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Surprise vs. Suspense and How to Pair Them in Your Writing

What's the difference between suspense and surprise, and how is each one powerful? Jane Cleland explains how to pair these two elements in your writing in this excerpt from her book Mastering Suspense, Structure & Plot.

In 1962, Alfred Hitchcock and François Truffaut discussed their work during a marathon session that lasted for days. The two great directors and their French/English interpreter barely paused for meals. It was during this conversation that Hitchcock outlined his famous surprise versus suspense scenario—the bomb planted in the cafe. He used this example to demonstrate that, contrary to popular belief, suspense is far more engaging than surprise.

Here’s how it goes:

Say you have a scene where two characters are talking in a cafe, and a bomb suddenly goes off under the table.

The unexpected action will make the audience experience surprise. Your readers’ emotional and physiological reactions are likely to be similar to the heart-stopping adrenaline rush a child feels the first time he opens a jack-in-the-box. Can you remember your first time? If you’re like most people, you were startled, and for a few seconds the experience was all-consuming. You didn’t think of anything else; you didn’t notice anything else. Your entire focus was on processing what just happened. That’s the power of surprise.

Contrast that experience with this one:

You witness a man approach a café where two people are drinking coffee, enjoying a pleasant morning chat. You see the man step behind a column and turn an old-fashioned alarm clock to 1:00. It’s taped to a bomb. A clock mounted on a nearby wall informs you it’s 12:45. You watch as the clock ticks down the time. Now it’s 12:49. The people keep chatting. Now 12:52. The woman laughs. It’s 12:57. They finish their coffee. And now it’s 12:59.

How do you feel now? If you’re like most people, you’re holding your breath, waiting for the explosion—or for a hero to rush in and save the day. This approach, revealing to the viewer or the reader what’s going on while the unsuspecting characters chatter on, translates into 15 minutes of suspense. All the immediate explosion bought us was 15 seconds of surprise.

The difference between the immediate explosion and the one we anticipate is that in the latter example, we were fully informed. While the surprise flared up, catching you unaware, the suspense slowly burned, drawing you in.

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Thus the question arises: If suspense is so much more gripping than surprise, and if the effect is more lasting, why employ surprise at all? The answer provides a twofold peek into the writer’s toolbox. First, surprise can spark delight in a reader all on its own, and second, it is one of the most reliable ways to launch your readers into situations fraught with heightened tension—a cornerstone of suspense.

Everyday Surprises

Consider the example below:

As my 83-year-old mother and I inched across the mall parking lot that winter, she confided that she hated walking like an old lady, always on the lookout for black ice, always wearing sensible shoes. She wanted to stride along with the movers and shakers wearing high heels that showcased her million-dollar legs.

A week later she slipped on a patch of ice and crash-landed on the sidewalk.

That my mother slipped is a surprise. I foreshadowed it a bit, but there was no particular reason for you to see it coming. That unexpected turn of events is a hallmark of surprise, and helps differentiate it from suspense.

To keep your readers on the edge of their seats, you need to integrate surprises that lead slowly, inexorably and with deadly calm, to suspense. In order to do so, you need to understand what makes a surprise effective.

The Anatomy of Surprise

There are good surprises, such as an unanticipated visit from a much-loved distant friend or relative, and bad surprises, such as an unexpected cancer diagnosis. Good or bad, all surprises share one key characteristic—they’re unforeseen. Integrating surprise into your stories can delight, intrigue, captivate, titillate, move, worry and/or inspire your readers. The trick is to set up such surprises so they feel fitting, not merely plunked down for effect. You’ll notice that I set up my mother’s fall by showing (not outright mentioning) her fear of falling. The surprise felt appropriate because it was logical given the situation.

Building Up to Surprise

To gain the optimum benefit, a surprise requires a setup. To ensure surprises feel natural, while still astounding your readers, think opposites. What can your character do or say that is opposite to what’s expected? My mother, you’ll recall, preferred high heels. The opposite is clomping along in sturdy shoes and slipping anyway.

