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Suspense ( English for "tension"; the or the suspense) is a term from theater , film and literary studies . It is derived from the Latin suspendere ("to hang up") and means something like "to float in uncertainty" with regard to a feared or hoped for event. Among other types of dramatic tension, suspense has received the most attention because it is the generation of tension “with the least” means and because suspense is considered the most intense means of tension generation.

Hitchcock and Highsmith

Alfred Hitchcock was often referred to as the "Master of Suspense". He distinguished suspense from surprise : while surprise characterizes an unexpected event, the term suspense means the expectation of an event without its occurrence. Hitchcock himself gave his interviewee François Truffaut in Mr. Hitchcock, how did you do that? The following example: If a hidden bomb suddenly explodes under a table where several people are eating breakfast, it is a shock and entertains for 20 seconds; but if the viewer sees the fuse burning for a long time and the characters have no idea, this is suspense and captivates for five or ten minutes. Use of cinematic means and costs remain the same, with a better effect. With suspense in the sense of Hitchcock, a distinction must be made between the knowledge of characters and the knowledge of the reader or viewer.

In Hitchcock's Psycho (1960) is the voltage of the famous shower scene in which a murder is committed, the type Surprise : The excitement of the audience arises abruptly. The tension that ensues , however, is of the suspense type because, according to Hitchcock's testimony, the murder has made the extent of the threat clear and therefore no hectic actions are necessary to maintain the tension.

In her workshop report Suspense or How to write a thriller, Patricia Highsmith avoids defining the term suspense in terms of content, and rather speaks of a literary genre of mainly American origin, one with certain audience expectations, a certain attitude of the critics and a rather low prestige in the literary scene. Equating tension types with certain genres is a questionable endeavor, however: Suspense can not only appear in thrillers and detective novels, but also in adventure novels, among other things.

Surprise - suspense - mystery

As a generic term for dramatic tension is usually the term Tension used. As a subdivision, the scientific literature has agreed on the three terms surprise , suspense and mystery . In practice, these three types of voltage are always linked.

  • Surprise describes an acute threat situation that usually only lasts for a short time (and can only be stretched over time to a limited extent). The context of the narrative is usually irrelevant for this form of tension. For example, if the film hero is attacked directly by a murderer, this process is exciting in practically every situation. Surprise is an essential moment for creating tension.
  • Suspense describes a broader arc of tension and can hardly be conveyed without the semantic connections. In the example above, the killer could escape after a failed attack. This would create the risk of another attack, and the tension remains without the further action itself having to contain threatening elements. In contrast to the element of surprise, suspense is based on the concept of predictability.
  • Mystery stands for a more cognitive tension that is related to the puzzling of the reader or viewer about the further course. The most famous variant is the Whodunit , the question of a perpetrator that only resolves at the end. This kind of tension arises from withholding information. She is considered secondary by both Hitchcock and Highsmith.

There is also the puzzle type of tension . The tension arises from the fact that the reader or viewer cannot put various aspects of a text into a meaningful context. For example, in the film Babel , the reader is confronted with one strand in Morocco, one strand in Japan, and one strand in the United States. He is curious to see how these will be brought together.

Psychological suspense research

Psychologists have been dealing intensively with suspense since the 1990s. In a definition of suspense as an emotion , the American media psychologist Dolf Zillmann describes suspense as an “emotional reaction that typically arises from acute concern about popular protagonists who are threatened by immediately expected events, this concern arising from a high but incomplete subjective certainty about the occurrence of the expected unfortunate event ".

Expecting adverse events

Conflict - the clash of opposing forces - has been the core element of dramatic representations since the overcoming of Aristotelian drama in the 18th century. The emotional experience associated with premonitions about the resolution of such conflicts constitutes suspense. When a text or film is received, suspense arises from the fear that something undesirable will occur or from the hope that a desired circumstance will occur. In order for the recipient to expect an event, an exciting text or film must convey previous knowledge. In addition, the recipient must be able to form preferences with regard to the initial alternatives on the basis of the text. Whether an event is desirable or undesirable depends on what the text suggests in relation to it. Empirical studies show that fears as well as hopes depend equally on the magnitude of a danger as well as on the emotional attitude of the reader towards the actors. The size of a danger or an incentive describes what is at stake for the characters. It can range from failure to achieve a goal to physical harm and death. Hopes and fears about the same event are different for popular and unpopular protagonists.

