The Paradox of Suspense IV – Noel Carroll’s Account of Suspense

In the previous sections I explained the paradox of suspense as well as several features any satisfactory account of suspense must be able to explain. In this section I will explore Carroll’s proposed account. Carroll starts by explaining that his account concentrates exclusively on suspense as ‘an emotional response to narrative fictions’.[1] Even though Carroll makes this move he asserts that “real-life” suspense is produced by uncertainty regarding future events we have a stake in.[2]  Carroll starts his account of suspense by claiming that suspense is a “prospect emotion”. By this Carroll means that suspense is an emotional reaction to unfolding action. Carroll explains ‘suspense takes as its object the moments leading up to the outcome about which we are uncertain… Once the outcome is fixed, however, the state is no longer suspense’.[3] A vivid example of this can be found in a scene in L’Avventura in which Sandro catches up with the woman he believes to be his missing (and presumed dead) girlfriend Anna and realizes it is just a similar looking stranger. When this scene or situation’s outcome is fixed we stop feeling suspense and start to experience a sense of frustration and disappointment. To Carroll then, we only experience suspense in response to an outcome we are uncertain over. Once we are certain of a scene or situation’s outcome suspense is replaced with other emotional responses (such as joy, relief or disappointment). However, suspense is not the only response we have when we are uncertain about how a narrative will unfold. Detective fiction is one such genre in which we experience uncertainty regarding how a particular narrative will unfold.

Carroll attempts to differentiate the uncertainty that engenders suspense from the uncertainty we experience in “mystery” fiction by highlighting a possible temporal difference between mystery and suspense. Carroll explains ‘in mysteries in the classical detection mode, we are characteristically uncertain about what has happened in the past, whereas with suspense fictions we are uncertain about what will happen’.[4] However, though it is true that our experience of mystery narratives is tied-up with uncertainty about important past plot details, there does seem to be instances of uncertainty over future or unfolding plot developments in mystery narratives. An example of this could be when, in Murder, She Wrote, Jessica Fletcher gathers the prime suspects together with the intention of revealing the who, why and how of the murder. We do not normally experience suspense in response to this scene even though we are uncertain about how the scene will unfold. That is, even though we are uncertain about the unfolding action, we experience something like curiosity, puzzlement and eager anticipation rather than suspense. So, it appears that Carroll is wrong that the difference between suspense and mystery narratives lies with its temporal nature. Carroll highlights another potential difference between suspense and mystery narratives. Carroll explains:

A mystery of the classical whodunit variety prompts us to ask a question about whose answer we are uncertain and about which we entertain as many possible answers as there are suspects. But suspense is different. With suspense, the question we are prompted to ask does not have an indefinite number of possible answers, but only two. Will the heroine be sawed in half or not?.[5]

To Carroll, whereas suspense has two possible outcomes (the heroine is killed or not) mystery narratives are characterised as having almost infinite possible outcomes. That is, the cause of uncertainty which engenders suspense differs from the cause of uncertainty which mystery narratives produce. To Carroll, suspense is created by having only two logically opposed outcomes (life/death capture/escape). In contrast to this limitation of possibility, the uncertainty engendered by the mystery narrative is brought about by the possibility of there being as many possible answers as there are suspects. Therefore, Carroll holds that suspense is created by a state of uncertainty over the outcome of an unfolding event which has two logically opposed outcomes.

In the next section I will continue to examine Noel Carroll’s account of suspense and solution to the paradox of suspense.


[1] Noel Carroll, ‘The Paradox of Suspense’, in Peter Vorderer, Hans J. Wulff and Mike Friedrichsen (eds), Suspense: Conceptualizations, Theoretical Analyses, and Empirical Explorations, (London: Routledge, 1996),  pp. 71-91, p. 74.

[2] Ibid, p. 76.

[3] Ibid, p. 74.

[4] Ibid, p. 75.

[5] Ibid, p. 75.

The Paradox of Suspense III – The Problem Cont.

