Surprise vs. Suspense

surprised girlWent to see a movie yesterday that reminded me about a key principle in writing.

Without naming the movie (to avoid spoilers), I’ll just say this: it focused on five seemingly unrelated characters. I spent the first hour or so trying to figure out what one group of characters had to do with the other. When, at long last, the connection was revealed, it provided a great surprise. An “Ohhhhh… I see what you did there!” moment.

However, I felt a little cheated, almost lied to. The writers of the movie deliberately withheld information from the audience simply to play up the surprise near the end. I asked myself a simple question, “How would the movie have been different if that information was given ahead of time?”

Easy answer: the surprise would be gone. But is that so bad? Instead of surprise, the revealing of the information would have provided suspense, something this movie lacked on a large scale. Personally, I’d like the writers of the movie to take the audience seriously, and trust us with the information. More so, I’d like them to trust themselves with their writing.

Though the movie wasn’t one of my favorites, they did do several things well—specifically, they set things up that came back around in the end. This is a satisfying trait in writing, one the audience appreciates. So I’m led to believe that the writers are capable of putting something together that would be pleasing without having to resort to the gimmick of “surprise.”

So how do you know when to reveal information? If a protagonist is aware of something, the audience should be aware of it as well. Here, the protagonist (or more specifically, view-point character) knew an important bit of information, but the writers never let the audience in on the secret. If, however, the protagonist (or VPC) doesn’t know something, then it’s fine to withhold what information they don’t know. Using that guideline, you can create a genuine surprise for both the viewpoint character and the audience while still maintaining a high caliber of writing that doesn’t resort to gimmicks. You can learn to balance surprise with suspense.

1 Comment on Surprise vs. Suspense

  1. When writing I tend to think of books I have read in the past and how irritated i was by their endings. Either it went overboard with the surprise and/or it lacted what could have been a breath taking suspense. In my opinion, people chose books because their looking for something to keep them guessing, imaginations running wild, and in suspense when they get to the ending.

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