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.

The Paradox of Suspense VI – Criticisms of Carroll’s Account

In the previous section 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. In this section I will start by evaluating and analysing his account of suspense. I will then consider whether his solution to the paradox of suspense is successful. I will conclude that neither his account of suspense or solution to the paradox of suspense are acceptable and should therefore be rejected.

The first criticism of Carroll’s account concerns whether we are able to experience suspense in response to immoral characters and situations. Carroll argued that fictions engender suspense by creating a situation where only two logically opposed outcomes, one moral and the immoral, appear possible. However, many fictions include immoral, or at least morally dubious, characters and situations of which we support, sympathise and root for and whose actions do not appear to offer a simple dialectic between moral and immoral action. One vivid example of this is Goodfellas (Dir., Martin Scorsese, 1990). Goodfellas is primarily about the protagonist Henry Hill’s career as a gangster in the Italian Mafia. Throughout the film we witness Henry’s rise from street-kid to violent gangster. Rather than see his acts (beatings, robberies and hold-ups) as horrific we identify with him, his glamorous lifestyle and his desire to become a “made man”. In one scene Henry comes home to find his wife distressed. This is because her neighbour has made a pass at her and when Henry’s wife refused the neighbour’s advances he hit her. When Henry comes home we are unsure how he is going to react (will he hit/kill his neighbour or his wife or both!) and we experience some suspense in response to this scene. When, in front of his wife, Henry pistol whips the neighbour we are relieved and enjoy the rough treatment the neighbour receives. In regard to this scene it appears that there is no choice between two logically opposed outcomes. That is, the suspense we experience in response to this scene springs from two possible options both which appear to range from the immoral (hitting the neighbour) to the extremely immoral (dispatching his wife and the neighbour).

Another similar issue for Carroll regarding his notion of two logically opposed moral outcomes is that he holds that we pull for the moral outcome over the immoral outcome. However, this doesn’t appear to be correct. An instance of this can be found in The Godfather (Dir., Francis Ford Coppola, 1972). In one scene the central protagonist Michael attends a meeting with two rival gangsters who have previously attempted to kill his father. On the surface Michael’s reason for attending the meeting is to discuss a truce but he actually intends to kill both gangsters. The two rival gangsters set up the meeting in a neutral restaurant and frisk Michael as he enters to ensure he hasn’t brought a weapon. Because of this Michael has an accomplice hide a pistol in the bathroom before he arrives. Later in the scene when Michael leaves the bathroom with the pistol he stands in front of the two gangsters and hesitates. This moment is immensely suspenseful and we are led to wonder whether Michael will kill the two gangsters. Once Michael kills both of the gangsters we stop feeling any suspense and are relieved that they both get their just deserves. In regard to this scene then, we pull for the immoral outcome (murder) over the moral outcome (the truce or reporting them to the police). That is, we experience suspense because we are unsure whether Michael will go through with the immoral act (the murder of which we want him to do).

In the next section I will include some possible replies to these criticisms and add some further issues with Carroll’s account.

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.

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.

Dislocation and (Mis)communication in Jean-Luc Godard’s Detective (1985)

In the attempt to solve funding problems during the filming of ‘Je vous salue, Marie’ (1985) – a modern account of the Virgin Mary and the Immaculate Conception – Jean-Luc Godard agreed to produce something popular or mainstream. The subsequent film produced was Detective (Dir., Jean-Luc Godard, 1985), a dense, difficult but beautifully shot contemplation on language, dislocation and (mis)communication. The film can hardly be argued to be “mainstream” – Godard interpreted the instruction “a popular film” as one which included famous people (or as he calls them in the credits “stars”) rather than a film which is immediately accessible. Detective’s plot centres around the actions of two hotel detectives who attempt to solve an apparently unmotivated murder of a man called “The Prince”. The film also contains other narratives concerning an ageing Mafioso, a boxing promoter and a couple whose marriage is falling apart.i

