Suspense is an emotional response to uncertainty about what happens next? It is a powerful emotional experience that occurs in a wide variety of contexts (e.g., movies, novels, music, jokes, and everyday life). For example, picture a suspenseful moment when a college applicant is about to open an envelope that informs her whether she was accepted to her top-choice university. A moment she could never forget, regardless of what the outcome might be.
Suspense experienced as a positive emotion can be a major motivator to engage in certain activities. Suspense plays a key role in creating enjoyment in a narrative by keeping readers’ attention focused on a novel or a movie. This explains why spoilers are bad: they reveal all the information at once, which takes away the suspense and the pleasure of a story.
Suspense is not the same as surprise and yet people often confuse the two. Suspense is experienced before the fact when something revealing is about to happen. In contrast, surprise is experienced after the fact. We are surprised if something unexpected has just happened.
The followings describe key components of tension and suspension experiences (Lehne & Koelsch, 2015).
1. Conflict – The experience of suspense (or tension) usually originates from events associated with conflict or unpredictability, which create a desire for more stable states. For example, consider a basic suspense structure created in movies. The narrative plots often involve conflicts and obstacles that the protagonists have to overcome (Zillmann, 1980). The uncertainty about unfolding events creates tension and suspense experiences in the audience that last until the conflict is resolved, and the final relief produces enjoyment.
2. Uncertainty – Not knowing exactly what’s going to happen next can create a sense of suspense that keeps us glued to our seats watching a thriller and quickly turning the pages in a mystery novel. Part of the appeal of live sporting events is their inherent unpredictability. Often, potential voters enjoy following the news when there is an exciting race for political office. Uncertainty is related to a state of curiosity in which people desire more information about something that produces pleasure only when it is satisfied (Lowenstein 1994). We are hardwired with the desire to learn and explore the world.
3. Anticipation – Anticipated events of emotional significance can generate experiences of suspense and tension. The resulting experiences are closely related to the emotions of hope and fear: anticipated positive events produce emotions of hope, whereas negative events create anxiety and fear. The negative outcomes can be medical diagnoses, exams, or job interviews, a date that creates an urge for resolution.
4. Lack of control – A lack of control (an inability to influence the course of events) often contributes to experiences of tension. During the time interval between the initiating event and the moment in which tension resolves there is usually not much that can be done except for waiting for the tension to resolve. And this may induce a feeling of helplessness that can add to the experience of tension.
5. Appraisal response – Suspense depends on something at stake. Anticipated events need to have some emotional significance to the individual, in order to generate tension or suspense. Event outcomes promising great reward (e.g., job interview, exams, winning the lottery) or meaning great pain or suffering (e.g., a medical diagnosis) can provoke strong experiences of tension. When there is no appraisal (events are largely irrelevant), there is no tension or suspense.
In sum, suspense is the intense feeling that one experiences while waiting for an outcome to occur. The amount of intensity in a suspenseful moment explains why we spend so much time immersed in the lives of the characters portrayed in a TV series. Without suspense, the viewers would lose interest quickly in any show. The experience of suspense is quite similar to being in a state of flow (“being in the zone”). Flow is a state of total immersion in a task that is challenging yet closely matched to one’s abilities (e.g., reading, watching a movie, sports, etc.). So creating suspension is one of the most efficient ways of sustaining attention and eliminating distraction.