Surprises delight readers, but they must be formulated with care. You need to maintain the integrity of your story and your characters. You also need to ensure you avoid out-of-nowhere situations. You can’t write a traditional mystery, for example, then change course and reveal that the killer is an alien, based on the idea that it’s a “surprise.” Neither can you write a romance with mysterious twins who suddenly appear for the first time two chapters from the end. That’s not a surprise; that’s cheating.

This principle of keeping readers as informed as possible applies not only to crime fiction but to all writing, including memoirs. Here’s more of mine about my mom:

The call informing me my mother was en route to the hospital came from a firefighter. My mother fell in front of the firehouse near her Boston apartment. She was bruised and a little banged up, but otherwise fine. Mostly, she was tickled pink to have been ministered to by three handsome firefighters.

“They’re all so good looking,” she said as I drove her home from the emergency room. “Do you think it’s a requirement of the job?”

A week later we delivered thank-you cookies.

The next Saturday, she fell again.

Using Surprise to Enhance Suspense

Once you understand how surprise can lead to suspense, you can masterfully drop in moments of surprise with-out sacrificing the slow buildup of tension necessary for suspense. The following are three tried-and-true techniques.

1. A First Occurrence of an Unexpected Event

Consider the famous spontaneous combustion scene in Charles Dickens’ Bleak House. In Chapter 32, a merchant and collector of papers named Krook (the irony in his name intended), whose diet seems limited to gin, burns to ash through spontaneous combustion.

(Fired Up: Robert Crais on Passion, Process and Plot Twists)

The novel’s primary plot revolves around a court case, Jarndyce v. Jarndyce, in which the court must determine which of several wills is the valid one. With so many potential beneficiaries, the consequences of the decision will reach far and wide. Krook’s demise, while shocking, is an important plot point. It allows access to his papers and creates more than one suspenseful moment as the other characters rifle through his hoard. When they find a document that relates to the case, the payoff is clear. The surprise—the spontaneous combustion—is effective and appropriate because it leads to a suspenseful search.

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2. An Anomaly

When children see a clown, they tend to expect fun surprises to ensue. So discovering that the clown in Stephen King’s It is not a benevolent embodiment of childhood joy, but rather a violent manifestation of evil, is an astounding surprise; it is an anomaly.

The novel is set in a small town in Maine and alternates between two time periods: the late 1950s and the mid-1980s. We learn that It, a maniacally bubbly clown named Pennywise, has been eating children (his preferred prey) and adults for hundreds of years. That Pennywise has succeeded in feeding on children for generations and has just awakened from a 27-year hibernation creates a sense of impending doom. As Pennywise sets its sights on each new victim, tension ratchets up. What starts as a surprise morphs into suspense.

3. A Revelation of a Previously Unknown Fact

In Seconds, first published in 1963, author David Ely crafts a tale around the theme that the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence. A secret organization known only as the “company” offers dissatisfied people an opportunity for a second chance. You can cast off your boring life and live the life you always dreamed of. The “company” stages your death, including leaving behind a corpse that looks like you. They give you a fresh identity, complete with evidence of your accomplishments. Through experimental surgery, you’re provided with a new, younger, more attractive look. Life is, on the surface, perfect. Only later, when we learn how they harvest the bodies they need to stage their clients’ deaths, do we see what has been going on behind the scenes. This shocking revelation is a complete surprise; then as suspense mounts, surprise turns into dread—a byproduct of suspense.

If you don’t use surprise to build suspense, you risk the unexpected event coming across as contrived. When you allow the stunning situation to contribute to a deeper storyline, your readers will feel gratified.

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Adding Drama Through Action

When writing about a surprise, you need to let the story do the talking. Avoid creating false urgency with words and phrases like suddenly, out of nowhere, and unexpectedly. Also, revise to avoid forms of the verb to be (is, are, was, were, be, being, been) in conjunction with surprise.

These urgent-sounding words represent a way of “telling, not showing” that, as you know, slows your readers down and creates distance between them and your story. The verb to be reflects a state of existence, nothing more. You can’t avoid all usages, nor should you. But you should ask yourself if there is a more active verb that could make your point. Oftentimes, revising the entire sentence to eliminate the passive verb results in a significantly stronger sentence.

