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.