The relationship with the protagonist

Media recipients experience suspense while witnessing dramatic events that affect other people. They are not directly threatened, nor do they have any way of influencing the course of events. The helpless excitement into which the recipient gets anyway corresponds to distress . The transfer of excitement from the literary / filmic figure to the recipient works via a detour: only the protagonist is in danger. But the participating observer recognizes what is at stake for him. With the result that he empathizes with those who are directly affected. The prerequisite for an observer to become a participating, compassionate observer is empathy . Accordingly, in order to create tension, a text must turn the reader into a participating observer.

There are different approaches to how the relationship between the recipient and the figure is built up. Some say that this is about similarities between recipient and figure, for example, affecting age, lifestyle, gender, etc. Others assume that the positive relationship is established through a morally exemplary hero.

Between uncertainty and subjective certainty

Suspense results from open questions about the progress of a story. Empirical studies show that it is not uncertainty that intensifies the suspense experience, but rather the subjective certainty that the popular protagonist will be harmed. On the other hand, total subjective certainty about the outcome of the story prevents any suspense. Certainty about a future harmful event prepares a recipient cognitively so that he is protected from excessive emphatic distress when confronted with this event. The certainty that nothing will happen to the protagonist prevents tension, since there is no reason for any kind of empathy. Theoretically, the greatest tension arises when the subjectively estimated probability of a positive outcome is very small but greater than zero.

Expected chances of success

Recipients estimate the likelihood of success by relating the level of danger to the defensive powers of the protagonists - that is, to their ability to cope with a challenge. For example, the likelihood that people will be harmed in the course of a tsunami, the lower the earlier they are informed of the impending danger, the more favorable their location, the better equipped and the stronger they are. Recipients feel more tension to the extent that the possible solutions in an action are reduced - for example when a hero runs out of ammunition. Since the probability of success depends on the ratio of danger or incentive and the defensive strength of the protagonist, the suspense can be increased both by increasing the danger and by reducing the defensive strength of the protagonist. Based on the musicology, this technique is called crescendo . Correspondingly, only those text constellations have suspense potential in which the confrontation of sympathetic protagonists with threatening or tempting events is announced, which these characters do not seem to be able to cope with.


Based on these findings, an exciting text or film must show that a protagonist gets into a conflict. He must disclose the danger (or the incentive) to which the protagonist is exposed and clarify the consequences of the maximum possible negative outcome.

As soon as a text or film has established a negative outcome, the negative consequence can serve as a connection point for characters' attempts to avert danger. Several characters can cooperate. You can also try to avoid the danger independently. Individual attempts can split up into partial attempts, which can then fail or be successful.

Structural features


Suspense breaks down into expectation and doubt . The expectation is linked to the idea of ​​something that will occur in the future. Since every imagined future cannot come about either, its expectation is always connected with the idea of ​​non-fulfillment or - more positively - the occurrence of something else , the realization of which would prevent the realization of the originally expected. In a state of suspense or tension, the viewer's imagination jumps back and forth between such opposing visions of the future, one feared and one hoped for ("He can do it!" - "He can't!" - "He can do it!" Etc.). With suspense there are always exactly two options. The negative outcome occurs or it does not occur.


Depending on the content of the expectation, it is a question of decision-making or explanatory tension . In the first case, one is curious about the outcome of the external or internal battle between hero and counterplay, in the second, the explanation of a puzzling circumstance (usually a murder in a detective novel ). The tension between decisions and explanations causes different forms of surprise .

Either calculating or conjuring actions can lead to the goal of expectation . The calculation is in the foreground in the case of an undisturbed theft, for example, the incantation in a courtship. In (unmanipulated) gambling , neither the calculation nor the incantation help, so it has a special dramaturgical meaning.


The strength of the feeling of tension depends on the importance of the future events presented for the protagonist , but even more so for the viewer (how deeply his personal interests are affected) and on the significance of the difference between what is hoped for and what is feared.


  • Tension - future event immersed in imagination on
  • Surprise - non-fulfillment or the occurrence of something else seems possible
  • Entanglement - prerequisites for fulfillment take place one after the other, interrupted by new doubtful events
  • Solution - according to the laws of experience, fulfillment must occur when the ring of necessities closes.

historical development

Suspense as a publicly tolerated and funded media phenomenon has only existed since sport or stage melodrama since the later 18th century. The public kindling of strong emotions requires a fairly high level of civilization in order not to get out of hand. In addition, the Christian-medieval ethics , which had developed in opposition to the Roman chariot races and gladiator fights ( Tertullian ), opposed any kind of suspense.

