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)