Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Alfred Hitchcock's Bomb: Suspense, Surprise, and Emotion in Narrative

Although I am a nonfiction publisher at the moment, I still love to read fiction in a variety of genres, from literary novels to thrillers. And I think for most editors it’s impossible to read a book without your editorial reflex twitching from time to time, especially when you see the author make a misstep. This week I have been reading an adventure novel that made me think yet again about the distinction between surprise and suspense--and in a broader way, what draws readers into a narrative. 

Something I frequently say to nonfiction narrative authors is, “Imagine how they’re going to do this when they make your book into a movie.” 

Filmmakers learn to boil a story down to its essence, and to find the most dramatic way to organize the elements of a narrative. They think about this stuff all the time. And it was Alfred Hitchcock who gave one of the most famous explanations of how suspense and surprise differ

There is a distinct difference between "suspense" and "surprise," and yet many pictures continually confuse the two. I'll explain what I mean. 

We are now having a very innocent little chat. Let's suppose that there is a bomb underneath this table between us. Nothing happens, and then all of a sudden, "Boom!" There is an explosion. The public is surprised, but prior to this surprise, it has seen an absolutely ordinary scene, of no special consequence. Now, let us take a suspense situation. The bomb is underneath the table and the public knows it, probably because they have seen the anarchist place it there. The public is aware the bomb is going to explode at one o'clock and there is a clock in the decor. The public can see that it is a quarter to one. In these conditions, the same innocuous conversation becomes fascinating because the public is participating in the scene. The audience is longing to warn the characters on the screen: "You shouldn't be talking about such trivial matters. There is a bomb beneath you and it is about to explode!" 

In the first case we have given the public fifteen seconds of surprise at the moment of the explosion. In the second we have provided them with fifteen minutes of suspense. The conclusion is that whenever possible the public must be informed. Except when the surprise is a twist, that is, when the unexpected ending is, in itself, the highlight of the story.


The “bomb under the table” example has been quoted almost ad nauseam by now. In fact, when I looked up Hitchcock’s quote online I found various writers complaining what a cliché it had become. However, when I first heard this principle cited, by my former boss Tom McCormack, he added one valuable further distinction, which I have not found widely discussed.*  

Once again, imagine a restaurant where there’s is a ticking bomb under the table, and we in the audience know it’s going to go off in fifteen minutes.  Now imagine one of the characters knows it as well, but can’t reveal it.  With this, the suspense ratchets to another level. Not only are we aware of the impending explosion, we share in the character’s anxiety to get away and the excruciating effort of acting totally unconcerned even as the bomb ticks down.  The emotional connection we have to a character for whom this situation is a matter of life or death makes the suspense we feel that much greater.  

Hitchcock’s bomb is simply an extreme way of focusing attention on the most essential question the author of any narrative, fiction or nonfiction, needs to ask—and answer—about a given storyline: Why should we care? The more emotionally invested readers are in what happens to those in the story, the more compelling it will be. And our emotional investment comes from understanding what the stakes are for those characters. 



*I am sure Tom credited Hitchcock for the insight, but I have not been able to find an original Hitchcock reference. Sources welcomed

(photo from Wikimedia Commons)

10 comments:

Thomas Taylor said...

Thanks for this. It can never hurt to be reminded to ask ourselves the 'why should we care?' question.

Terry Stonecrop said...

I can never hear enough advice from Hitchcock,cliche or not.

I bought up a slew of 1950's and '60's Hitchcock anthologies at an old bookstore. They each have an introduction by Hitchcock. They're often amusing.

This is great advice. I like your friend's add. Ups the ante.

Peter Ginna said...

@Terry--
I used to get those Hitchcock anthologies out of the library when I was a kid. As I recall they had titles like ALFRED HITCHCOCK'S STORIES THAT GO BUMP IN THE NIGHT. Loved them, but sometimes the stories left me spooked.

Terry Stonecrop said...

Exactly! And, Stories Not For The Nervous and Scream Along With Me, with the cover blurb: "Alfie's gala feast of fiendish fun..."

Yeah, not the best bedtime stories:)

dirtywhitecandy said...

