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  • Suspense
  • Donald Beecher

Suspense is one of those workaday terms so integrated into the discussion of literature that definition would hardly seem necessary. It does receive pro forma entries in most literary handbooks, but never provokes more than a statement of the self-evident: that it is a "state of uncertainty, anticipation and curiosity as to the outcome of a story or play, or any kind of narrative in verse or prose,"1 that such anticipations arise "particularly as they affect a character for whom one has sympathy," and that plot types vary in ways that affect the ethos of suspense: those situations in which the outcome is uncertain and readers are concerned with how they will be resolved, and those in which the outcome is inevitable and readers, in their fear, concentrate merely on knowing when the catastrophe will be complete.2 Indicatively, Roger Fowler's A Dictionary of Modern Critical Terms gives it a pass altogether.3 But even these generic representations of the concept must venture such quizzical terms as "state" and "sympathy," both of which are seen to inhere not in texts and narratives, but in spectators and readers. Suspense, then, must have two sides: that which is invested in the design of the story as an emotion prompt; and that which is a feature of mind.

This critical divide can be stated in many ways. One could say that evaluating the emotionality embedded in a text is an act of literary criticism, while the study of the emotionality aroused by literature belongs to cognitive psychology. These are, of course, two sides to the proverbial coin worthy of critical alignment—namely that which authors know about organizing narratives to produce suspense, and that which readers "know" through the constitution of their brains about responding to situations of alarm or disorientation involving themselves or others, and the compelling limbic reinforcement that impels them toward ends [End Page 255] that will release them from incertitude or danger. The critical challenge at this juncture is to decide whether a study of suspense should begin in narratology or psychology, for without the récit of events in time there are no prompts, even though suspense as experience does not reside in texts but in psyches.

Wolfgang Iser calls for a balanced approach to literary study in general that "lays full stress on the idea that, in considering a literary work, one must take into account not only the actual text, but also, in equal measure, the actions involved in responding to that text."4 But that does not help in determining whether suspense should be defined according to a minimum prescription of narrative procedures and characteristics, or as a literary subset of a human, genetically-conditioned response mechanism selectively engineered to meet a range of stressors in the environment.

The first question in the creation of a rapprochement between these domains must deal with the very capacity for mind states to be emotionally moved by literary configurations, insofar as literary suspense borrows from the vocabulary of limbic arousal responses. The second question pertains to what readers are brought to feel more particularly for make-believe persons in make-believe situations of danger. Are these also make-believe emotions, for then it must be determined what an exclusively literary emotion might be. Subsequent questions must deal with the range of suspense arousing situations, whether they involve only protagonists, their desires and prospects, or whether suspense applies to any motivated pursuit of information deemed vital to mental satisfaction. These distinctions and their relationship will prove critical.

Almost universally, in the limited number of critical studies that exist, literary suspense entails liked characters under duress whose futures are perilous and uncertain—futures about which readers hold strong preferences. This perspective stands in opposition to potentially broader definitions that include curiosity, problem-solving sequences, cognitive jags, or pattern completion. One obstacle is that problem-solving activities appear to exceed the capacities of minds already absorbed in the events of fictive worlds, arriving merely as distractions from the conditions of high, dramatic suspense. They can be said to fall outside the fictive representation altogether, particularly as they pertain to the patterns of fiction, or a...


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pp. 255-279
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