Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Paradox of Suspense

I've talked before about the paradox of fiction, about the paradox of tragedy, about a possible paradox of comedy,and about the paradoxes of expressive music. This is by no means the end of paradoxes associated with the arts. Today I'd like to say something about another such paradox, the paradox of suspense.

In simple form, the paradox of suspense involves the apparent conflict between three apparently obvious claims:

(1) Suspense requires uncertainty.
(2) Knowing what will happen precludes uncertainty.
(3) We can find something suspenseful even when we know what will happen.

The paradox can be made even more acute than this makes it sound. One of Alfred Hitchcock's major suspense techniques, for instance, was to make sure that the audience knew what would happen. It wasn't his only technique, but very often in a Hitchcock movie, he will give you some crucial detail that the characters lack. They don't know what will happen -- but you do. And, of course, it's that sort of thing that, done well, has viewers shouting at the screen for the character to get out because the killer is in the apartment with them. That seems very odd, if you think about it: sometimes things can be more suspenseful if you reduce the uncertainty. The character isn't in suspense precisely because he or she doesn't know anything; but we know, and are on the edge of our seats.

There are three basic ways to handle the paradox. You could reject (3). The major approach people have taken to rejecting (3) has been to propose what is known as emotional misidentification accounts of suspense. If you know that a character will die, you can't be in suspense about it, this view says. Obviously you do feel something. So you must feel something that you are confusing with suspense. Robert Yanal argues, for instance, that you really feel fear, and think it is suspense. The difficulty all emotional misidentification accounts face is in explaining how we make the error. The emotion we confuse for suspense has to be so close to suspense that people commonly confuse it with suspense; but at the same time it has to be sharply different from suspense in not require uncertainty. Fear is an emotion that might plausibly be confused with suspense, for instance; but does it really not require uncertainty? Likewise, fatalistic dread seems to be something broadly in the vicinity of suspense that also doesn't require uncertainty, but is it really so close to suspense that we can easily mistake the one for the other?

You could instead reject (2). The major proposal for rejecting (2) is Gerrig's momentary forgetting account. On Gerrig's proposal, we can know what will happen, but we get so caught up in the story we forget it for a moment. The difficulty is that the knowledge still seems to be in play: if you know exactly what will happen, you notice things that you otherwise wouldn't, no matter how caught up in the story you may be. In general, any rejection of (2) is going to have to say that part of us is certain and part of us is not. This sort of thing does happen; but we'd need precise details of how it would work.

That leaves (1). Perhaps the major proposal for rejecting (1) is Aaron Smuts's desire frustration account. Smuts argues that we don't need uncertainty to experience suspense; all we need is a strong desire to change things, combined with an ongoing inability actually to do so. We want to make a difference -- we want that character out of the apartment -- but we have no way of making it. Uncertainty can enter into this -- it could be that there is some small chance that the character will leave. But it need not. One of the difficulties with this account is that we sometimes seem to feel suspense when it would be very difficult to pin down anything we strongly desire. Watching a very close game, you can feel suspense even if you don't care who wins. The basic issue here is that we can feel suspense when we are wrapped up in the events transpiring; so the question becomes, Do we really need strong desire to change things in order to become wrapped up in the unfolding story?

I'm not convinced any of these are particularly adequate as proposals; I think there is something to be said for rejecting (2), but Gerrig's particular version doesn't seem to be an adequate version of that. I also think there's something to be said for rejecting (3), and Smuts's proposal is a really good proposal for doing so; but I'm not convinced it actually covers all suspense -- in particular, I'm not convinced that strong desire to change things is necessary for the strong feeling of caring about what happens that lets us get wrapped up in the story and feel suspense. What do you think?


  1. Chris2:29 PM

    <p><span>I suspect there’s an empirical answer to this. There was a fascinating paper published 20 or so years ago, by Gerrig I think, in which they found that when suspense is induced, people tend to have less access to the knowledge they have that should make the outcome of a situation unsuspenseful. We are, in a way, creating uncertainty for ourselves in the reading of a text, or the watching of a film, in order to heighten the experience of suspense, because the resolution of suspense is usually pleasurable. That might suggest that what we have is not so much a paradox of suspense, then, but an empirical question of how we are able to forget what we’re certain of in order to be able to experience suspense. There are well known mechanisms for such forgetting in some circumstances, but I’m not sure we know precisely how people do it in situations in which our knowledge of future outcomes should be incredibly salient.</span></p>

  2. branemrys11:08 PM

    I'm pretty certain that there is an empirical answer to this and all the aesthetic paradoxes. I think the difficult thing, though, is that none of these are really mere aesthetic paradoxes -- they are really general issues about human emotions made salient by aesthetic situations, not problems caused by aesthetic situations, so any solution has to take into account a massive amount of emotional life -- i.e., they're not the sort of problem an experiment or three can handle, because there are so many things that can be left out or overlooked.

  3. Arsen Darnay11:27 AM

    Thoroughly enjoy your explorations of these paradoxes in art. My own inkling is that suspense, in this case -- indeed in the experience of emotion in fiction generally -- is crucially linked to identification. We identify with characters. Even if we know exactly what will happen (generally the case when re-reading or re-viewing works) the identification is present again. And the suspense in this case is the anticipation of the emotions we shall feel at the climax. One of my experiences is that if I am not identified -- often the case when I find the story unbelievable or stilted or far too stylized -- my sense of suspense also disappears. Yawning, I reach for the wand or, shaking my head, I close the book to place it on the "give away" pile.

  4. branemrys9:37 PM

    It does seem to touch directly on our ability to put ourselves in the shoes of the characters, or at least to put ourselves sympathetically in the scene with them. And I think some kinds of suspense, at least, are probably quite exactly what you suggest, although I'm not sure it covers everything -- of course, this is always a difficulty with talking about emotions.

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