Suspense is a feeling of pleasurable fascination and excitement mixed with apprehension, tension, and anxiety developed from an unpredictable, mysterious, and rousing source of entertainment. The term most often refers to an audience's perceptions in a dramatic work. Suspense is not exclusive to fiction. It may operate whenever there is a perceived suspended drama or a chain of cause is left in doubt, with tension being a primary emotion felt as part of the situation.
In the kind of suspense described by film director Alfred Hitchcock, an audience experiences suspense when they expect something bad to happen and have (or believe they have) a superior perspective on events in the drama's hierarchy of knowledge, yet they are powerless to intervene to prevent it from happening. Films having a lot of suspense belong in the thriller genre.
In broader definition of suspense, this emotion arises when someone is aware of his lack of knowledge about the development of a meaningful event; thus, suspense is a combination of anticipation and uncertainty dealing with the obscurity of the future. In terms of narrative expectations, it may be contrasted with mystery or curiosity and surprise. Suspense could however be some small event in a person's life, such as a child anticipating an answer to a request they've made, such as, "May I get the kitty?" Therefore, suspense may be experienced to different degrees.
According to the Greek philosopher Aristotle in his book Poetics, suspense is an important building block of literature. In very broad terms, it consists of having some real danger looming and a ray of hope. If there is no hope, the audience will feel despair. The two common outcomes are:
- the danger hitting, whereby the audience will feel sorrowful
- the hopes being realised, whereby the audience will first feel joy, then satisfaction.
Paradox of suspense
Some authors have tried to explain the "paradox of suspense", namely: a narrative tension that remains effective even when uncertainty is neutralized, because repeat audiences know exactly how the story resolves (see Gerrig 1989, Walton 1990, Yanal 1996, Brewer 1996, Baroni 2007). Some theories assume that true repeat audiences are extremely rare because, in reiteration, we usually forget many details of the story and the interest arises due to these holes of memory (see Brewer); others claim that uncertainty remains even for often told stories because, during the immersion in the fictional world, we forget fictionally what we know factually (Walton) or because we expect fictional worlds to look like real world, where exact repetition of an event is impossible (Gerrig).
The position of Yanal is more radical and postulates that narrative tension that remains effective in true repetition should be clearly distinguished from genuine suspense, because uncertainty is part of the definition of suspense. Baroni (2007: 279-295) proposes to name rappel this kind of suspense whose excitement relies on the ability of the audience to anticipate perfectly what is to come, a precognition that is particularly enjoyable for children dealing with well-known fairy tales. Baroni adds that another kind of suspense without uncertainty can emerge with the occasional contradiction between what the reader knows about the future (cognition) and what he desires (volition), especially in tragedy, when the protagonist eventually dies or fails (suspense par contradiction).
In psychology, the Zeigarnik effect states that people remember uncompleted or interrupted tasks better than completed tasks. In Gestalt psychology, the Zeigarnik effect has been used to demonstrate the general presence of Gestalt phenomena: not just appearing as perceptual effects, but also present in cognition. Soviet psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik (1900-1988) first studied the phenomenon after her professor, Gestalt psychologist Kurt Lewin, noticed that a waiter had better recollections of still unpaid orders. However, several thorough replication studies done later in other countries failed to replicate Zeigarnik's results. In those studies no significant recall effects were found for completed and interrupted tasks (e.g., Van Bergen, A., 1968. For a review see Kiebel, Elizabeth M., 2009 ).
The Zeigarnik effect suggests that students who suspend their studying, during which they do unrelated activities (such as studying unrelated subjects or playing games), will remember material better than students who complete study sessions without a break (Zeigarnik, 1927; McKinney 1935).
It is a type of memory bias.
In popular media
In thrillers, suspense is the key element authors use to leave the reader or viewer hanging, trying to figure out what will happen next. The effect is specially strong when the work ends without actually revealing what happens next in the storyline.
Suspense is what gives a person the "on-edge" feeling. Suspense builds in order to make those final moments, no matter how short, the most memorable. The suspense in a story just keeps the person hooked into reading or watching more until the climax is reached, and the thrill and amusement of the suspension finally come to a close.
The tension doesn't have to be in the form of the bad guy stalking the hero. It can be much simpler, much less dramatic, but still make the person keep reading or watching. Suspense is about conflict, about the obstacles between the hero and his goal.
- Baroni, R. (2007). La tension narrative. Suspense, curiosité, surprise, Paris: Seuil.
- Baroni, R. (2009). L'oeuvre du temps. Poétique de la discordance narrative, Paris: Seuil.
- Brewer, W. (1996). "The Nature of Narrative Suspense and the Problem of Rereading", in Suspense. Conceptualizations, Theoretical Analyses, and Empirical Explorations, Mahwah: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
- Brooks, P. (1984). Reading for the Plot: Design and Intention in Narrative, Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
- Gerrig, R. (1989). "Suspense in the Absence of Uncertainty", Journal of Memory and Language, n° 28, p. 633-648.
- Grivel, C. (1973). Production de l'intérêt romanesque, Paris & The Hague: Mouton.
- Kiebel, E.M. (2009). The Effect of Directed Forgetting on Completed and Interrupted Tasks. Presented at the 2nd Annual Student-Faculty Research Celebration at Winona State University, Winona MN. See online .
- McKinney, F. (1935). "Studies in the retention of interrupted learning activities", Journal of Comparative Psychology, vol n° 19(2), p. 265-296.
- Phelan, J. (1989). Reading People, Reading Plots: Character, Progression, and the Interpretation of Narrative, Chicago, University of Chicago Press.
- Prieto-Pablos, J. (1998). "The Paradox of Suspense", Poetics, n° 26, p. 99-113.
- Ryan, M.-L. (1991), Possible Worlds, Artificial Intelligence, and Narrative Theory, Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
- Schaper, E. (1968), "Aristotle's Catharsis and Aesthetic Pleasure", The Philosophical Quarterly, vol. 18, n° 71, p. 131-143.
- Sternberg, M. (1978), Expositional Modes and Temporal Ordering in Fiction, Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press.
- Sternberg, M. (1992), "Telling in Time (II): Chronology, Teleology, Narrativity", Poetics Today, n° 11, p. 901-948.
- Sternberg, M. (2001), "How Narrativity Makes a Difference", Narrative, n° 9, (2), p. 115-122.
- Van Bergen, A. (1968) Task interruption. Amsterdam: North-Holland Publishing Company.
- Vorderer, P., H. Wulff & M. Friedrichsen (eds) (1996). Suspense. Conceptualizations, Theoretical Analyses, and Empirical Explorations, Mahwah: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
- Walton, K. (1990), Mimesis as Make-Believe, Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
- Yanal, R. (1996). "The Paradox of Suspense", British Journal of Aesthetics, n° 36, (2), p. 146-158.
- Zeigarnik, B. (1927). Das Behalten erledigter und unerledigter Handlungen. Psychologische Forschung, 9, 1-85.
- Zeigarnik, B. (1967). On finished and unfinished tasks. In W. D. Ellis (Ed.), A sourcebook of Gestalt psychology, New York: Humanities press.
- The dictionary definition of suspense at Wiktionary