The Paradox of Suspense X – Early Steps of a Solution

In the previous sections I provided my characterisation of suspense. I held that uncertainty is integral to suspense. Whether in regard to a particular scene or a complete narrative uncertainty concerning how it will be resolved is essential to experiencing suspense. However, because I hold that suspense requires uncertainly I am threatened by the paradox of suspense. As I noted here, the paradox of suspense can be 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 my account of suspense (because it holds that suspense requires uncertainty).  To escape the paradox of suspense I will illustrate that knowledge of the outcome of a narrative, scene or situation does not necessarily preclude uncertainty. I will argue that the function and processes of our attention is responsible for this ability to become, momentarily, uncertain about a particular scene even if we have certain knowledge concerning how that scene turns out.

            We are able to experience uncertainty in response to scenes, situations and narratives we know the outcome to because we do not (automatically) use prior knowledge (stored in our long term memory) when processing the information provided by a particular narrative. That is, when we are reading a suspense thriller we are not obliged to recall our knowledge of how a scene turns out. To establish whether we are obliged or not to recall specific information Richard J Gerrig conducted several experiments. These experiments attempted to gauge whether we do use prior information about former president George Washington when reading a short narrative about his life. In order to judge whether we are or are not obliged to access specific information about George Washington Gerrig introduced an obstacle to our comprehension of the well-known story of his acceptance of the role of first president of the USA. Gerrig explains:

In our experiments, we created small emendations to nonfictional aspects of American history and culture. We began with assertions that were selected to be unproblematic, such as George Washington was elected first president of the United States. We then wrote stories that presented obstacles to these well-known outcomes.[1]

The obstacle in the first experiment was changing the narrative to conclude that George Washington had rejected the presidency because he was too frail and that John Adams has become the first president. If we are obliged to utilize prior knowledge we have about George Washington then there should be no difference between the time needed to respond to questions by readers given the truthful story and those with the altered ending. The results of Gerrig’s experiments were staggering.[2] In some cases the altered stories produced an increase of nearly 50% in processing time required to answer the question correctly. Gerrig explains:

The results of this experiment indicate that uncertainty can be induced by immersing readers in story episodes. Verification latencies suggested that the subjects entertained the implied conclusions of the [narratives], even when they had information available in memory that directly contradicted these conclusions.[3]

Gerrig concluded that this evidence shows that there is ‘a limit on the way that prior knowledge is put to use in moment-by-moment understanding’.[4] That is, Gerrig’s experiment illustrates that we can be momentarily uncertain about outcomes or situations we have prior knowledge of because we do not automatically utilise prior knowledge of a scene (or situation or narrative) when processing the information provided by that scene. Gerrig’s experiments affirm then that it is quite possible to be uncertain about a scene, scenario or narrative even if we know how that particular scene, scenario or narrative turns out. What remains to be explained is why and how this natural ability comes about and how exactly it can explain features of our experience of repeat suspense. I will show that it is our attention which is responsible for our ability to become, momentarily, uncertain about a particular scene even if we have certain knowledge concerning how that scene turns out. That is, it is a feature of the way our attention works that we are able to (and do so frequently) prioritize processing new, important or vivid information over recalling previous encounters from the long-term memory. So, when we re-watch Die Hard we are not obliged to recall how particular scenes turn out with the consequence that we can experience uncertainty and ultimately suspense.

McClain hanging from tower


[1] Richard J Gerrig, ‘Suspense in the absence of Uncertainty’, Journal of Memory and Language, Vol. 28, No. 6, (December 1989), p. 633-648, p. 634.

[2] For brevity I will not copy the numbers created by Gerrig’s experiment though it is important to note that the difference in latency between true stories without obstacles (2.33 seconds) to stories that were false with obstacles (3.12 seconds) is a massive difference in response to a story with very little counter-factual information to process.

[3] Gerrig, ‘Suspense in the Absence of Uncertainty’, p. 639.

[4] Ibid, p. 645.

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The Paradox of Suspense IX – Further Conditions of Suspense

As well as arising from uncertainty regarding the possibility that undesired things have a good chance of happening, suspense is engendered by those undesired things happening (vi) to characters we feel for/with/as. I have used feeling for and feeling as/with so as to cover both sympathetic and empathetic emotional responses to characters. In the scene in Die Hard where Sgt. Powell is slowly walking towards his potential death we feel for him because he is oblivious to his fate. In a later scene when McClain is hiding in an air duct and we just hear footsteps slowly coming closer we feel with McClain because we are responding to his facial and bodily expressions regarding the close proximity of the terrorist (and his potential capture or death). Both of these characters inspire the desire not to see them get hurt (with the consequence that suspense arises) but through different techniques: Sgt. Powell through feeling for him and McClain by feeling as/with him[1].