Love this post. Connection with the characters is everything. Hitchcock was so good at making the audience feel they were taking the same dangerous journey with the characters.
An example I really like is when Marion Crane steals the money in Psycho - we feel we're right there with her, that some desperate impulse is running away with us and we don't know what it is or how to stop it. With that brilliant move he sets up the thesis for the whole story - Norman's situation as well.

Draven Ames said...

Thank you for the great post Peter. I am new to writing, so I haven't heard this quote yet. It is very easy to picture the bomb situation; I think Lost is a good example of this.
The whole show kept giving flash-scenes about characters pasts that no one but us, the audience, got to see. Those scenes became intimate moments for us, times we looked forward to. Why?
On the island no one knew anyone from anyone. Everyone got to start fresh, without the stench of their past beneath them. Everyone knew things that no one else on the island knew, and in that we got to know the characters. Many times, the past was the 'bomb' under the table that the characters wouldn't reveal.
We watched them sweat and wiggle, wanting to leave the situation that reminded them of the past they so desperately wanted to escape. Suspense trumps surprise.
We can all say boo.

Peter Ginna said...

@Draven - Thanks for your comment. I can't say much about Lost because I didn't follow the show, but the artful handling of backstory is obviously an element of good narrative in any medium.

Dedi said...

I too love this post. Yes, Hitchcock's quote probably is a cliche by now, but who cares. It contains so much truth. And I very much like your friend Tom's extension of it!

And to extend the point further for the nonfiction writer, one doesn't even need to be writing a thriller for the point about suspense lying in the emotion rather than in surprise to apply. One movie I loved this season (and that I highly recommend for all historical drama buffs) is The King's Speech. The director Tom Hooper and screenwriter David Seidler apparently decided to cut back on some of the big pageantry scenes (King George V's funeral etc.) precisely because at heart the film is about two men in a room talking. It's a film about a man who needs to find his voice.

Naturally, the question arises--how does one make a film about two men sitting around talking so gripping? Especially two historical figures about whom the basic facts are so well known? Well, that's exactly, I think, where Hitchcock comes in. We might remember the broadcasts of the period so we know that George VI must find his voice. And with the hindsight of history, we know that Edward abdicated. We know all this going in. Yet we're still completely drawn into Bertie's plight. Will he find his voice? Can he?

The stakes couldn't be higher. The country is at war and they need a King who can publicly reassure them. And Bertie needs to get to the point where he truly believes in himself if he is to give the speech. He needs to shed some of the psychological demons that block and aggravate his stammer.

We are so invested in this character and take his stakes so personally that the fact that we already know the ending simply falls away from our consciousness. As Hitchcock predicts, despite our knowledge of how it will all turn out, we're on the edge of our seats actively routing for Bertie to succeed. Like most storytelling, it all comes back to the effective portrayal of one's central characters. Do they express real emotions? Are they believable? Do they hold our attention? Do they have fascinating quirks? Wit? Humor? Are they tapping into universal fears and emotions? As Peter says, do we care about them? (If we've got most of the above right, we probably do care.) Create great characters (or portrayals of real figures) and the reader/viewer's emotional investment follows. With great characters, storywise, you can do anything. Even create suspense when there's no surprise.

Chris Carey said...

Hitchcock was a master, but so were Homer, Shakespeare and many others since. Dramatic irony. Give your audience something they know that the characters--characters they know about--do not. Read the last act of Romeo and Juliet when Romeo thinks Juliet is really dead... Suspense is knowing how to entertain. Good horror movies do it well. Surprise is just making noise. Boo.

Alexis said...

Part of the element that fails to get any attention in this period in history (as opposed to Hitchcock's era) are the number of people in the audience who can't wait for the bomb to go off and kill the insipid characters chattering on about their jobs and their petty difficulties. The question "why should we care?" has been ramped up a level also, as we as an audience are less concerned with the human life about to be destroyed than we are with the reasons and purpose of the bomb. We have become jaded, and if all we have is a disconnected bomb and chattering people, that isn't ENOUGH to get us interested. It was all Hitchcock needed, but we are a much more cynical generation.

So if you want a heightened level of suspense, the audience must be drawn in with WHY as well as WHEN. The absence of why is the reason Hitchcock's motif has become dull and cliche. It relies on an emotion the audience has been asked to deliver over and over, to the point where it no longer exists.