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Surprise Versus Suspense

A wise man once said, “Surprise should never be the workhorse of a film,” and they were right, for when a writer springs something on their audience, often out of the blue, viewers respond with a jarring sense of shock or intrigue. For some writers, that’s an achievement – moving an audience in any way could be considered a success. However, such fleeting moments of engagement can only go so far. As writers, we want audiences to connect with our material on a much deeper level, and to do that, we must turn to “suspense” rather than surprise to get us there. Allow me to explain the difference.

“Suspense” means letting an audience know there’s a bomb underneath someone’s desk that’s about to blow someone up unless they leave the room. “Surprise,” on the other hand, is when that person walks into the room and gets blown up immediately. Granted, in the surprise scenario, the writer catapults the plot somewhere unexpected and awakens our senses—valiant work indeed. But there’s only so much you gain by eliciting those jolting reactions. Suspense offers far greater longevity. To create suspense, one must master dramatic irony – the fine art of letting the audience know more than the characters.

Take the example of the bomb under the desk. Let’s say two things are at work: 1) The audience knows it’s there, and 2) They really want it to go off and kill its intended victim – perhaps the film’s antagonist. If both are true, the audience will likely watch the movie unfold with much more intrigue, sitting on the edge of their seats with bated breath. Whereas, if the audience merely saw that despicable character get blown up – without prior knowledge that there was a bomb under the desk –they might be satisfied with the result on a human level, but ultimately not as satisfied as they could have been if they were in on it from the beginning.

It’s worth mentioning that horror films often rely on both stunning surprises and suspenseful set pieces to keep an audience engaged. In that genre, it’s a marriage that works to great effect. But what would happen if horror films solely relied on men in scary masks jumping out of bushes and grandfather clocks chiming ominously when they aren’t supposed to? Audiences would tune out. That’s because short-term gratification will never eclipse long-term satisfaction. In other words, surprise should never be the workhorse of a film.

Keep Writing,

Screenplay Report Team