The Sunday Salon: Surprise, Suspense, and Spoilers

Not last weekend but the one before, both Teresa and Ana wrote up very interesting posts about spoilers and the reading experience. I agree with both Teresa in that we ought to mark spoilers very clearly and Ana in that I also don’t care to be spoiled. (I find this particularly hilarious when it comes to Sherlock, since I already know what’s going to happen from the sheer fact I’m reading the Holmes canon.) But this discussion about spoilers reminded me of the film class I’m taking at the moment, and not just because I try to go into class screenings blind.

It brought to mind a particular quote of Alfred Hitchcock’s about the difference between suspense and surprise.

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. (73)

In film studies, this is known as hierarchy of knowledge—in the second situation Hitchcock describes, the audience is above the characters in that hierarchy. Usually, that hierarchy is established by the creator of a work, be they a director or, seeing as this is a book blog, an author. But the rise of the Internet and easy access to spoilers for any given work has fundamentally changed who establishes that hierarchy of knowledge. It’s no longer in the hands of the author; it’s in your hands. You chose whether to create surprise or suspense by your choice to read spoilers or not.

I’m of two minds here; on one hand, I love the agency this gives readers. I’m all about the audience interacting and manipulating the source material, and this is a very common example of that. On the other hand, we often read spoilers before we go into a text for the first time rather than the second pass, thus subverting the author’s design. Ultimately, it comes down to the individual reader, an individual text, and how much they value surprise over suspense. Of course, there are those strange people who view spoilers as tantamount to an entire work’s message (see the treatment of The Crying Game in popular culture since it came out), but I think that’s a different thing entirely—that’s treating a story like it’s the wrapping paper on a gift rather than the gift itself, and that’s downright rude.

I’ve been enjoying not having rehearsal this week, although my workload at work this week more than made up for it. I’ve also been eating abysmally, which I’m going to try and correct soon—it’s messing with my head. I’ve managed to finish The Children of the Sky, as well as Castle Rackrent, which is due for class tomorrow. I also finished Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, and was able to move on directly to Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. I’ve no idea what I’m going to pick up next—I’m thinking Bossypants, which my school library had and I immediately snapped up.

Memory at Stella Matutina is giving away a signed copy of Ivan and Misha until Thursday. Tor/Forge is giving away a Repairman Jack bundle until October 17; you must register for their newsletter to enter. The Baen Free Library is full of free downloads, including The Shadow of the Lion and On Basilisk Station. Night Shade Books is offering Butcher Bird and Grey as free downloads at the moment. Vertigo Comics is offering free downloads of the first issue of several series, including Fables, The Unwritten, and Y: The Last Man. (And you will go download The Unwritten.) If I’ve missed your giveaway or freebie, drop me a line!

Where you do fall? Spoilers or no spoilers? Suspense or surprise?

  • Truffaut, François. Hitchcock. New York: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 1984. Print.

8 thoughts on “The Sunday Salon: Surprise, Suspense, and Spoilers

  1. As I said in my post, I don’t usually mind being spoiled, but I don’t seek out spoilers either. I try to be considerate when writing by staying vague or marking spoilers, but I think the challenging thing for me as a reviewer is deciding just what is a spoiler. For some, knowing there’s a scene with a bomb under a chair is a spoiler, even if it’s pretty early on and the readers see the bomb being placed there.

    Interesting point about the author’s design. I wonder how important that is to particular authors, though. I’m thinking specifically of Kazuo Ishiguru who has said that he likes for people to know the “secret” of what’s happening in Never Let Me Go before it’s revealed in the book because then they’re focused on the ideas in the book, not the question of what’s going on. But I’ve seen readers get angry at having the secret revealed in reviews. (This does raise the question of whether Ishiguru should have been more clear earlier in the book, but that would be hard to do without boring info dumps. The narrator assumes readers know and so doesn’t explain.) All this goes back to the question of what constitutes a spoiler.

  2. The Hitchcock quote and the whole concept of the hierarchy of knowledge are very interesting! I also like the fact that readers now have the power to decide how much they want to know in advance, even if in many cases it subverts authorial intent. I tend to like knowing very little going in, which is how most authors probably imagine their books to be read (though there are some exceptions, like Teresa points out). But part of me strongly rebels against the idea of an author ever saying, “this is how I like my book to be read”. Of course, not all comments of that kind are authoritarian. Authors do have the right to say whatever they please about their own stories, as long as they don’t expect their word to be taken as final. Ishiguro’s book is thematically brilliant, but if someone wants to read it as a suspenseful novel that’s every bit as valid ,regardless of his preferences.

    • I’ve noticed a few voices in fandom that have a distaste for such Word of God statements, preferring only to consider what’s in the book rather than any outside statements. Once you release a book into the wild, it changes and is no longer wholly yours—yes, there are readers who will respect your will as an author, but there are also readers who won’t. And that’s a beautiful thing.

  3. I love the tie-in with the Hitchcock quote. I’ve never thought about suspense vs. surprise, but that absolutely makes sense.

    I like them both in my books. I really don’t like having the surprises revealed ahead of time, and I think that’s what people usually label as spoilers. But I also find I enjoy the suspense less if I have some idea of where it’s heading. For instance, if the first few chapters of a book show a character on a boat, heading for England for some family-related reason, say, I do not want to read a review that starts “When so-and-so steps off the boat in England, the last person she expects to see is other-so-and-so, the brother she had not seen in 20 years.” That, to me, is also a spoiler, because the suspense of the boat trip is gone. Instead of reading along wondering whether the character will reach England at all and what she will find when she arrives, I’m impatiently flipping pages to get to the part I haven’t already heard about. (Yes, I know that’s not a particularly polished example, but I hope it gets my point across!) I know that writing and character development and many other elements make a story — not just plot — but I really like the whole package together, as the author meant it to be.

    • You absolutely get your point across! In this case, a spoiler doesn’t create suspense, but surgically removes it from the experience. I like my first pass to be as the author more or less intended; after that, with a firm grasp of their grasp on their book, it’s time to get wild.

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