So by feel for/with/as I mean that we feel suspense when a character we empathise or sympathise with is the target of an undesired event. One way to further illustrate the importance of the audience feeling for/with/as characters is to highlight our inability to experience suspense in response to characters we do not empathise or sympathise with. In Die Hard with a Vengeance (Dir., John McTiernan, 1995) the main antagonist Simon Gruber is an intelligent, sophisticated but evil man who destroys part of the New York subway system in order to steal a vast quantity of gold from the Federal Reserve. Though at times we may find him witty, we are ultimately unable to sympathise or empathise with him[2]. Because of this when he is attempting to escape capture by helicopter and we are shown some perilously close power lines we do not experience suspense[3]. That is, as we find him an unsympathetic character we do not form any desire to see him survive or escape punishment. In fact, our inability to feel for/with/as him in conjunction with his evil deeds motivates us to desire his destruction by McClain. Obviously a criticism could be raised that our inability to experience suspense in response to Simon’s fate is that we do not like him (with the reason that we experience suspense in response to McClain’s fate is that we do like him). However, we are able to experience suspense in response to characters we do not like[4] (but are able to feel for/with/as). An example of this can be found in L’Avventura, in this film we may not particularly like Sandro at all – he is a disaffected, cheating, pompous man – but I can still experience suspense in response to his plight because I am able to sympathise with his efforts to find his lost girlfriend Anna[5]. Therefore, suspense (ii) arises from uncertainty (iii) regarding the possibility that undesired things have a good chance of happening (vi) to characters we feel for/with/as.

            The final element in my characterisation of suspense is that suspense can only be a negative emotional or affective response. I hold that suspense can only be (i) a negative emotion because uncertainty regarding possible undesired outcomes cannot produce positive feelings. Zillmann explains regarding desired outcomes that ‘the experience of uncertainty about a desired outcome should prove noxious because of the relatively high perceived likelihood that the outcome will not materialize’.[6] Likewise, uncertainty regarding the possible chance that a character we sympathise will suffer a horrific fate can only be negative. Obviously once we are certain that the character will or will not suffer a horrific fate we experience joy or sorrow. Therefore, 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.


[1] This is not to say that in much of the film we aren’t feeling for McClain. The important element is that these are characters we are capable of feeling for and do so engendering the desires to see them thrive and not get hurt.

[2] Partly this is due to his and his team’s callous indifference to the lives that stand in the way towards his end goal. This is not to say that he is a total villain as the bomb he plants in a school to distract the police is a fake. However, in the terms of the narrative he is quite successfully painted as unsympathetic.

[3] Another vivid example of this can be found in the original series of Star Trek. In the away missions a security officer in a red jersey would routinely get killed or seriously injured. These characters were never given any back-story or sympathetic treatment (they were basically walking props) with the consequence being that the viewers never felt any suspense when they faced danger. In contrast to these characters, when Spock, or some other character we routinely felt for, was placed in jeopardy we could easily feel pangs of suspense. Another reason why I have chosen character’s we feel for/with/as is that it ensures my account can explain why we sometimes feel suspense to response to morally dubious characters as well as why we don’t always feel suspense in response to morally correct, but unsympathetic characters.

[4] There is no doubt that liking a character helps us to form the sympathetic or empathetic relationship required to experience suspense in response to a character’s plight. It is not, however, essential to experience suspense.

[5] For a whole catalogue of ways we feel suspense in response to the works of Michelangelo Antonioni (which features many unlikeable characters) see Peter Wuss, ‘Narrative Tension in Antonioni’ in Peter Vorderer, Hans J. Wulff and Mike Friedrichsen (eds), Suspense: Conceptualizations, Theoretical Analyses, and Empirical Explorations, (London: Routledge, 1996),  pp. 51-70.

[6] Zillmann, ‘The Psychology of Suspense in Dramatic Exposition’ p. 200.

The Paradox of Suspense VIII – Suspense as Arising From Uncertainty Regarding…

(My apologies for the delay in this sections publication. The Journal is undergoing some restructuring and once the changes have been established we can devote more energy to the actual publishing of great writing on film, art and aesthetics!)

In the previous articles I explored Carroll’s account of suspense and solution to the paradox of suspense. I explained that Carroll held 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 was that rather than actual uncertainty all that we require to experience suspense is entertained uncertainty. I also explored several reasons for rejecting Carroll’s account of suspense and solution to the paradox of suspense. In this section I will put forward my account of suspense.  I will assert that suspense[1] is a (i) negative emotion (ii) arising from uncertainty (iii) regarding the possibility that undesired things have a good chance of happening[2] (vi) to characters we feel for/with/as.

