Oct
13
2014

An Explosion is a Surprise, a Ticking Bomb is Suspense

When I first started writing, I thought that building tension was simply a matter of endangering my characters. Since then, I have found that sentiment to be only part of the truth. Though the issue of what exactly builds reader tension is complicated by personal taste and expectations across genres, I have noticed that there are a few factors that seem universal.

As Alfred Hitchcock expressed it, tension is not surprise, but rather suspense. One quote that is attributed to the famous filmmaker clearly demonstrates this difference. "There's two people having breakfast and there's a bomb under the table. If it explodes, that's a surprise. But if it doesn't..." It is the uncertainty of the outcome and the anticipation of the consequences that bolsters a reader’s sense of tension. Actions, on the other hand, will often relieve suspense rather than build it.

Hitchcock’s aphorism, likely the genesis of the Bomb Under the Table trope, presents an interesting thought experiment. Imagine reading a newspaper article about a pair of diners whose table exploded during breakfast. Tragic, but not likely a tense experience. Imagine instead that the reader knew the victims personally, as they were all three regulars for breakfast at that restaurant. The effect would be much more powerful. It follows then that a reader will only feel a sense of tension when they have some personal investment in the outcome of the story.

Taking the thought experiment a step further, why did Hitchcock choose a bomb? Why not a gun or a rabid dog for example? Though dangerous, a gun isn’t likely to go off on its own and kill them both. In addition, a reasonably aware adult would notice and recognize the threat posed by a rabid dog, and would avoid the danger. The bomb is more effective at building reader tension because it is a clear and present danger that the characters must face, but of which they are unaware. The contrast of reader knowledge and character knowledge drives the sense of suspense.

Ultimately, the Bomb Under the Table trope isn’t limited to the situation Hitchcock used in his example. I once read a story from the perspective of a terrorist as he approached a crowded auditorium with a suicide bomb strapped to his chest. He was aware that he was about to die, but the author took the time to show happy, innocent families during the walk up to the dais. As s first scene in the story, it was very effective at hooking my attention and building instant investment. The Bomb Under the Table trope represents the technique of building tension or suspense in the reader by threatening sympathetic characters in a way that is obvious to the reader, but unknown to the individuals in the scene.

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