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.
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.
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.