’s suspense.

The definition assumes a couple of things, not least that the viewer (or reader) actually cares about what happens when the bomb goes off. Note that it doesn’t actually matter much whether the reader cares because the hero is playing poker and the reader doesn’t want him blown up, or because the villain is supposed to be in the game but hasn’t arrived yet and the reader/viewer is hoping that the bomb won’t go off until he gets there.

It’s a great definition, and it illustrates one of the basic techniques for creating tension or suspense: let the reader know more than any one character knows, so that the reader can see trouble coming a long way off. But it’s not quite as simple as that, and trying to apply this technique without some level of understanding often results in false suspense.

For instance, take a slightly different situation: the heroine has discovered a plan to kidnap her son; she calls his cell phone, but there’s no answer. The kid frequently forgets to charge the phone, though, so he might still be fine. She jumps in the car and tears across town to his last known location –

– and halfway there, she gets stopped for ten minutes by one of those hundred-car freight trains going by.

That’s false suspense. The train doesn’t just stop the heroine; it stops the story, because the story doesn’t progress until the heroine gets where she’s going and a) finds her son, b) doesn’t find her son, but finds a clue as to where he’s gone, or c) arrives just in time to foil (or not foil) the kidnap attempt. Yes, waiting for the train makes it more likely that she won’t get there in time, but dragging out the trip for no story-related reason annoys most readers. So you don’t want to do that.

The basic elements of suspense are the same as for any story: a protagonist we care about and something important at stake. What creates the suspense is the reader’s awareness of some reason why the protagonist is very likely to fail. It can be something the protagonist doesn’t know about, like the bomb under the table, or it can be something the protagonist does know about, like his own fear of heights or alcoholism. One can get a tremendous amount of tension and suspense out of a scene in which a former alcoholic, pushed almost to the edge, hesitates in front of the door to a bar, or studies the cocktail tray at a big party.

Usually, a suspenseful scene has some sort of time constraint – the bomb under the poker table wouldn’t be very suspenseful if it was just sitting there, unprimed, with no timer. It doesn’t have to be a short, specific time constraint, either; “…before the plane runs out of fuel” or “…before the virus mutates into its deadly form” work just as well as “…before the bomb goes off at 12:23 p.m.

But time constraints aren’t always necessary; the recovering alcoholic who is resisting that moment of temptation doesn’t have any particular deadline. The lack of deadline is, in fact, part of the point – resisting temptation is something that he’s going to be facing for the rest of his life.

One can also create tension by limiting the amount of information the reader and/or protagonist has, doling out important details with agonizing slowness. The trouble with this technique is that it is very easy to limit the information too much, and end up with mere surprise, rather than suspense. In other words, if you’re going to create suspense by limiting what you tell the reader and only revealing it slowly, the reader needs to know that there are important things you’re not telling him/her. You also have to get the timing right; if the revelations come along at too slow a pace, eventually the reader is likely to give up.

One thing you absolutely do not want to do (except possibly in a totally over-the-top parody piece, and even then I’d advise caution) is a deliberate false-tension fake-out – the sort where the protagonist screams, blood spurts, and after two pages of backstory (his life flashing before his eyes?) the writer reveals that the protagonist has just cut himself shaving. This kind of thing destroys the reader’s trust in the author (apart from obvious parody), and generally leads to instant wall-flinging.

9 Comments
  1. Could you give an example of a story-related reason to drag out the tension? I think I follow you, but I’m a little unclear on that part.

    P.S. I just finished re-reading Thirteenth Child. I can’t wait for the second part of the trilogy now more than ever!!!

  2. Hmmm… thinking about the train/false suspense. It seems to me that part of the reason that particular scenario isn’t suspense is the lack of time limit.

    If the mother knew the kidnapper was already on his way to the school and she only has fifteen minutes to beat him there and save her son, or if author switches scenes (while the train clunks by) to show the kidnapper creeping up on the little boy, then the scene turns into real suspense, right?

    • Mary – A story-related reason for dragging out the car trip would usually have to involve a subplot. If, for instance, there’s a subplot involving the heroine’s rocky relationship with her brother, who borrowed the care the day before and didn’t bother to fill the gas tank, and she runs out of gas on her way to rescue her son – that would be story-related. Running out of gas still doesn’t move the main storyline (rescuing the son) forward, but complicating a different plot thread does still count as story-related.

      Chicory – I think you’re right, but I still wouldn’t like it. Making Mom run late when she has an important deadline to meet does create suspense, especially if one is doing the multiple-viewpoint thing and can show the villains creeping up on the boy…but having to stop for a train is awfully arbitrary. It’s the sort of thing you can maybe get away with once in a novel, but you’re really better off coming up with some other reason to delay her that would be more story-related. Best of all would be a lose-lose dilemma – just as she’s leaving, she gets a call from the hospital saying that her daughter needs her to provide a transfusion, and now she has to decide which child to go save, because she can’t do both.

  3. Ah, that makes sense. Thanks.

  4. Humm. What if her son looks out the window of the train?

  5. Your point about time constraints in this post is useful info. This was not directly spoken about in the panel about secrets this morning. So, thanks.

    • Mary – I did say a freight train, and I’ve never seen one of those with windows… But ignoring that part: seeing her son looking out the train window will have different effects depending on what she knows and exactly what she sees, but either way, the train is no longer an irrelevant and annoying time-waster. It becomes a plot point, which you can tell because once she sees the kid on the train, Mom no longer has to go wherever she was going and the suspense of “will she get there in time?” is gone. Either the kid is on the train because he’s been kidnapped, or he’s on the train because it was a great way of getting away from the kidnappers for a bit; either way, the next action point is probably going to be at the train’s next stop (unless Mom can do one of those Indiana Jones maneuvers and hop aboard a moving passenger train).

      Ben – You’re welcome, but the time-constraint thing is really tangential to the whole keeping-secrets thing. Suspense and secrets overlap sometimes, and often appear together, but they’re not really the same thing.

  6. and here i was, going “what’s so arbitrary about getting stuck waiting for a freight train? it’s happened to me doz…”. it did click, finally: how many readers grew up on the Prairies, where 150-car trains are a regular sight, and even rather large cities are lousy with level crossings, some of them still found in the core. Not many, really. Even the people who grew up in small towns elsewhere are often too young to remember a working railway, while big-city folk would be wondering why there was no viaduct or some other grade separation like they are used to seeing if there are any tracks left at all.

    All of which is a long-winded way of pointing out that plausiblility is very much in the mind of the reader. On top of that, secrets and suspense can both be nonexistant if the writer isn’t careful, simply because some readers know things the author didn’t plan for. A good example is a murder mystery I read years ago [either Sayers or Heyer, don’t remember which] that _wasn’t_, because, as it happens, I do know how to kill with an empty syringe. If you write the scene, or the whole book, so that a reader can enjoy it even if they know what’s coming, it matters a lot less [and makes it a good re-read, too]. If you don’t, some percentage will end up throwing it against a wall – and they are going to be the loudest voices at review time, too.

  7. What if she’s racing to get to her son and sees a train coming. Not wanting to stop for it she speeds up in an attempt to get across the tracks before the train gets there.

    Wouldn’t that add extra suspense?

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