Although I am a nonfiction publisher at the moment, I still love to read fiction in a variety of genres, from literary novels to thrillers. And I think for most editors it’s impossible to read a book without your editorial reflex twitching from time to time, especially when you see the author make a misstep. This week I have been reading an adventure novel that made me think yet again about the distinction between surprise and suspense–and in a broader way, what draws readers into a narrative.
Something I frequently say to nonfiction narrative authors is, “Imagine how they’re going to do this when they make your book into a movie.”
Filmmakers learn to boil a story down to its essence, and to find the most dramatic way to organize the elements of a narrative. They think about this stuff all the time. And it was Alfred Hitchcock who gave one of the most famous explanations of how suspense and surprise differ.
There is a distinct difference between “suspense” and “surprise,” and yet many pictures continually confuse the two. I’ll explain what I mean.