As well as providing a convincing reply to the paradox of suspense, any account of suspense must be able to coherently explain several other common features of our common experience of suspense. The first feature is called “diminishing returns”. Diminishing returns refers to the progressive decrease in the vividness or strength of our experience of suspense (or any emotional reaction to fiction). On repeat viewings or readings of narrative fiction we often experience less vivid emotional responses. On our first viewing of the romantic comedy Sleepless in Seattle (Dir., Nora Ephron, 1993) we may experience a strong emotional reaction to the plight of  Annie Reed and her attempt to meet (and start a relationship with) the widower Sam Baldwin. However, on future viewings the emotional experience we feel may suffer from diminishing returns. That is, we experience a less vivid or powerful emotion response to the narrative of Sleepless in Seattle. Though we may still pull for Annie and Sam to finally get together, the emotional impact of the film is diminished and may diminish even further on future viewings. In regard to suspense this also appears to happen. On our first viewing of Patriot Games (Dir., Phillip Noyce, 1992) we may be gripped on the edge of our seats but on subsequent viewings we may still feel some suspense but not so intensely. Any adequate account must therefore also be able to satisfactorily explain diminishing returns of suspense.

            The final two features any satisfactory account of suspense must explain are “absent suspense” and “second-instance suspense”. Absent suspense is the simple phenomenon where we experience no suspense at all. In the haste to solve the paradox of suspense an account must not preclude the possibility that we may just fail to experience suspense even though most of the conditions of suspense are met. That is, on our second viewing of Patriot Games we may just fail to feel suspense. Second-instance suspense is the irregular cases in which we feel suspense on second viewings (or viewings after our first) but not on the first instance or encounter of suspense. On our first instance of viewing a film like L’Avventura we may feel lost, confused and perplexed. As the film differs so radically from conventional narrative fiction this reaction is normal. On our second viewing of the film we may however experience some suspense – especially in response to the scene in which Sandro believes he has just seen the missing Anna in a crowded room. Therefore, another feature any good account of suspense must explain is our ability to experience suspense on secondary viewings when we haven’t on our first.

In the next post I will explore Noel Carroll’s account of suspense.

An Exploration of John Berger’s The Look of Things

In this article I will explore John Berger’s The Look of Things, and identify the formal attributes that shape his argument. I will identify the context – historical, political, social, and personal – that attributed to the texts formation, with the purpose of understanding the aim of the text. In this article I will first explore the ideas, arguments that Berger is presenting. I will then open out the context behind the text. Within this I will highlight the difference between Berger’s aims and the aims of the Abstract-Expressionist movement. I will also pay close attention to the theories behind the text, paying close attention to Berger’s defence of realism.

John Berger argues strongly in The Look of Things that drawing is essential to the construction of the artist and art; not just through the physical act of drawing, but also through the spiritual, emotional journey. Berger explains that drawing is a discovery of oneself; he sees this as an essential act required if you are to call yourself an artist. Berger also argues that the constructive nature of drawing, one that doesn’t necessary lead to a painting, is essential for art so that it mirrors society realistically, and that this enables the spectator to gain an understanding of the artist. Berger is therefore arguing for a realism that reflects the individual through representation of common emotions, actions and objects, the antithesis of the then popular and individualistic American Abstract-Expressionist movement.

John Berger’s first statement in The Looks of Things is that ‘For the artist drawing is discovery’ [1955: 165] Here he outlines his position that through drawing, and we can suppose basic artistic technique, the artist begins a journey, which he feels essential in the process of art. Berger explains that the process of drawing ensures that the artist dissects the properties of the object he wishes to capture [1955]. This could be the physical attribute of the subject, the redness of an apple, or something deeper. So drawing is therefore like a doctor examining a patient, running several diagnostic checks before bringing judgement. If we suppose that the subject the artist is examining is the human form, then the artist, through the act of drawing, is forced to dissect the properties of ‘being human’.  Berger explains this position when he is describing the process of shaping the first outlines of a sketch. He believes that:

‘You find confirmation or denial in the object itself or in your memory of it. Each confirmation or denial brings you closer to the object, until finally you are, as it were, inside it’ [Berger: 1955:165]

And once inside your sketch of the human form you are forced through your selection of shades and lines into understanding the essence of humanity. Berger believes that this process is important as it forms ‘an autobiographical record of one’s discovery’ [1955:166] which is significant because the ‘drawing is essentially a private work’ [Berger: 1955:166] the antithesis of the finished canvas. So Berger is arguing that drawing is essentially a dialectical process. The drawing is the private discovery of the subject, and the act of painting the communication, or externalising of the discovery, which produces the presented work. This journey is essential to the artist as the process of discovery builds the frame of a finished piece, like the scaffolding prepares the building site for the construction of a house. Berger explains that a ‘spectator… in front of painting or statue tends to identify himself with the subject… in front of a drawing he identifies himself with the artist’ [1955:166] He is arguing that the process of drawing is important as it ensures the spectator can relate to the artist directly, the drawing and its autobiographical element ensures the spectator can look beyond the subject to see the motivations and emotions that the artist has felt along their journey.

