The bomb under the table
In the classic study Hitchcock/Truffaut, Alfred Hitchcock offers up a moment of insight so profound that it’s been quoted endlessly ever since, which won’t stop me from quoting it once again:
Let us 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…In these conditions this same innocuous conversation becomes fascinating because the public is participating in the secret.
Hitchcock concludes: “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.”
This advice, as simple as it sounds, should be tattooed behind the eyeballs of all serious writers of horror and suspense, but today it’s strangely neglected. These days, thrillers seem obsessed by surprise, seeking out increasingly ludicrous twist endings, even if they make nonsense of everything that came before. For every movie like The Sixth Sense or The Others that retrospectively enriches the story with a closing revelation, we have a movie like Perfect Stranger, in which the audience’s only response is an incredulous “Really?” When something like this works, there’s an undeniable frisson of excitement, but usually, all it does is sacrifice fifteen minutes of suspense—or more—for fifteen seconds of surprise, which is mathematically unsound.
But it isn’t just about the numbers. Suspense is preferable to surprise, as Hitchcock notes, because it actively involves the audience in the telling of a story, until they aren’t just spectators, but participants. In a perfectly constructed work of suspense, like The Wages of Fear or A History of Violence, we aren’t watching passively, but caught up in both plot and artistic technique, and constantly telling stories to ourselves about what might happen next. This kind of anticipation is the best kind of interactivity that fiction affords. As I’ve noted before, transferring the twist in Vertigo from the end of the film to the start of the third act contributes enormously to that movie’s power. And one of the most potent discoveries in all of literature, dating back to Greek tragedy, is that there’s no better way of identifying with a protagonist, paradoxically, than by knowing something that he doesn’t.
The sweetest thing of all, of course, is to combine both suspense and surprise: to allow the audience to anticipate, suspensefully, what will happen next, before surprising them with an unexpected outcome. In comedy, this can be something like what writers on The Simpsons call a “screw the audience” joke, as when Homer, on the run from the police, ducks into a costume shop—in order to hide in the bathroom. In a thriller or horror movie, this reversal of expectations can be almost indecently satisfying. Psycho does this beautifully, as does The Silence of the Lambs, but even a lesser film can occasionally pull it off: the quiet scene between Frank Langella and Bruno Ganz in Unknown is a small masterpiece of reversed expectations in an otherwise shoddy movie. But even a stopped ticking clock is right twice a day.