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Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Surprise vs. Suspense--Which is Better?


You've probably heard about the concepts of surprise and suspense in writing. You may have even heard them compared and contrasted. From more than one source, I've heard it illustrated with the following story, which I think might actually come from an old Hitchcock movie, but I'm not sure, so if you know where it comes from, please feel free to leave it in the comments.


Imagine watching a show where a bunch of guys are playing poker. As an audience we are watching, watching, and watching them play poker. They are talking about everyday things.

Then suddenly a bomb goes off.

That's surprise.


In the suspense version, we are watching the same story, except before the poker starts, we see a scene where someone plants the bomb, with a countdown.

The players arrive and we watch essentially the same thing--them playing, talking about everyday things. The only difference is that every once in a while, we get a glimpse of the countdown on the bomb.

That's suspense.

In one version we don't know the bomb is coming. In another we are worried about it.

Usually the follow-up question to this lecture, is, which is better? Surprise or suspense?

Well, with this example, suspense, obviously.

The "surprise" version was actually pretty boring until the bomb went off.

But here is where my opinions start to deviate from this example.


The surprise example isn't actually that great. I mean, don't get me wrong, this is a prefect, fast, and easy way to explain the difference to beginning writers, but good surprises are more than that. And in this example, we start with nothing.

A surprise is more effective when you start with at least something. I mean, to write a good surprise, the story still needs to be interesting. It should have other material. It should probably have foreshadowing of some sort.

In fact, some of the best surprises have foreshadowing, but we've misinterpreted it, were blind to it, or didn't have the full context for it.

A great example that comes to mind is The Sixth Sense. People may nitpick at the movie today, but when it came out, audiences' minds were blown. And it wasn't so much over the suspense. It was over the surprise of finding out Bruce Willis's character was actually dead. Sure, you can call those sorts of things "twists"--but I'd argue every twist has an element of surprise. That's why it's a twist.

Some of the best uses of surprise are twists.

It's where you provide the audience with something.

Sometimes the information you provide does not even have to correlate with the surprise. They can be two different things, but what matters is that the audience has something so that they aren't just sitting there getting bored watching people play poker. Usually that something does need to be resolved or play a part in the story, but my point is, the audience should still have story movement and direction.

Sometimes the best surprises happen in stories that take us in one direction, but then suddenly pop up with something unforeseen, completely unforeshadowed.

Surprises often have a place in mysteries, where you think the villain will be one person, only to discover it's someone else. In Sorcerer's Stone, the trio are convinced that Snape is the villain. Sure, there is suspense, about how to get the stone and deal with Snape. But the surprise is discovering that the villain is Professor Quirrell, not Snape like we all thought. Like the Sixth Sense, one of the things that makes this surprise great is that we can look back at the events of the book with more context and see how it all makes sense. But it was never stated on the page that Quirrell was even a suspect.

Surprise needn't lack power. 

I think the point where some people get confused about the surprise-vs.-suspense-and-which-is-better argument is that suspense is required to write a great story. Surprise isn't.


Suspense means the audience is worried about what could happen. In the example above, the audience is worried the bomb could go off and kill someone, but they are hoping it doesn't, or that it's discovered, or that the characters get away. Suspense contains an element of worrying.

A classic example is when a character is trying to sneak somewhere without someone else, perhaps someone on guard, knowing. Maybe they are carrying something that might be noisy and give them away. Maybe they have to walk across a forest floor that is littered with twigs that can snap or little rocks that clack. As they make their way to their destination, the audience is sweating it out and on the edge of their seats. Can the character be quiet? Will the guard notice him? The character accidentally snaps a twig. Did the guard hear it? Will he spot the character?

Suspense comes out of tension. It's worry that something (usually) negative may happen. That means there is a hope in the audience that somehow something may not happen. Suspense isn't created by the inevitable. It's created through possibilities. Will the bomb go off? Will the character snap a twig?

Tension is often the promise or potential of problems colliding. Suspense takes place when the audience is invested in and worried about that, and often hoping it doesn't.

Maybe it should be noted, though, that suspense can also actually come from the possibility of something positive happening. Will Suzy get the job of her dreams? Will Frodo be able to throw the Ring into Mount Doom?