This argument is a cornerstone in Berger’s defence of realism as an art form, but also a cornerstone in his attack against the contemporary Abstract-Expressionist movement. The Abstract-Expressionist movement was immensely popular in critical circles as it stood for individualistic freedom; the paintings were typically freed from structure and subject. The artist Jackson Pollock was famed for placing grand canvases on his studio floor and expressing his emotions and moods upon the canvas through splashes of paint.

Pollock explains ‘On the floor I am more at ease. I feel nearer, more a part of the painting, since this way I can walk around it… and literally be in the painting.’ [Cited in Harrison and Wood: 1947:571] This technique can be seen as the antithesis of the journey or discovery that Burger argues for. Pollock places himself literally in the painting, so that the painting becomes him. Berger’s method could be seen as the opposite; Berger argues for a slow evaluation of emotion and experience; built layer upon layer. Pollock prefers to paint first, and as he remarks ‘get acquainted’ [Cited in Harrison and Wood: 1947:571] later. Berger’s drawings are meticulous studies, constant restructurings of an image on paper. Pollock’s painting technique comes from the unconscious, a direct and unstructured attempt at portraying the emotion that is felt at the time of painting.

This unstructured, unconscious approach to painting is the exact style Berger is arguing against. He feels that Art is in the mirroring of society. Berger explains that no one line is unconnected in his drawing, in the same way that no one person is removed from his society or culture. This Humanist argument is a rallying call for a style of painting that reflects the society that the individual is born within. Berger explains that ‘A line, an area of tone, is not really important because it records what you have seen, but because of what it will lead you on to see’ [1995:165] here he reveals his understanding of a realism he wishes to communicate fitting within the Marxist-Humanist tradition. A realism that doesn’t just, as the Marxist critic Terry Eagleton explains, ‘photographically reproduce the surface… of society without penetrating to their significant essences’ [2002:28] but a realism that reflects the complex metaphysical side of human nature and human society.  This secondary vein could be easily disposed of by describing it as light rhetoric placed within a text written for the London left paper The New Statesman. But this would be too much of a reduction, and a reduction that doesn’t explain Berger’s position against the Abstract-Expressionist movement nor does this position adequately shed light upon the last few statements Berger makes in The Look of Things.

Berger’s last few thoughts are upon the nature of realism, directly the sketch he has just drawn. ‘I looked at my drawing to see what had been distorted’ [1955:170] here he seems to commenting upon the illusionary nature of any art. After he has checked over his work, touching shades, and lines he sees the ‘drawing and the actual man coincide’ [Berger: 1955:171] Berger is tutoring the reader in the way which they can create that realism he has called for, he is arguing for an art that goes beyond the look of things.

The Look of Things is a text that shows John Berger’s tutorial instinct, his argument is not aggressive, as it holds a constant vein of instruction. It is in essence a reminder of a skill that shouldn’t be lost, the skill of drawing. The Skill of drawing is argued strongly for in metaphysical terms. The regular use of metaphor ensures the reader maps out Berger’s discovery in their own mind. Experiencing his journey, learning the lessons he had learnt simultaneously. Regardless of this ambition, Berger in The Look of Things is quite reductive, even the most subject-free painting can still reflect contemporary culture and  its concerns perfectly – painting is not only a mirror; art is not just a mirror held beside the society that produces it. Art, all fine art, not only mirrors the society, but also defines the way we conceptualise it; the way we see the world. A painting of fragmented and distorted figures can not mirror our physical attributes, but it can mirror our Ego, our state of mind and conceptualise the way we understand those forces. Berger’s argument is formally sound – the process of drawing brings you closer to the subject, and the drawing brings the spectator closer to the artist. But a realist painting solely relies upon reflecting the world it is surrounded by, and although the paintings may induce a metaphysical experience from a spectator, it does not challenge the perceptions of the spectator and society in general. Berger’s reliance upon realism to reflect contemporary society fails to adequately challenge systems that control our perceptions, and in that way Berger’s plea for realism is flawed.

1. Currently we are struggling to locate an exact bibliographic reference for the paper this article is looking for however, John Berger’s paper can also be found in John Berger, The Look of Things, (London: Viking Press, 1972).

