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From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Suspense is a state of mental uncertainty, anxiety, of being undecided, or of being doubtful.[1] In a dramatic work, suspense is the anticipation of the outcome of a plot or of the solution to an uncertainty, puzzle, or mystery,[2][3][4][5] particularly as it affects a character for whom one has sympathy.[6] However, suspense is not exclusive to fiction.

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  • ✪ How to make your writing suspenseful - Victoria Smith


What makes a good horror story? Sure, you could throw in some hideous monsters, fountains of blood, and things jumping out from every corner, but as classic horror author H.P. Lovecraft wrote, "The oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown." And writers harness that fear not by revealing horrors, but by leaving the audience hanging in anticipation of them. That is, in a state of suspense. The most familiar examples of suspense come from horror films and mystery novels. What's inside the haunted mansion? Which of the dinner guests is the murderer? But suspense exists beyond these genres. Will the hero save the day? Will the couple get together in the end? And what is the dark secret that causes the main character so much pain? The key to suspense is that it sets up a question, or several, that the audience hopes to get an answer to and delays that answer while maintaining their interest and keeping them guessing. So what are some techniques you can use to achieve this in your own writing? Limit the point of view. Instead of an omniscient narrator who can see and relay everything that happens, tell the story from the perspective of the characters. They may start off knowing just as little as the audience does, and as they learn more, so do we. Classic novels, like "Dracula," for example, are told through letters and diary entries where characters relate what they've experienced and fear what's to come. Next, choose the right setting and imagery. Old mansions or castles with winding halls and secret passageways suggest that disturbing things are being concealed. Nighttime, fog, and storms all play similar roles in limiting visibility and restricting characters' movements. That's why Victorian London is such a popular setting. And even ordinary places and objects can be made sinister as in the Gothic novel "Rebecca" where the flowers at the protagonist's new home are described as blood red. Three: play with style and form. You can build suspense by carefully paying attention not just to what happens but how it's conveyed and paced. Edgar Allan Poe conveys the mental state of the narrator in "The Tell-Tale Heart" with fragmented sentences that break off suddenly. And other short declarative sentences in the story create a mix of breathless speed and weighty pauses. On the screen, Alfred Hitchcock's cinematography is known for its use of extended silences and shots of staircases to create a feeling of discomfort. Four: use dramatic irony. You can't just keep the audience in the dark forever. Sometimes, suspense is best served by revealing key parts of the big secret to the audience but not to the characters. This is a technique known as dramatic irony, where the mystery becomes not what will happen but when and how the characters will learn. In the classic play "Oedipus Rex," the title character is unaware that he has killed his own father and married his mother. But the audience knows, and watching Oedipus gradually learn the truth provides the story with its agonizing climax. And finally, the cliffhanger. Beware of overusing this one. Some consider it a cheap and easy trick, but it's hard to deny its effectiveness. This is where a chapter, episode, volume, or season cuts off right before something crucial is revealed, or in the midst of a dangerous situation with a slim chance of hope. The wait, whether moments or years, makes us imagine possibilities about what could happen next, building extra suspense. The awful thing is almost always averted, creating a sense of closure and emotional release. But that doesn't stop us from worrying and wondering the next time the protagonists face near-certain disaster.


In drama

In literature, films, television, and plays, suspense is a major device for securing and maintaining interest. It may be of several major types: in one, the outcome is uncertain and the suspense resides in the question of who, what, or how; in another, the outcome is inevitable from foregoing events, and the suspense resides in the audience's anxious or frightened anticipation in the question of when.[7] Readers feel suspense when they are deeply curious about what will happen next, or when they know what is likely to happen but don’t know how it will happen. It would be difficult (and perhaps pointless) to write a piece of fiction in which there were not some issue the reader had a burning wish to find out about. Consequently, even in historical fiction, with characters whose life stories are well known, the why usually brings suspense to the novel.[8]

An adjunct to suspense is foreshadowing, as found in hints of national crisis or revolution in Isabel Allende’s House of the Spirits (1991).[9]


  • In Sophocles' Oedipus Rex (429 B.C.), suspense is achieved through a withholding of the knowledge that Oedipus himself has killed Laius, his father. During the play, the spectators, aware that Oedipus will eventually make the discovery, share the hero's uncertainties and fears as he pursues the truth of his own past.[10]
  • In George Washington Cable's story "Jean-ah Poquelin" (1875), the reader wants to know the cause of the strange smell and the unexplained disappearance of a brother.[11]
  • In Mark Twain's Pudd'nhead Wilson (1895), the reader anticipates the outcome of the switching of a black infant with a white infant.[12]
  • In Ernest J. Gaines's A Gathering of Old Men (1983), the reader waits for the court's decision at a murder trial.[13]

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.[14][15][16][17][18] 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;[19] 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[20] or because we expect fictional worlds to look like the real world, where exact repetition of an event is impossible.[21]

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 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).[22]

See also



  • Baroni, R. (2007), La tension narrative. Suspense, curiosité, surprise, Paris: Éditions du Seuil
  • Beckson, Karl; Ganz, Arthur (1989), Literary Terms: A Dictionary (3rd ed.), New York: Noonday Press, LCCN 88-34368
  • W. Brewer (1996). "The Nature of Narrative Suspense and the Problem of Rereading". In Vorderer, P.; H. J. Wulff; M. Friedrichsen. Suspense: Conceptualizations, theoretical analyses, and empirical explorations. Mahwah: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
  • Carey, Gary; Snodgrass, Mary Ellen (1999), A Multicultural Dictionary of Literary Terms, Jefferson: McFarland & Company, ISBN 0-7864-0552-X
  • R. Gerrig (1989). "Suspense in the Absence of Uncertainty". Journal of Memory and Language. 28: 633–648.
  • Harmon, William (2012), A Handbook to Literature (12th ed.), Boston: Longman, ISBN 978-0-205-02401-8
  • Henry, Laurie (1995), The Fiction Dictionary, Cincinnati: Story Press, ISBN 1-884910-05-X
  • Walton, K. (1990), Mimesis as Make-Believe, Cambridge: Harvard University Press
  • Webster's Seventh New Collegiate Dictionary, Springfield: G. & C. Merriam Company, 1969
  • R. Yanal (1996). "The Paradox of Suspense". British Journal of Aesthetics. 36 (2): 146–158.

Further reading

  • Baroni, R. (2009). L'oeuvre du temps. Poétique de la discordance narrative, Paris: Seuil.
  • Brooks, P. (1984). Reading for the Plot: Design and Intention in Narrative, Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
  • 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 [1].
  • 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.
  • 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.

External links

This page was last edited on 22 December 2018, at 18:18
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