In a famous interview with film critic and director Francois Truffaut, Alfred Hitchcock described the difference between suspense and surprise:
“We are now having a very innocent little chat. Let us suppose that there is a bomb underneath this table between us. Nothing happens, and then all of a sudden, “Boom!” There is an explosion. The public is surprised, but prior to this surprise, it has seen an absolutely ordinary scene, of no special consequence. Now, let us take a suspense situation. The bomb is underneath the table and the public knows it, probably because they have seen the anarchist place it there. The public is aware that the bomb is going to explode at one o’clock, and there is a clock in the décor. The public can see that it is a quarter to one. In these conditions this innocuous conversation becomes fascinating because the public is participating in the scene. The audience is longing to warn the characters on the screen: ‘You shouldn’t be talking about such trivial matters. There’s a bomb beneath you and it’s about to explode!’ In the first case we have given the public fifteen seconds of surprise at the moment of the explosion. In the second case we have provided them with fifteen minutes of suspense.”
Seeing as Hitchcock is often referred to as ‘The Master of Suspense,’ it’s not much of a shock to see that he values suspense more highly than the surprise effect (but that’s not to say he always listened to his own advice). The bottom line difference between suspense and surprise is how much information the audience has, or doesn’t have – which may or may not be in relation to what the character(s) know.
As Hitchcock described, surprise occurs when the audience’s knowledge is restricted, we don’t have the whole story. Usually these kinds of stories restrain the audience’s point of view to a single character and we don’t know or see anything they don’t know or see. A famous example of surprise comes from Hitchcock’s Psycho: the reveal of Norman in his mother’s clothing is an intense shock. Another example is M. Night Shyamalan’s The Sixth Sense, which is constructed in a particular way to protect the revelation about Malcolm’s true nature (something I’ve written about before). Surprise can also be a by-product of an unreliable narrator, where the audience only knows what the main character wants them to know, or, as in Fight Club, the narrator is ‘unreliable’ because his consciousness is cut off from certain parts of his own mind.
Suspense on the other hand is usually a by-product of some degree of omniscience being given to the audience. We have knowledge beyond what the principle character(s) knows. In literature this is often referred to as “dramatic irony,” which can be summed up by the film poster for Jaws:
From Hitchcock himself, we find suspense in Psycho‘s famous shower scene where the audience sees the shadow of Mrs. Bates approaching the shower curtain while Marion is blissfully unaware she’s in danger; and in Vertigo Hitchcock chooses to reveal to the audience the connection between Judy and Madeleine long before Scotty finds out. Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet is another famous example, the audience knows Juliet has only feigned her death, but must watch in agony as Romeo kills himself believing she’s gone, and knowing Juliet will soon wake to find him dead.
Creating suspense by giving the audience a wider view of events, and often access to events in two places or more at once to create simultaneity, is common in action films. Think of the frantic cuts in The Dark Knight between Batman and the police racing towards two different locations trying to save both Rachel and Harvey Dent from Joker’s bombs.
Depending on the order in which you watch the Star Wars films, the series could be an example of either surprise or suspense. If you had never seen Star Wars before and were to watch them in release order, the revelation that Darth Vader is Luke’s father would be a surprise, as would the revelation that Luke and Leia are twins. In episode order, however, the audience knows Vader is Luke and Leia’s father, and suspense is created as we wait to discover how and when Luke and Leia will find out.
In these kinds of comparisons, suspense is usually the privileged storytelling mode, as it tends to be judged as more sophisticated than surprise. Effective suspense requires a high degree of skill on the part of the writer, it also tends to create a larger emotional impact on the viewer, since, as Hitchcock points out, surprise is a short experience versus the drawn out nature of suspense. Suspense also allows for deeper characterization, as the audience has time to contemplate and anticipate the reactions of individual characters to the revelation. Overall, suspense creates more viewer participation in the story and generates a deeper emotional connection and reaction to the story. But, while all of this is certainly true, I don’t think it’s quite fair to throw surprise under the bus, because the most effective stories often use both suspense and surprise (even within the same sequence).
In The Dark Knight example we see how suspense and surprise are used simultaneously: suspense is created by cross-cutting between Batman, Gordon, Rachel and Harvey, and we’re wondering if they will be saved in time. But when Batman actually arrives we are also given a surprise: thinking he was going to find Rachel, Batman discovers he’s been lead to save Harvey instead. This kind of mixture of suspense and surprise is also common in the horror genre, the audience is usually privy to the fact that the killer is inside the house or close to the unsuspecting victims, but the horror genre also trades heavily on shocks and jumps, having the killer suddenly emerge from the closet or grab someone’s ankle from under a bed.
On the surface, at least, Game of Thrones seems to thrive on surprise, one infamous example being the ‘Red Wedding.’ Unless, of course, you had read the books beforehand and created suspense for yourself by watching it with your unsuspecting friends. But this example, too, isn’t purely a surprise. There’s a subtle sense of suspense created in the moments leading up to it: the doors of the hall are shut and locked, the band plays the Lannister ballad ‘The Rains of Castamere,’ and Lord Bolton reveals the armor under his shirt to a worried Catelyn. A more clear example of suspense from Game of Thrones would be that the audience is privy to the fact Ser Jorah was hired to assassinate and spy on Daenerys and there’s is great suspense as their connection grows (well, within a certain… “zone”) before she finds out several seasons later.
In the end, both suspense and surprise are ways of managing audience knowledge, but also, reaction. What you choose to reveal to the audience, or conceal from them, has a deep impact on how they will experience the story emotionally. And while suspense has a tendency to create stronger emotional bonds with the audience, surprise can create an equal amount of emotional depth. In stories like The Sixth Sense and Fight Club, where we’re dealing with characters who realize something about themselves they were totally unaware of, surprise can be an important mirror to ask ourselves about our own unconscious patterns and what we might be better served acknowledging than continuing to project onto the outside world.
Just a thought.