You’re seated in a darkened theater, engrossed in the action on the screen. The hero of this action-adventure film is in a tight spot: he’s surrounded by enemy agents and they are closing in on him.
Your heart is beating quickly, and there’s a fluttering feeling in your stomach like the one you have before you speak in front of a group. Your body is tense and you’re leaning forward slightly. At least figuratively, you’re on the edge of your seat.
Then, just as an unpleasant fate seems certain for him, the hero makes an ingenious escape. Using his wits and seemingly unlimited ammunition, and somehow bending the laws of physics, he creates a diversion, shoots his way clear of the enemy, leaps from a building onto a passing flatbed truck, and rolls away to rendezvous with his compatriots. The surviving bad guys curse and shake their fists in the air. Whew!
The feeling of suspense that is evoked by scenes like these is a thrill, which the psychoanalyst Michael Balint described as “a mixture of fear, delight, and confident hope.” Why we like it is open to debate.*
One explanation is that the pleasant relief following a momentary fear state exceeds the unpleasantness of the fear. Whatever the reason, we like it so much that the building of suspense is as old as narrative itself.
People like suspense in real life, too, but often when you face a potentially problematic unknown, you are stuck with just the fear. Wouldn't it be nice if there was something you could do to feel more delight and hope at those times, too? There are things you can do, but first let’s explore how suspense works.
The mechanics of suspense
Suspense is related to conflict, which is even more universal in storytelling. Generally, you have a protagonist and an antagonist (which doesn’t have to be a person) set against each other, with conflicting motives or goals. You become invested in the protagonist and feel suspense when that character faces threat at the hands of the antagonist and it seems that a negative outcome is likelier than not.
However, the protagonists we root for aren’t always good guys, objectively speaking. In the casino heist movie Ocean’s Eleven (and its sequels), we cheer for con men and thieves because we know them to be likeable, good people otherwise, and because they oppose unlikable and even more flawed casino operators (and we have an inborn desire for justice to be served to the bad guy).
In real life, or in a different movie, we might look askance at thieves, but within the narrative universe of Ocean’s Eleven, we want to be friends with them; maybe even part of their crew.
So, when you sit down for a movie, you adopt a moral relativism and temporarily let go of your usual understanding of the world. Instead, you cede control to the filmmakers and adopt an attitude of receptivity and acceptance toward the world they present.
Importantly, you also trust them not to throw you for plot twists that are inconsistent with the genre, and generally to adhere to narrative conventions. Usually that includes ending on some sort of high note, but along the way the filmmakers try to throw you off balance and make you wonder whether this time might be different.
When you see your protagonist embroiled in a problem you begin to worry. Some of it is a purely unconscious, emotional response to the images you’re viewing, or the soundtrack hinting of impending doom. You might also be reminded of something you’ve experienced, which can start you thinking, remembering, and feeling.
These cognitive and emotional processes are coupled with activation of your sympathetic nervous system, and you enter a heightened state of anxious arousal.
Still, in the background, you have faith that the filmmakers are going to make sure things turn out okay. Then, when the on-screen crisis is resolved, you feel relieved, your faith has been validated, and you’re ready to see what the hero will get himself into next. That’s the fun of suspense.
Suspense in real life
You don’t only feel suspense when you’re consuming fictional works, though. You feel it when you play bingo, scratch off a lottery ticket, or ask for something you want and then wait while your question hangs in the air a bit. It’s the thrill of a safe emergency.
On a rollercoaster, your heart beats faster as you’re slowly ratcheted to the top and you take a white-knuckled grip when you finally see what’s in store for you over the edge.
Then the release: the delight of letting gravity and the design of the ride do their thing, surrendering to the experience, and rolling safely back into the station.
But obviously, all of the unknowns you face don’t feel like this. In real life, a lot of times facing uncertainty produces plain, old, unpleasant fear. There may not be much delight in contemplating how to pay your bills if you’ve been laid off, or in the pit in your stomach that you might feel before you need to give a big presentation. Nor may there be much confident hope.
Much has to do with your unique relationship to your experience. Imagine that you’re a cat lover and your friend is cat-phobic, and you both walk into a room and find a cat. You’ll each have different responses owing to your experience, conditioning, and beliefs. The cat will just sit there, leaving its significance up to you—just like the events of your life.
It's certain that you will face certain situations with questionable outcomes and that you’ll likely feel fear no matter what. The question is why, in some cases, will you also feel delight and confident hope?
By considering the factors that distinguish fear- and suspense-inducing experiences, perhaps we can identify ways you can relate to your cliffhanger moments that will infuse them with more suspense. Here are some examples that we can work with.
Going for a rollercoaster ride
Strapped to an instructor, about to skydive for the first time
An Olympian on a high-dive platform, about to go for gold
Attempting, with your extensive support crew, to be the first person to swim from Florida to Cuba without a shark cage
Aboard a runaway freight train in the mountains
About to be thrown from the roof of a skyscraper
Someone on a high-dive platform after losing a bet
Abandoned at sea by your charter boat while you are scuba diving
To be continued . . .
In keeping with our topic, I’m going to induce some suspense (or frustration) in you right now by leaving you here with a cliffhanger.
Really, though, I want to give you time to reflect on these examples, as well as the times you've felt fear and suspense in your own life.
See if you can identify the factors that make the critical difference between the two, and I’ll provide my thoughts in the next article.
* I recommend this book if you care to really nerd out with me about suspense.