The Paradox of Suspense II – The Problem

From out and out thrillers such as The Fugitive (Dir., Andrew Davis, 1993) and Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code to European art-house films like L’Avventura (Dir., Michelangelo Antonioni, 1960), suspense is an integral element in our experience of fiction. Suspense is so important in certain genres (thrillers) that the financial and artistic success or failure of a film or novel depends entirely on creating constant and repeated instances of suspense as well as suspense on repeated viewings (motivating repeat sales of cinema tickets and DVDs). Not only do people re-read or re-experience suspense fiction routinely, they do so with the understanding that they will experience the same, or similar, grip of suspense. Carroll claims that he feels suspense even on the fiftieth viewing of King Kong (Dir., Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack, 1933).[1] However, this regular and common repeat consumption of suspense fiction (and fiction that creates suspense) sits at odds with common-sense and psychological notions of suspense. As Peter Vorderer notes, a large majority of theorists support the hypothesis that uncertainty regarding a scene or events outcome is essential to suspense.[2]But if suspense requires uncertaint,y why is it that Carroll testifies to still feel suspense on the fiftieth viewing of King Kong?. Obviously there will be frequent forgetting and misremembering of scenes to naturally explain a decent quantity of repeat suspense. Just how exactly John McClain, in Die Hard (Dir., John McTiernan, 1988), escapes from some terrorists after accidentally alerting them by bumping his head on a table is not something we will pay much attention to remembering. Carroll agrees noting that ‘our propensity to be recaptivated by an already encountered suspense fiction may be explained by the fact that we have forgotten how it ends. This happens often’.[3]  However, though it is conceivable that many instances of repeated suspense may be due, at least in part, to fallible memory, it cannot explain a large amount of repeated suspense. That is, it would be surprising if after the seventy-fifth viewing of King Kong there is any scene that Carroll would experience uncertainty over. So, beyond Carroll’s obsession with giant gorillas, there does seem to be frequent cases of repeated suspense not being caused by forgetting. The problem for accounts of suspense then is that familiarity with a fiction seems to preclude uncertainty yet, we still seem able to experience suspense. This issue is called the paradox of suspense. The paradox of suspense can stated like this:

1. Suspense requires uncertainty.

2. Knowledge of the outcome of a narrative, scene or situation precludes any uncertainty

3. We feel suspense in response to fictions we know the outcome of

All of the individual elements are acceptable in isolation however; in conjunction they pose a problem for the traditional account of suspense requiring uncertainty.  To escape the paradox of suspense, an account of suspense must reject one of the three elements. Carroll and Smuts both deny that (1) suspense requires uncertainty. I offer an alternative solution by denying that (2) knowledge of a narrative, scene or situation precludes any uncertainty (Richard J. Gerrig also produces this type of account). Another solution is to deny that (3) we can feel suspense on repeated viewings (Robert J. Yanal).


[1]Noel Carroll, ‘The Paradox of Suspense’, in Peter Vorderer, Hans J. Wulff and Mike Friedrichsen (eds), Suspense: Conceptualizations, Theoretical Analyses, and Empirical Explorations, (London: Routledge, 1996),  pp. 71-91, p. 71.

[2] Peter Vorderer, ‘Toward a Psychological Theory of Suspense’, in Peter Vorderer, Hans J. Wulff and Mike Friedrichsen (eds), Suspense: Conceptualizations, Theoretical Analyses, and Empirical Explorations, (London: Routledge, 1996), pp. 233-254, p. 234.

[3]Carroll, ‘The Paradox of Suspense’, p. 73.

The Paradox of Suspense I – Introduction

In this new series of research papers I will attempt to produce a philosophically and psychologically plausible account of suspense and solution to the paradox of suspense. I will start by explaining what the paradox of suspense is and several features any plausible solution must account for. I will then consider Noel Carroll’s account of suspense and solution to the paradox of suspense. I will note that he holds that we experience suspense by (a) entertaining uncertainty (b) regarding an unfolding event  (c) which has two logically opposed possible outcomes (one moral the other immoral) of which (d) the moral outcome appears improbable and the immoral outcome appears probable. Carroll’s solution to the paradox of suspense is therefore that rather than actual uncertainty all we required to experience suspense was entertained uncertainty. I will then argue that Carroll fails to adequately explain several features of our common experience of suspense and that his account should therefore be rejected. I will then put forward my account of suspense. I will argue that suspense is a (i) negative emotion (ii) arising from uncertainty (iii) regarding the possibility that undesired things have a good chance of happening (vi) to characters we feel for/with/as. I will then put forward my solution to the paradox of suspense. I will argue that we are able to prioritize processing new, important or vivid information over recalling previous encounters from the long-term memory. The consequence being that when we reencounter suspense narratives we are not obliged to recall how particular scenes turn out. I will argue that this ability allows us re-experience suspense. I will then consider some possible criticisms of my account in section but I will conclude that my account can explain the relevant features of our experience of suspense. I will conclude that my account of suspense and solution to the paradox of suspense is both psychologically and philosophically plausible and should be adopted.