One of the central explorations in Godard’s film is the issue of space in a modern, fast-paced world. One of the characters, Emile Chenal, owns a failing air-taxi business flying customers to disparate places in Europe. His wife, who is coming to the realization that their relationship is over, notes that “yesterday Frankfurt, today London”. The hotel that the film is exclusively set in could be of any place anywhere, the rooms are especially without character, and their lives are being spent travelling to different countries has eroded any sense of geographical or spatial grounding or boundary. This lack of discernible geographical location, an eroding or dislocated sense of place, is further evidenced in the film’s shot selection and mise-en-scene. In one of the first shots of the film we are given an obstructed view of the city of Paris. This obstructed view is where we would traditionally be given an exposition shot, a type of shot locating the action within the city or specific area. Instead of this we are shown a stationary camera recording people enter a hotel and a young woman’s legs in front of an iron grill with a teasing hint of location in the far right of the screen. This refusal to disclose the location at the beginning of the narrative immediately places the viewer into a state of unease and confusion paralleling the uncertainty the hotel detectives’ experience over the death of “The Prince”.

This sense of confusion concerning the location is further added to by the failure of the film is provide any clear feeling of the hotel layout and structure. We see that the hotel has corridors, stairs, a bar, a restaurant, a cellar and several bedrooms but we get no sense how they all connect or even if they are indeed all located in the same hotel. Though we assume that it is all one hotel, and the film’s ending appears to confirm this, Detective refuses to give us any hint of its location and general layout further adding to the viewer’s state of unease and confusion.

A second significant theme of Detective is (mis)communication. The film’s narrative is centred around several couples, groups and family members talking to each other and attempting to solve their problems by talking them through however, no one appears to hear what each other is saying. This feeling of communication being broken is seen in the film’s mise-en-scene. In one particular scene Françoise Chenal talks to Jim Fox Warner about her husbands failing business with the implication that she would be willing to have (or possibly re-start) an affair with Warner. Françoise and Warner’s inability to understand each other is communicated in the routine blocking of either of their faces by props and their moving just out of shot.

This inability to communicate clearly between Françoise and Warner is replicated throughout the film and a striking instance of this is when the film cuts to show Françoise and Warner talking at the table Françoise’s face is totally obscured by a post. That is, through the film’s mise-en-scene and camera positioning we are given a visual representation of Warner and Françoise being physically (and emotionally) blocked from understanding (and falling in love with)ii each other.


These two central motifs – of a dislocated connection to space and (mis)communication – are continued in the film techniques that Godard’s Detective refuses to use and the traditional conventions of cinema (or film-making) and story-telling that the film violates. Throughout the whole film Godard rejects traditional camera movement techniques meaning that the camera-work in Detective is completely static. Though Detective features no pans, no zooms or tilts we do not get a feeling of a stable, fixed sense of place is being represented. Rather the lack of camera movement makes the film’s action appear stilted, dislocated and awkward. The refusal to pan and follow actors when they move out of shot means that not only is communication between the characters difficult but it also means that it is difficult for the audience to track, to comprehend, what’s going on clearly. It also, naturally, makes our perception of space limited and ensures that we are unable to really grasp where exactly the action it taking place other than in the hotel.

Another convention of cinema and story-telling which Detective violates is having the actors’ faces visible to the audience. Throughout the film the actors face away from the camera. In one particular scene all three actors face away from the camera whilst continuing their conversation. As this particular technique ensures that any possible subtleties of facial movement (etc) are lost it engenders further miscommunications and misunderstandings of those characters’ motivations and intentions. Therefore, through several techniques – such as no camera movement, ensuring the actors face away from the camera routinely, awkard screen composition and no exposition shots – Godard successfully explores language, (mis)communication and feelings of dislocation from the spatial and geographical environment.

iThe plot and subplots are in truth intertwined and contain several others. Also, the film does not really follow a traditional narrative however I felt that it was best to include a general plot summary.

ii Nathalie Baye who played Françoise Chenal was well-known in France for her roles in romantic leads and in support roles. She was also something of a pin-up having featured on the front page of French Playboy several times. Similar to Nathalie Baye was Johnny Hallyday who played Jim Fox Warner. Johnny Hallyday is known as the French Elvis and was something of a heart-throb. Godard’s casting of these two well-known “sexy stars” was obviously intended to create this reading.