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Which Is More Effective In Horror (Suspense v. Surprise)?

Discussion in 'Writing Discussions' started by Steerpike, Oct 14, 2019.

  1. Steerpike

    Steerpike Felis amatus Moderator

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    I once heard a discussion of surprise v. suspense that I believe was based on something Hitchcock said. He viewed surprise as being an event, fact, twist, or some story aspect that neither the reader nor characters are aware of--in the context of horror, it would be a horrific element that neither the readers nor characters see coming. Suspense, on the other hand, stems (in his view) from some fact the reader is aware of, but that the characters are not aware of. Tension, anxiety, fear etc. are created as the reader watches the characters move blindly toward something they know is coming. Hitchcock talked about surprise giving a viewer 15 seconds of heart pounding terror, whereas suspense gives 15 minutes of fear as the characters move inexorably toward what the reader already knows will be a bad situation.

    Which do you all find more effective in horror? A lot of modern movies rely on surprise--the jump scares when a frightening figure comes onto the screen unexpectedly, for example. I think surprise can be used effectively in horror fiction, but to me horror is at its most effective when it employs Hitchcock's version of suspense, especially if I care about the characters.

    It seems to me meta knowledge (of genre, for example) plays into this. If you're reading a horror novel, you know you're reading horror and you're already primed for it. Creating suspense is that much more effective because of it.
     
  2. Svrtnsse

    Svrtnsse Staff Article Team

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    I'm not sure I have very much to add to the above, but I'll try.

    The way I see it, anything we create in our own minds will be significantly stronger than whatever the words on the page says. If the words tell us that a hideous monster suddenly appears from the darkness, that's not going to be nearly as powerful as if we know the monster might already be there and that it might pop out at any moment.

    If I don't know the monster might be there, I don't build up a fear of it in my mind, and when it suddenly appears I might question what I'm reading, rather than just roll with it.

    That said, I'm thinking a jump scare is probably a lot more difficult to do in writing than in a movie.
     
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  3. A. E. Lowan

    A. E. Lowan Forum Mom Leadership

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    I think that in horror writing, one leads to the other. A jump scare is not nearly as effective without underlying suspense, and suspense needs the occasional jump scare to defuse it for a moment. To give the reader a break after the heart attack. :D We have a lot of horrific elements in The Books of Binding, being dark urban fantasy) and we try to keep them balance with humor, even gallows humor, to keep the suspense from becoming unrelenting.
     
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  4. Tom

    Tom Istar

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    I'm definitely more of a fan of suspense than surprise. It leaves it up to the reader/viewer's own mind to do most of the heavy lifting, which makes for a much more fraught experience. You're going to be a lot more tense reading something if the author keeps it just out of sight, hinting at the shape hidden in the dark, instead of hitting you with jump scares every few pages. I'd say jump scares definitely work better in film. In books they usually end up feeling cheap.
     
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  5. Prince of Spires

    Prince of Spires Scribe

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    In writing you need both. Actually, in films you need both as well, though you can have more surprise then suspense.

    In writing, suspense is the most important of the two because most reading happens in the mind of the reader. This makes it hard to write surprise and have the reader actually feel surprised. Most often it feels cheap or even like cheating by the author. But suspense must reach a climax at some point, and that's where surprise comes in. The reader will know something's coming because of the suspense, but he should still jump because of a surprise.

    Best example I can think of is in The Shining (well worth reading). There is a scene where one of the main characters, a little boy, is walking through the hotel where the story is set. He's aware something fishy is going on and is looking around. As the reader you know he's going to run into something, because of all the suspense building up. But at the climax, when the boy runs into the ghost, it is a surprise and makes you want to close the book and hide underneath your blanket.

    This scene is so powerful because it uses both suspense and surprise.
     
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  6. FifthView

    FifthView Istar

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    I agree with all you said, although I'd never thought of jump scares as defusing suspense. Seems about right for some of them.

    For this feeding back-and-forth, I'd been thinking that jump scares can actually initiate suspense. For instance, depending on how they're developed, a jump scare can be the first moment that an audience or reader and/or character learns something's not quite right with the world—or not quite right in a present situation. This sudden knowledge lays the seed of suspense that will continue from that point.
     
  7. FifthView

    FifthView Istar

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    I'd encountered Hitchcock's idea via Writing Excuses, but never knew I could watch him explain. Now I know:


    I just love listening to a master's take on things.

    Speaking of Writing Excuses...Howard Tayler modified the quote once, to this:

    "I was going to say... to add to Hitchcock's pithy quote... action's when the bomb explodes, suspense is when the bomb doesn't explode, and mystery is when we can't see what's under the table." [Writing Excuses 5.4: Creating Suspense]

    I also love listening to others spinning an idea around and around in their heads and finding new ways to think about it! Over the years, I've come to realize that some of these ideas or terms relate. Just a nudge one direction or another can change things dramatically. (Pun intended.) So for instance, these concepts or effects can be looked at through a single prism:​
    • Action
    • Surprise
    • Mystery
    • Suspense
    • Intrigue
    I've actually arranged those in a particular order....seems right...but not sure I want to go on ad nauseam about my reasoning at this point, because I'm just feeling my way. [I'm in suspense, because there's a mystery—not total mystery—so I'm also intrigued. Heh. I suppose there's a scale of knowing involved in this list. That's about as far as I'll go for now.]

    Not sure if any of this helps answer the initial question, but I hope others find it as interesting as I do.
     
  8. Heliotrope

    Heliotrope Staff Article Team

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    I have nothing new to add to this either, other than my two favourite examples of amazing suspense are:
    1) The entire novel of We Have Always lived in the Castle where, if you really pay attention, literally nothing happens but some people sitting around drinking tea and talking and it is the scariest thing ever. I read it in 2 hours, lol.

    2) The scene in Quinten Tarentino's film Inglorious Bastards where, again, some people are in a bar enjoying a drink, but the audience knows way more than the characters do and it is terrifying and he draws it out so long!
     
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  9. Steerpike

    Steerpike Felis amatus Moderator

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    That was a great clip. Thanks for sharing it.
     
  10. Steerpike

    Steerpike Felis amatus Moderator

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    Funny, I just used that same book as an example in a similar discussion yesterday. Like you, I read it in one sitting.
     
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  11. Heliotrope

    Heliotrope Staff Article Team

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    Suspense is my preference. I have never liked modern horror (Saw, Hostel, etc etc. Slasher films). I just don't "get it"... But I LOVE what might be classified as Thriller, or Psychological Thriller, (Shutter Island, The 6Th Sense, etc). My husband, on the flip sides, will watch slasher films all day, but Pysch. thrillers are too much "thinking" for him... so boring.
     
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  12. Tom

    Tom Istar

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    The Haunting of Hill House is really similar. A lot of sitting around and talking, but it leaves you with this sense of creeping terror. Read it in one sitting (in the dark, stupid me) and it thoroughly freaked me out. Shirley Jackson is a master of suspense.
     
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  13. Steerpike

    Steerpike Felis amatus Moderator

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    Yeah, that's a good one too. I love Shirley Jackson. I recently picked up her book "The Sundial." Looking forward to that one as well.
     
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  14. Yora

    Yora Inkling

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    Shock isn't really horror. You can have some of it in horror, but it's not required and not really important. But you can't have horror without suspense.
     
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