Surprise vs. Suspense

Twist or tension and manipulating the audience's engagement in the storytelling.

Misha Tenenbaum avatar
Written by Misha Tenenbaum
Updated over a week ago

Two storytelling concepts that filmmakers try to balance is the use of Surprise or Suspense in their films. Both concepts function differently, but their respective uses can affect the audiences engagement and understanding of the film's events. Surprise seeks to catch the viewer off guard with a twist, whereas Suspense gives enough information to set-up a dramatic question but withholds the answer from the audience and/or characters, thereby creating dramatic tension.

Alfred Hitchcock on Surprise and Suspense

Auteur filmmaker, Alfred Hitchcock, was a master of the use of Suspense in his films, which often found interesting ways to build prolonged tension, keeping the audience unbearably on edge. In one interview, Alfred Hitchcock used an analogy, sometime coined "The Bomb Theory", in which he compared a similar scenario but one whose sequence of events creates Surprise for the viewer and in the other, prolonged Suspense.

In the video below, the first example given by Hitchcock, he felt Surprise creates briefer emotional engagement for the audience, in this instance "ten seconds of shock." Whereas in scenario two, he suggests letting the audience know a bomb is about to go off, but let the scene play out after this new information is established. The audience knows there's an eminent threat, making them feel tension throughout moments that would otherwise be innocuous. This example can also be seen as a Ticking Clock. Through this method, the audience is engaged in the storytelling over a longer period of time rather than in the scenario that employs a sudden shock at the unexpected.

Which is better?

While Hitchcock had a clear preference for the use of Suspense in his films, that doesn't mean this is the right choice for every movie. You have to decide what's right for the storytelling of the film and to be cognizant that the sequencing of shots and information you edit may further create either Surprise by withholding information or building Suspense by providing information but withholding the conclusion.

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