The sociologist Norbert Elias has examined the emergence of a socially positively assessed tension since the late Middle Ages and connects the emergence of sport with it. He suggests the term mimesis as a prerequisite for this : A sporting fight is not a serious one, but a playful, as it were imitated fight, and the associated tension is therefore something pleasant.

See also


  • Philip Hausenblas: tension and text comprehension. The cognitive-linguistic perspective on a text-semantic phenomenon. Narr, Tübingen 2018
  • Patricia Highsmith : Suspense or How to Write a Thriller. Diogenes , Zurich 1985, ISBN 3-257-01685-9 .
  • Henning Eichberg: Power, tension, speed. Sport and dance in the social change of the 18th and 19th centuries Century (= Stuttgart contributions to history and politics . Volume 12). Klett, Stuttgart 1978, ISBN 3-12-910190-X . (Habilitation University of Stuttgart, Department of History, Social and Economic Sciences, 1975)
  • Peter Vorderer , Hans J. Wulff, Mike Friedrichsen (Eds.): Suspense: Conceptualizations, Theoretical Analyzes, and Empirical Explorations. Lawrence Erlbaum, Hillsdale, NJ 1996.
  • Eric Dunning, Norbert Elias: Sport and tension in the process of civilization. Suhrkamp, ​​Frankfurt am Main 2003.
  • Ralf Junkerjürgen: Tension - Narrative methods of reader activation. A study using the example of Jules Verne's travel novels . Peter Lang, Frankfurt am Main 2002.
  • Anne-Katrin Schulze: Tension in film and television. The experience in the course. Logos, Berlin 2006.
  • Iris Schneider: Attention-grabbing features in feature films. A content analysis of the course of formal, dramaturgical and content-related elements. (= Media research. 15). Roderer, Regensburg 2007.
  • Christina Stiegler: The bomb under the table, suspense with Alfred Hitchcock - or: how much does the audience really know? UVK, Konstanz 2011, ISBN 978-3-86764-328-3 . (Dissertation University of Erlangen, Nuremberg, 2011)
  • Adrian Weibel: Tension at Hitchcock. How the authoritative suspense works. Königshausen & Neumann, Würzburg 2008, ISBN 978-3-8260-3681-1 .
  • Adrian Weibel: Suspense in animated films. Basics of quantitative stress analysis. Study example Ice Age 3, Volume I-IV, Norderstedt 2016, ISBN 978-3-7412-0109-7 (Volume I).

Web links

Individual evidence

  1. ^ François Truffaut: Hitchcock. Paladin-Granada, London 1978, p. 79.
  2. ^ Philip Hausenblas: Puzzle tension with John le Carré & Stieg Larsson. In: December 24, 2017, accessed November 4, 2019 .
  3. ^ Dolf Zillmann: The Psychology of Suspense in Dramatic Exposition. In: Peter Vorderer, Hans J. Wulff, Mike Friedrichsen (Eds.): Suspense Conceptualization, Theoretical Analyzes, and Empirical Explorations . Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Mahwah, NJ 1996, p. 208.
  4. ^ Noël Carrol: Toward a Theory of Film Suspense. In: Persistence of Vision. Summer 1984, p. 71 f.
  5. ^ Paul W. Comisky, Jennings Bryant: Factors involved in generating suspense. In: Human Communication Research. Volume 9, Issue 1, 1982, pp. 49-58.
  6. ^ Dolf Zillmann: The Psychology of Suspense in Dramatic Exposition. In: Peter Vorderer, Hans J. Wulff, Mike Friedrichsen (Eds.): Suspense Conceptualization, Theoretical Analyzes, and Empirical Explorations . Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Mahwah, NJ 1996, p. 202.
  7. ^ Paul W. Comisky, Jennings Bryant: Factors involved in generating suspense. In: Human Communication Research. Volume 9, Issue 1, 1982, pp. 49-58.
  8. Ralf Junkerjürgen: Tension - Narrative Procedures of Reader Activation. 2001, p. 249.
  9. "Suspense is produced when the reader believes that the quantity or quality of paths through the hero's problem space has become diminished." See Bernardo Gerrig: Readers as Problem-Solvers in the Experience of Suspense. In: Poetics. 22, 1994, p. 460.
  10. Philip Hausenblas: Tension and Text Understanding The cognitive-linguistic perspective on a text-semantic phenomenon . 1st edition. Narr, Tübingen 2018, ISBN 3-8233-8155-5 , p. 147-165 .