Surprise versus suspense: what’s the difference? And why does one make for more engaging writing than the other?
Let’s use the following to define what we’re talking about:
Suspense is a drawn out feeling of excitement anxiety or uncertainty about what may happen.
Surprise is a sudden feeling of astonishment or shock when something does happen.
Surprise is a one-time event; it happens and it’s gone in as much time as it takes to describe it. Suspense, however, builds through a series of events, leading to an eventual climax and release of suspense.
Suspense builds through anticipation. The story provides enough information to set-up a dramatic climax but withholds the answer from the reader and/or characters. Therein hangs the dramatic tension.
Film director Alfred Hitchcock became known as ‘the master of suspense.’
“There is no terror in the bang, only in the anticipation of it,” Hitchcock himself once said. He famously set out the example of a bomb hidden beneath a table. When it goes off without warning, that’s a surprise. When you show it to the audience with a ten-minute count-down and two characters talking across the table, oblivious to the threat, that’s suspense.
For the surprise, the writer withholds information from the reader. With suspense, the author supplies the reader some or all of the set-up and the prospect of an inevitable count-down or collision course.
Suspense in action
Mystery and thriller writers love suspense more than surprise. Suspense is a mechanism for hooking the reader and ratcheting up the tension over long sections of a book.
An obvious collision course might be the train driver knowingly hurtling toward the broken rail, having a limited time to stop the train.
A bomb may have an explicit count-down, or it may be primed to go off at any time. Perhaps the characters know it, perhaps only the reader knows it. This creates two kinds of suspense, in which the characters are blind or knowing.
In one, the reader is complicit in the writer’s game. At some time we’ve all wanted to shout at the characters “get out,” or “look under the table,” or “don’t answer the door.”
Either way, there’s nothing like a ticking clock to wind up the tension.
Mistaking surprise for suspense
Bad horror movies frequently mistake surprise for suspense. These are the ‘jump-scares’ beloved of genre horror movies, typical of ‘quiet-quiet-BANG’ directors. Among these are the startled pigeons or bats flapping around a loft, the cat jumping out of a cupboard, or the face appearing at the window. They rely on a period of quiet broken by a bang. Effective as occasional devices, they are always short-lived. Some writers try to wrangle these into fiction.
These are never as good as a drawn-out hunt for clues, an extended bomb defusal, or waiting for the jury verdict at the end of a long back-and-forth court battle between protagonist and antagonist.
The Long Game
Suspense demands playing a longer game than a soon-forgotten surprise. Authors such as John Grisham can stretch suspense for two-thirds or more of a book. Mitchell McDeere in The Firm, fights to uncover the evidence against his bosses before they discover his insider investigation.
The Firm‘s suspense provides a much more satisfying ending than Alice in Wonderland‘s cliched surprise ‘it was all a dream.’
Surprise holds the reader for a paragraph (or less). Suspense can hold them for an entire book.