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.