Hitchcock: What to Tell the Reader

During a session of the 2017 convention of the Association of Writers and Writing Programs #AWP, someone whose name I did not get paraphrased an Alfred Hitchcock quotation about the difference between mystery and suspense.

I was curious about the exact quotation and looked it up. (See below.)

quote-mystery-is-an-intellectual-process-but-suspense-is-essentially-an-emotional-process-alfred-hitchcock-68-31-21

In my search, I found a longer, fuller explanation about the difference between surprise and suspense.

The key lesson of both quotations: Give the reader information the characters do not have and you will create suspense.

Herewith, Mr. Hitchcock:

“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.”

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One thought on “Hitchcock: What to Tell the Reader

  1. Wow! I learned something today. Never stopped to be hind about the difference before. Keep your blogs coming. Bev

    Sent from my iPad

    >

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