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.

Narrative Signposting in French Connection II


Commonly the construction of a compelling narrative utilizes a “signposting” device in order to draw-in or hook the audience. One signposting technique entails offering a glimpse of the difficulties a character will encounter in their forthcoming narrative. In French Connection II (1975), “Popeye” Doyle’s fish out of water status is alluded to in the first few scenes after his arrival in Marseilles. As this is a sequel, and in its narrative style character-driven rather than action-driven, the foregrounding of the ensuring difficulties overtly allude to the first film’s story. On the streets of New York, Doyle understands the language, culture and customs of the people he encountered on the streets. However, in Marseilles he doesn’t speak the language, nor understand the way things are done.

In French Connection (1971) Doyle, shaking a club down, drags a suspect violently through the bar into the toilets. The suspect is in fact an undercover cop and the display performed to ensure the verisimilitude of the undercover cop’s cover. This elaborate scene indicates the knowledge and savvy Doyle, and his fellow agents, have in breaching the inner-ring of criminal associations. This scene, and Doyle’s general street smarts, is alluded to in French Connection IIbut inverted to communicate that Doyle is currently out of his depth and, in the upcoming narrative, will have to learn fast to adapt to the surrounding culture – So that he can succeed in his mission in bringing back Alain Charnier (Frog One) to American shores and American justice.


The most important early contrasting scene, which alludes to both Doyle’s former street smarts and current cultural alienation, comes after an explosion. The suspect, who easily evades the French police, is chased after frantically by Doyle. The foot chase ends with Doyle catching up to the suspect and attempting to wrestle him to the ground. However, the suspect, and the reason why the French police made no real effort to apprehend him, is a undercover police officer. Doyle’s chase exposes the undercover police officer to a criminal boss and the undercover police officer is killed. This scene comes very close to the beginning, similar to the contrasting one in French Connection, and is utilized to indicate how Doyle is currently out of his depth, it also facilitates and signposts the forthcoming narratives direction – that of Doyle’s growth and adaptation to Marseilles’ cultural climate in order to finally bring down Charnier.

Short Note Concerning Action Driven Narrative

Action driven narrative is central to most films. The first thing that tends to happen to a film script is that the dialogue is reduced significantly. Film primarily is a visual medium and therefore actions automatically replace speech when something of significance has to happen. The essential character traits of a film’s protagonist is communicated and connected to the “agency” they have. Agency, that is; the ability the protagonist seems to have in controlling, shaping or driving action forward. As the protagonist does this they ‘reveal who they are in terms of their motives, their strength, weakness, trustworthiness, capacity to love, hate, cherish, adore, deplore, and so on. By their actions do we know them’. (1.) In other words actions are louder than words in communicating character; it is not what a character says but does that determines the reception and understanding of their character. In Man On Fire (2004) the protagonist Creasy’s actions and paternal relationship with Pita indicates his capacity to feel – as contrary to his own perceptions concerning himself. And his morality and strength of character is communicated by his attempts to revenge the kidnapping and assumed death of Pita. The action shows Creasy’s calloused heart warm up and ultimately catch on fire as he is unable to prevent Pita’s kidnapping. Pita teaches Creasy that it is alright to live again and her kidnapping pushes him over the edge into spiralling vortex of revenge and retribution. The films narrative is centred around the emotional journey of Creasy and his actions, and the action sequences, are that which communicates this journey – especially as he remains quite tight lipped throughout the film.




(1.) H. Porter Abbott, The Cambridge Introduction To Narrative, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, (2006), p. 124.

Narrative Structure: Free And Bound Motifs

Motifs are recurring structures that develop and communicate a film’s major themes [Motifs are the discrete images or sounds, like a coin, where as themes are more general concepts such as greed]. Motifs are therefore essential in the language of cinema. Motif’s are often used to communicate character and to indicate and remind the audience of essential and important facts. The study of narrative, and in particular film narrative formation, indicates that there are two central motif types; free and bound.


Bound motifs are those which, according to the Russian formalists, cannot be removed from the narrative without radically changing the chronological essence of a narrative. In essence a bound motif is a motif that is essential to the explaining or telling of a story. In the film Escape From New York (1981) the motif of the wristwatch is a bound motif as the movement of time is essential to the understanding of the plot. The motif of the wristwatch is essential in understanding and remembering that Snake has only twenty-two hours to find the president. As the time slips away the motif is also used to increase the tension. The narratives sequence and chronological essence is produced by the deadline of twenty-two hours; the motif of the wristwatch is bound by its essential nature in the formation of Escape From New York‘s narrative. In the film Speed (1994) the motif of the bus is a bound motif as without it the film wouldn’t make any sense; the story could not be told without it.


Free motifs are those which aren’t essential to the retelling or explaining of a narrative. This is not to say that they aren’t highly important, but the chronological make-up of a narrative wouldn’t be altered by a free motifs inclusion or exclusion. A free motif is a tool often used to communicate character and create aesthetic complexity. The use of colour to indicate a sense of past or nostalgia isn’t essential to the retelling of a story however it produces an aesthetic more inclined to communicating that lost past or beautiful regretful age a film wishes to portray. Free bound motifs tend to create deeper meaning and communicate conflicts without the need to thoroughly establish character though screen-time. A film can communicate an ordered and synchronised character by establishing a motif; John continuously looks at his timepiece. A rupture in his character and life could be communicated clearly by the breaking, dropping or stopping of his watch. And although the watch stopping has no relevance to the plot per say it could communicate the loss of order in John. This fictional man loses his structure; he becomes de-constructed through the symbolic act of his timepiece breaking. The symbolic act communicates a loss because it was previously posited as a motif that indicated his orderliness. Although not essential to the plot, the free motif of the timepiece helps communicate the more general theme of the film concerning the man’s change in character and life. In the film Juno (2007) the central character, also named Juno, buys kitsch tat such as a faulty burger phone. This motif isn’t essential to the film’s narrative however it does communicate character quickly and clearly.