Elements of Suspense

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During his legendary conversation with François Truffaut, Alfred Hitchcock broke down the difference between Surprise and Suspense:

“We are now having a very innocent little chat. Let’s 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 the bomb is going to explode at one o’clock and there is a clock in the decor. The public can see that it is a quarter to one. In these conditions, the same 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 is a bomb beneath you and it is 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 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.”

This idea of the audience knowing more than the characters in the narrative is referred to as Dramatic Irony, and it is one of the major building blocks for suspenseful writing.

Writers’ Digest has published an excellent article concerning the components of suspense. Read it here!

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One Response to “Elements of Suspense”

  1. William Sommerwerck Says:

    November 16th, 2017 at 7:54 am

    Hitchcock somehow forgets this basic principle in “Shadow of a Doubt”. We’re shown at the start that Uncle Charlie is the Merry Widow killer. This destroys any suspense, because we know how the film is supposed to end. If we didn’t know, there would be a slow build-up of suspense, centered on Uncle Charlie’s odd behavior (such as not wanting to be photographed). This suspense would climax with Charlie spewing his hatred of humanity. The film could easily be edited to remove this problem, by making the opening scene a flashback.

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