 

An important element in my account is that uncertainty is the engine behind suspense. Holding uncertainty to be integral to suspense sits with intuitions concerning everyday encounters with suspense. When we are watching a penalty shoot-out our uncertainty regarding the possible outcome causes us to experience suspense. Once the penalty kick is saved or successful our suspense disappears and transforms into joy or sorrow. Obviously if we are a particularly pessimistic or fatalistic fan we do not experience any suspense because we are almost certain that when high pressure situations arise our team will fail. Similarly if we a particularly wildly optimistic fan we can convince ourselves that the outcome will always been positive, and if we are deluded, experience no suspense about the result of the penalty shoot-out. In regard to fiction, in Die Hard we feel suspense when we see the oblivious cop Sgt. Al Powell walk towards the lift where an armed terrorist is waiting to shoot him. As he walks slowly closer and closer the tension and feelings of suspense rise. In regard to this scene not knowing whether Sgt. Powell will survive or be shot creates suspense. Once we see that Sgt. Powell is no longer in peril we stop experiencing suspense and experience relief[3]. Therefore, suspense appears to (ii) arise from uncertainty.

 

Suspense is not however, just uncertainty. Suspense arises from uncertainty (iii) regarding the possibility that undesired things have a good chance of happening. In our consumption of fiction we are led, through certain narrative techniques, to form particular desires concerning how characters should act, what should happen to them and whether or not they deserve their treatment. Films often get us to form these desires by showing us some humanizing details. In Commando, John’s relationship with his daughter, full of laughter and care, signals that he is genuinely good man. Conversely, when we are introduced to the antagonist Arius we see him to be callous, violent and sadistic. These details help us to form desires that John be successful in his endeavours to the extent that we do not mind him committing some rather violent and sadistic acts of his own. The desires that we form in response to narratives shape how we react to potential and actual plot developments. Our desire that the antagonists receive punishment in Commando causes us to feel joy and excitement when John finally vanquishes them. Similarly our desires that Annie and Sam get together in Sleepless in Seattle cause us to first feel frustration at their inability to meet and ultimately joy and relief when they do. In regard to suspense our desire that, at the very least, Sgt. Powell is unhurt conflicts with the threat of his possible impending demise. That is, as this scene progresses we are uncertain whether an undesired outcome (Sgt. Powell’s demise) will materialize with the consequence that we experience suspense. Obviously, the undesired outcome must have a good chance of happening. That is, in terms of suspense caused by potential jeopardy to a protagonist[4], the danger they encounter must be credible. Dolf Zillmann explains:

 

The successful creation of the gripping experience of suspense… depends on the display of credible endangerments. The audience must think it likely, for example, that the motor will catch on fire, or that the driver will fly out of the curve and tumble down the mountain.[5]

 

In order for a narrative to engender suspense it must appear credible that the protagonist be in a situation in which harm or injury is likely or a “live” option. If, in the scene in which Sgt. Powell walks towards oblivious towards an awaiting terrorist, the terrorist is a six year old child armed with a water pistol we would fail to experience any suspense. This is because the potential threat fails to be perceived as credible. The importance of credible endangerments to suspense also helps explain why so many formulaic dramas fail to engender any feelings of suspense. In Murder, She Wrote the last few minutes always concludes with Jessica Fletcher trapping the murderer into confessing how and why they committed the particular crime. At the moment the murderer decides they have to fulfil their promise to silence the meddling amateur detective a sheriff or policeman storms through the doors and neutralises the threat. The sheer repetitiveness and obviousness of this trap renders the threat posed by the murderer almost laughable and therefore unable to engender suspense. However, this is not to say that episodic dramas cannot engender suspense. Though it is clear that central protagonists will remain unharmed in any serious degree (due to their featuring in future episodes) there may still be credible threats to their well-being as well as to guest characters. As Zillmann notes:

 

In the microstructure of drama, specific plots can show the liked protagonist credibly endangered. Scores of secondary protagonists can suffer fatal blows. Similar loss of life may not be viable threat to primary protagonists, but loss of limb may have considerable credibility for these characters.[6]

 

Even if death or destruction is seen as improbable, there is often the considerable possibility of beatings, torture, and other painful and humiliating treatment befalling the primary and secondary protagonists. Therefore, suspense appears to arise from uncertainty (iii) regarding the possibility that undesired things have a good chance of happening.


[1] This is an account of suspense as engendered by fictional narratives.

[2] This can also be written another way: (III)b that desired things have a slim chance of happening

[3] Our relief in this scene is solely for the Sergeant’s personal well-being. In the larger context of the story however, once we are reminded of McClain’s situation, we also experience some frustration in regard to the Sergeant failing to notice that the Plaza has been take over by terrorists.

[4] Obviously suspense caused by the apparent low likelihood that two star-crossed lovers will finally meet is not always caused by credible endangerment to their personal well-being. There is, however, a dimension whereby we must take that their plight is a credible one. That is, we take it that (fictionally speaking) there is a real danger that they will not live happily ever after together.

[5]Dolf Zillmann, ‘The Psychology of Suspense in Dramatic Exposition’, in Peter Vorderer, Hans J. Wulff and Mike Friedrichsen (eds), Suspense: Conceptualizations, Theoretical Analyses, and Empirical Explorations, (London: Routledge, 1996),  pp. 199-232,  p. 203.

[6]Ibid, p. 207.

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.