Surprise vs. Suspense

Suspense is created by letting the reader worry

Prompted by an old episode of the TV show “Castle,” a middle-grade book I’m reading, and a chapter I’m trying to write, I’m still mulling over the comparative value of surprise vs suspense in a story. The difference is illustrated in a bus bomb comparison. If the characters are riding along in a bus and it blows up, that’s surprise. If we see the bomb being placed and the watch the characters ride, that’s suspense.

Surprise

Last night, my husband and I watched an episode of “Castle” that he’d recorded. In it, Castle is accused of murder, jailed, and threatened with death by an old foe. It should have been exciting, but it bored us both. So why?

The best I could come up with was that the audience had no way to anticipate what would happen. We were pretty sure Castle was going to survive, so we had nothing to hope for, fear, or feel tension over. This should have been a mystery, where we tried to identify the killer along with the TV detectives. But we had NO information and so couldn’t do that. In other words, we had to settle for surprise instead of suspense.

Suspense

Then today, I was reading the latest book from a middle-grade writer I enjoy. At the end of a chapter, the central character is being taken off to “talk” to the bad guy and he says, “Talking can’t hurt.” And then the writer says, “He didn’t know how wrong he was.”

Now that’s clumsy because it’s outside the main character’s point of view and it reminds the reader that this is a story, not really happening. But I can see why the writer did it. He wanted the reader to worry. He wanted suspense.

Weigh the options

Writers are often tempted to omit information so we can have a big reveal moment. When we do that, though, we sometimes trade fifty pages of suspense for two pages of surprise, and that’s not usually a good trade.

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8 thoughts on “Surprise vs. Suspense”

  1. You need Alfred Hitchcock’s explanation of the difference. A link to his full explanation is below, but the meat of it is:

    “In the first case we have given the public fifteen seconds of surprise at the moment of the explosion. In the second we have provided them with fifteen minutes of suspense. The conclusion is that whenever possible the public must be informed. Except when the surprise is a twist, that is, when the unexpected ending is, in itself, the highlight of the story.”

    Full quote:
    https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/728496-there-is-a-distinct-difference-between-suspense-and-surprise-and

  2. How different the book you’re reading might have been, had a *character* said, “You don’t know how wrong you are,” or even just chuckled or given the main character the side-eye.

    1. Yeah, there are nearly always ways to shift the comment from the narrator to some other place. I think sometimes a writer just has so many issues to catch that some of them slip through. It’s enough to make you weep!

  3. Dorothy, thank you for the recommendation of Megan Whalen Turner! I’m reading Instead of Three Wishes, and laughed out loud at “I’ve died and gone to Sweden”!

    1. I only read that short story collection very recently! It’s quite different from her Attolia series which I love love love. She’s just the best.

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