Expected is so yesterday: 3 steps to add suspense to your comics


Alfred Hitchcock, world-famous film director, is known as the Master of Suspense. In 1962, French director Francois Truffaut interviewed him. In their discussion, Hitchcock shared this recipe to keep audiences on the edge of their seats:


surprise vs. suspense

“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 an innocent little chat. Let us suppose that there is a [jar with a poisonous snake]** underneath this table between us. Nothing happens and then all of a sudden, [“ahh!” The snake sinks its teeth into one of our legs]. 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 [snake] is underneath the table and the public knows it, probably because they have seen the anarchist place it there. The public is aware that the [snake] is going to [fall out of the jar] at one o’clock and there is a clock in the décor. The public can see that it is 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’s a [snake] beneath you and it’s about to [be released]!”

In the first case, we have given the public fifteen seconds of surprise at the moment of the [snake bite]. In the second case, 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.”

**Hitchcock’s original example was a bomb going off, however, I’ve chosen to replace it with a snake in order to be less violent. Edited portions are in [brackets].

beyond the expected

When we come up with an idea while writing our comics, we often default to the “surprise” method (and don’t even know it!)

Here are 3 things to do to add suspense:

  1.  Ask yourself: what can the character lose immediately? Identify the risk. The “snake”.
  2. Inform your reader of what’s going on with what you decide in step 1. Let the worst case scenario become very evident.
  3. Ramp up the emotion. Keep one or more of your characters in the dark. “Emotion is an essential ingredient of suspense,” Hitchcock said. As you leave your characters out of the loop, think of how you’ll address the emotion of your readers. Play to their fears, wishes, etc: What about the scene would make them feel fear? (Do they sense their own mortality when the “invincible” hero is in jeopardy?) Also, ask yourself: What outcome would readers hope and wish for? (Are they hopeless romantics and want to see a happy ending? Will you give it to them or not?)

After considering these three elements, you can let the ticking clock play out however your imagination likes. It doesn’t have to be an adventurous plot with danger, it can be as “everyday” as racing to the airport to say goodbye to someone before they board a flight.

The fun part about this is like Hitchcock said, the outcome doesn’t have to be the highlight here, the journey to the outcome and the experience of suspense is the real ride.

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