So you can hold readers with the promise of something good.

However, you can argue that most suspense set-ups innately have a positive or negative possibility. The positive part of the bomb, is the possibility that the characters will notice it under the poker table and get away safely. The negative part of Suzy's is that she may not get her dream job.

But I'd probably still argue that the bomb set-up is more closely related to the potential for the negative while the Suzy set-up is more closely tied to the positive.

You can play around with this sort of thing in stories. You can give the audience the potential for a really bad and a really good outcome to hike up suspense. Either Frodo destroys the Ring and saves the world, or he doesn't and the world is destroyed. Those are high stakes. The high positive and high negative amplify suspense.

You can have two negatives. Will Prim or will Katniss have to participate in The Hunger Games? Will Katniss have to die or will she have to kill other children? Both options of each are horrible.

You can have two positives. Will Bella find love with Edward or with Jacob? Finding love with either person would be a good thing, except you can't have both. So you get the "Team Edward" and "Team Jacob," and that's where the suspense comes from.

In a double-negative set-up, what pulls the reader in is the dread that something bad probably will happen and wondering what the outcome will be or if there is some way to avoid both possibilities. In a double-positive, what pulls the reader in is the hope that the protagonist gets the same outcome the reader desires.

Epic fantasies like Lord of the Rings, tend to have high positive and high negative set-ups. Dystopians or horrors tend to have double-negatives. Romances are more likely to have double-positives. This is a generality of course, and it's entirely possible to mix-up any one of these. For example, while I feel that in many romances, the protagonist has to pick between two good things (whether they be two people, love vs. a job, love vs. travel), there are still many many set-ups within the story that have a positive and negative, or even a double-negative. So this isn't so much a rule, as it is an observation, and may give you some idea of what your audiences expects.

Which is Better?

Usually this lecture ends with the idea that suspense is a better choice than surprise. While suspense is necessary for a good story, in some story parts, you might find that surprise is actually a more desirable option. The Sixth Sense was great because the people were surprised.

But here's the thing: Why are we telling writers to pick one?

Why not both?

Surely a fantastic story has suspense and surprise.

We know the bomb is under the poker table, but what surprises us is that there is more than one--someone else had the same idea, and it goes off earlier.

We know the bomb is under the poker table, but what surprises us is that one of the players actually came to play with his buddies with a similar intention. He pulls a gun and wants to kill one of the players who previously wronged him. He's actually a cohort of the bomber's, but the bomber didn't know he'd be there.

We know the bomb is under the poker table, but we didn't see the face of who planted it. The surprise is that we later learn it's the target's soft-spoken sister.

Consider when you can choose both.

My Blog Won an Award!

Hi everyone, quick note that some of you may have already seen on social media. I found out Sunday night that my blog, this one that you are reading, won the Writer's Digest award as one of the top writing websites for 2017! I'm so surprised and excited! I had no idea anyone even nominated me or anything.

Here's what's even crazier. I apparently won it in April, and I had NO idea until two days ago! There are only 20 websites listed in my category (writing advice), and I can't believe I was listed! It's like a dream come true!

Writer's Digest is the top magazine in the writing industry, and basically everyone who does writing stuff online knows about the awards. I'm so excited, and I get to put the award up on my site (already did actually).

I have daydreamed of someday having this award on this website--I had no idea that "someday" was last April! What?!

The only way I found out, was because Writer's Digest made a list of the top 20 out of the top 101 listed sites online on Sunday, and I noticed I was getting traffic from a Writer's Digest page (which shocked the pants off me), so I followed the link and saw myself listed! I don't know who or how many people nominated me, but thank you so much for helping make one of my dreams come true!

If you would like to nominate a writing website for 2018, send an email to writers.digest@fwmedia.com with "101 Websites" in the subject and which website(s) in the body. I'm not opposed to winning again ;) But I'm just floored I won and had no idea nor did I know anyone had even nominated me! Merry Christmas everyone!

P.S. The winner of my 10-page edit giveaway has been selected! I'm waiting to hear back from the winner before I announce who it is.


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