 Mastering Suspense, Structure, & Plot: How to Write Gripping Stories That Keep Readers on the Edge of Their Seats

Mastering Suspense, Structure, & Plot: How to Write Gripping Stories That Keep Readers on the Edge of Their Seats

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Surprises should be integrated carefully so you maintain control of your story’s structure and pacing. Don’t use too many. In my traditional mysteries, for example, I aim to include one big surprise per book, and I place it roughly midway. It’s one of the best ways to counteract saggy-middle syndrome, where too little happens for too long of a time. A surprise provides an immediate pop of energy, as in the excerpt below:

“Can you think of any reason I shouldn’t buy a condo in Boynton Beach?” my mother asked.

“Florida?” I asked, my brow furrowing. “You hate Florida.”

“I hate ice more. It has two bedrooms, two bathrooms
and a Florida room.”

“You’re looking online, right?”

“No, I’m here with Miriam, the realtor. She says it’s a deal: $24,300.”

“You’re in Florida?”

“Yeah. What do you think?”

My mouth opened, then closed, then opened
again as I tried to gather my thoughts. “I think this
is a little impulsive.”

“I prefer to think of myself as decisive.”

“Let me call Mike and Dan.”

“Why?” she asked. “Don’t you trust my judgment?”

“You called me, remember? You asked my opinion.
My opinion is I should call my brothers and ask
their opinions.”

Dan thought it was a good idea. He liked it when our unconventional mother did conventional things. Mike had no opinion.

“If she wants to move,” Mike said, “she should move. But you should go down there and check it out. If it sounds too good to be true … You know the rest of that cliché.”

I caught the next plane.

The condo my mother selected was lovely, part of a large middle-class complex located midway between I-95 and the beach. She found it after a longtime friend of hers bought in the community and sent regular postcards showing palm trees and waterfront restaurants. The monthly condo fee was $83. I was tempted to buy one for myself.

I called Mike to report.

“How much was it again?” he asked after I finished.

“It was $24,300. I negotiated a reduction in
closing costs.”

“I live in Palo Alto. Twenty-four thousand dollars wouldn’t buy a doorknob.”

“I say she should go for it,” I said, scanning the
parking lot. All the residents were in their 70s or up, and all the women wore pretty sundresses. “If she hates it, she’ll move back to Boston, and we’ll have a family vacation condo.”

“I agree.”

I went back inside the realtor’s office where my mother sat reading an old issue of Family Circle magazine. I reviewed the contract and told her it looked good to me. She signed with a flourish, then handed Miriam her American Express card.

And that’s the story of how my mother bought herself a condo on a credit card.

The surprise—my mother, hoping to buy a condo, has flown off to Florida without a word to anyone—reinvigorates the story and leads to gentle suspense. What will her children think of her plan—is she spontaneous and decisive or simply half-cocked? Will they perceive it as an adventure or a misstep? The surprise gets your attention; the suspense holds it.

Incorporating Surprise Endings

You’re likely left asking: What about surprise endings? Is it all right to have a last-minute surprise, or should you insert only surprises that lead to suspense?

Don’t mistake a final, startling denouement that includes a surprise for a contrived moment at the end where your readers go, “Huh?” A surprise is a singular, unexpected event, not a conclusion or a “reveal” laden with coincidence or absurdity. That said, surprise endings are, if done well, ideal. A solution that readers don’t see coming, but which, once revealed, feels inevitable, is a true reader pleaser. Mega-bestsellers Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn and The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins are structured to include a final fitting yet unexpected twist.

Another bestselling novel, Jodi Picoult’s My Sister’s Keeper, includes two final twists. Some critics claimed the second was gratuitous and manipulative, but Picoult maintains it was mandatory and appropriate. Regardless of your view of that final denouement, the ending is jaw-dropping.

As you can see, with a deft touch, it’s possible not only for surprise and suspense to work in conjunction, but for unexpected action to boost the overall effect of suspense in your story. Follow these steps and soon you’ll have your readers gripped from start to finish.

Excerpted from Mastering Suspense, Structure & Plot © 2016 by Jane K. Cleland.

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