Women in Film Noir IX – Conclusion

This article is the conclusion and re-cap of our Women in Film Noir series. This series included articles called:

Women in Film Noir I – The Central Archetypal Roles

Women in Film Noir II – The Importance of the Hays Code

Women in Film Noir III – The Hollywood Tradition of the “Strong” Woman

Women in Film Noir IV – Containment and Conformity

Women in Film Noir V – Is Film Noir’s Representation of the Domestic Sphere Subversive?

Women in Film Noir VI – Containment of the Subversive Representation of the Domestic Sphere

Women in Film Noir VII – Is Film Noir’s Visual Style Subversive?

Women in Film Noir VIII – Film Noir’s Visual Style as Conforming to the Hollywood Tradition

In this series of articles I explored the use of archetype in the film noir genre. Characterisation is an integral element in the construction of any genre or cycle of films. This is because character type informs both the “problematic” that the genre deals with and how that problematic is dealt with. Therefore the ambitious, strong and active woman informs both the problematic that film noir deals with and how that problematic is dealt with. In film noir women primarily conform to two distinct archetypes; the redeemer and the destroyer. The redeemer and the destroyer both serve a vastly different but similar narrative role. The redeemer offers the male protagonist the potential at domesticity or normality. The destroyer places the male protagonist in a deadly situation, often leading to his violent death. These two archetypes serve a similar narrative role in that they both communicate permissible and impermissible behaviour. The destroyer transgresses social norms and the redeemer acts within them. Therefore in film noir a moral dichotomy is constructed between the redeemer and the destroyer on the account that one exhibits socially-legitimatized behaviour and the other excess displays of sexuality or ambition. In this paper I specifically noted that this dichotomy can be located in The Big Sleep and Double Indemnity. Characterisation in film noir therefore produces a problematic on the grounds that egoism (excessive individualism) is a dangerous and damaging behavioural tendency which threatens stable society. I located a tradition in Hollywood in which ambitious and head-strong women, who displayed this egoism, where made to submit to marriage. This tradition is typified in the melodrama and screwball comedy genres. I cited Double Indemnity as an explicit example that film noir is a continuance of this tradition. Film noir’s specific variation of dealing with the problem of the excessive individual is informed by its cultural context. I highlighted the de- and re-territorialization of the domestic and work sphere during and after WWII as an important determining factor. Therefore film noir’s articulation of excessively individual women reflected and engaged with this process. I noted that even though film noirs like The Big Sleep attempt not to acknowledge the issue of de- and re-territorialization directly they do so through the film’s characterisation and narrative resolution. All film noirs reflect directly or obliquely the concerns of capitalist society regarding the increased independence of women – financial or otherwise.

            In the last four articles I explored these findings by raising two accounts that disagree with my conclusion that film noir reflects the concerns of capitalist society. The first account argued that film noir represented an attack on the institution of the family. I called this reading into question by highlighting that Mildred Pierce does not, as Havery asserted, open up discussion on alternative systems of social organization to marriage. I illustrated that Mildred Pierce reaffirms the traditional institution of marriage. The second account argued that the visual style surpassed the narrative resolutions and therefore brought into question the validity of film noir’s repressive conclusions. I noted that this assertion is invalid because it ignores that the stylized production of desire just serves to reaffirm the archetypes the Hollywood desiring-machine constructs. Both of these accounts are also flawed because they attempt to isolate a singular factor, mise-en-scene or the representation of the domestic sphere, and imbue it with a subversive or progressive reading. Film noir is a combination of characterisation, setting, mise-en-scene, social context, filmic context and tradition which work altogether to construct, create and control representations of desire. The two accounts also fail to understand the star-system which works by individualising social problems. Therefore, in film noir women are represented as conforming to two central roles based on a moral dichotomy between appropriate and inappropriate desire. This representation is a continuance of the “strong woman” found in the melodrama and screwball comedy genres. Film noir’s representation is a highly structured and thematically consistent response to tensions rising from the period of de- and re-territorialization during WWII. This response is an attempt to reassert the prevailing logic of marriage and decency. Film noir does this by illustrating the consequences of, and problems involved with, excessive individualism (egoism).