Suspense vs. Surprise: A Hitchcockian Look at the Clip “When Adele Was Jenny”

It’s a very familiar explanation and always worth repeating. Here’s Alfred Hitchcock:

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 a very innocent little chat. Let’s suppose that there is a bomb underneath this table between us. Nothing happens, and then all of a sudden, “Boom!” There is an explosion. 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 bomb is underneath the table and the public knows it, probably because they have seen the anarchist place it there. The public is aware the bomb is going to explode at one o’clock and there is a clock in the decor. The public can see that it is a 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 is a bomb beneath you and it is about to explode!”

In the first case we have given the public fifteen seconds of surprise at the moment of the explosion. In the second 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.

Here he is adding another component:

Did you catch that? You need to give the audience information so that their experience is an emotional one. If you withhold the information, you will produce only the emotion of curiosity – which is a fine and upstanding emotion, I guess, but probably not even in the top ten of emotions we hope to gain as an audience. Our time is precious! Let’s get to love and hate and anger and joy and passion and all the other HEAVYWEIGHT CHAMPION OF THE WOOOOOORRRLLLDDD emotions first… Curiosity? That’s on the undercard

So file that away, you creative types: Even if you think the heart of your story is a Big Reveal, that doesn’t mean you have to keep that from your audience. Don’t be afraid to provide some information up front.

Now all this is really just a way of introducing this video, which is outstanding. Adele puts on a disguise so she can join a contest…. to impersonate Adele! She can’t look like herself, because that would be too easy. She has to look kind of like herself (like the other contestants who have dressed up to look like Adele) so that her voice alone will carry the day.

Big reveal, right? We know what’s coming: there will be a moment when she starts singing like Adele. And you could imagine the producers of the show thinking that the audience should wait for that moment. Isn’t that how Big Reveals work? They reveal things in a big way? Shouldn’t the clip show us nine imitation singers and then roll out the tenth one, who is actually Adele, and shock and surprise us all?

You could do it that way, but what would that do? That would give us five minutes of not knowing what’s going on, watching singer after singer sound kind of like Adele, and five seconds of surprise, when one is really good – and we, like all the people in the theater, would be amazed and then a little delighted to find out that it was Adele. The first five minutes would probably be a little boring. The last five seconds – where we hear Adele’s voice from someone we didn’t think was Adele – would be a little burst of energy, but then what? Adele with a fake nose singing is not going to be that different from Adele singing. Why wait through five minutes to get to that?

Instead, the clip gives us the news straight away. Adele walks in. The host of the show, who is in on the prank, admires her disguise. We know the Big Reveal: at some point, she’s going to sing, and it’s going to be clear to all the other impersonators.

That’s the genius of this clip: we care more about the reaction of the impersonators than we do about our own. We become invested in their reaction. Why? Because come on, just think about it! You’re just sitting there, watching a computer. You could watch Adele all day if you want (and you probably did when the Hello video came out, if you’re anything like me). Or you could not do that. Either way, your life goes on. Adele with a funny nose? Ho hum.

But what if you loved Adele so much you dressed up like her, went on stage to sing like her, did your best to win a contest for doing so? And then… you heard the real deal? Coming from someone you were just standing with, talking to, considering just another one of your competition.

That’s our experience watching this video. How will these fellow contestants treat her? Will any of them figure it out? Will they say things about her they’ll later regret?

And what will they do when they hear her? Feel cheated that they enter a rigged contest? Claim that she’s not very good? Storm the stage?

Watch this clip and find out. As you do, think about the emotional experience of watching – and how it’s all been enabled by the information you had right up front, at the beginning. It’s a Big Reveal, but not the Big Reveal you were expecting. Not the obvious one, anyway. Well done, BBC. Well done.

Then maybe go back and read our take on Buster Keaton and the Art of Showing (Not Telling).

And then have a great day, full of onwarding and upwarding!

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2 thoughts on “Suspense vs. Surprise: A Hitchcockian Look at the Clip “When Adele Was Jenny”

  1. Quite intriguing and thought-provoking. The first thing that popped into my head reading and listening to Alfred was my mother, someone who quite analytical and uncomfortable with emotions. What’s her favorite type of book to read for entertainment: Who done it novels.

    The problem I thought about long ago is with the whole conspiracy theory genre. Everything leads up to the revealing of who is behind the conspiracy, which is basically always a let down. 15 seconds.

    In the beginning the X-Files thrived on suspense. As soon as it became a mystery, it started fell flat. What do you do once you know who is behind the conspiracy and why.

    I think this also true of some kinds of poetry, much of which I tend to have a proclivity towards. I try not to hide the main conflict at the beginning, letting the reader attach emotionally if I am successful to the character(s), and at the end providing some kind of resolution (usually an open ended one).

    It is the conclusion, whether poetry or film or novel, that changes the whole film. People want things tied up in a nice clean bow. Good wins. Bad loses. Love conquers all. When provided ambiguity in these matters, the suspense feels, no matter how strong the feeling (emotional connection) towards the character(s) because of the suspense, it vaporizes as soon as the closure is denied.

    {steps off soap box}

    Like

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