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!

On Protecting the Creative Process

Brilliant Reader (and hard-at-work novelist) CH considers our offer to share her first line and responds:

Although I’ve decided not to share my opening sentence here, I’m grateful for your post, Jacke. 18 K-plus words later, I honestly couldn’t remember what my first sentence was. Today was one of those days when I wondered if anything I had written thus far was worthwhile. Thanks to your post, I discovered that at least my first sentence and the paragraph that followed were worth keeping. The rest will have to wait until I’m finished writing and ready to edit from the beginning. Thank you for making me curious enough to look back today, at least for a moment 🙂

Great to hear! Someday I hope to be mentioned in the novel’s acknowledgments, even if it’s just as “…and many others who offered their support along the way.”

Our contest is still open. And let me tell you, I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of the ones where the novelist calls our special number and reads their first line aloud, or clicks on our webpage that lets you just read it aloud to your computer. (Or the ones where people just read their favorite first lines from their favorite novels ever, which is a separate contest, also still open, and also with a free book giveaway at the end of it.)

Onward and upward, everyone!

Calling All NaNoWriMoers! Tell Us Your First Line and Win a Free Book!

Don’t cross the streams! Don’t cross the streams!

Well, guess what?


I’m crossing the streams!

What are these streams? First: the fabulous contest we’re running on the best opening sentences ever. You can still enter that one if you want.

And second: our full-throated support for National Novel Writing Month, aka NaNoWriMo. We renewed our support on Sunday.

Why do we care so much?

Take a look at the post Is Literature Dying? for a hint. Literature matters to me, or it did at one time. Now, I’m not so sure. Part of me thinks it’s on life support. We’re replacing it with other forms of communication, other forms of expression, other forms of art. Literature as we knew it 20 years ago is headed for the dumpster. A nice dumpster, maybe. The most museumlike dumpster you can imagine. But still: a dumpster.

So if we’re checking the vital signs of our patient Literature, and if we’re gearing ourselves up for the really hard questions of whether it can and will and should survive, what signs can we look for? Readership, certainly. Assessing great contemporary authors, maybe.

And… we can look at writers. Authors. Novelists. Successful ones and yet-to-be-successful ones. Like those writing a novel for this year’s National Novel Writing Month.

Maybe you’re among them! I hope you are!

So now that you’re in the middle of your slog, wrestling with your own words in the loneliest endeavor imaginable, take a few seconds to celebrate your achievement. Give yourselves some inspiration. Let us be your jolt of energy, your strong positive feedback, your tiny triumph on the way to (hopefully) a successful month of writing.

Send us your first sentence.

That’s it. That’s all. Just the first line or two. Give us some news from the front.

Leave it in the comments or, even better, read it to me out loud. I’ll choose my favorite entries, give you a little free publicity here on the Jacke blog, and send you a free book, no strings attached. A book of your choice. Hopefully a great novel that will help to fuel your own creative energies and spur you to greater novelistic heights.

How does that work? Simple. Either call my special dedicated voicemail line, 1-361-4WILSON (1-361-494-5766), and leave a message. That’s it, it’s just a call. Just tell me the name of your book, maybe your own first name if you want, and read away. No strings attached. If I like your first line I may run it on my podcast. And if I like it the best, I’ll send you a free book via Amazon or some other way.

If phone calls aren’t your thing, just jump over to my Speakpipe page, click the link, and read away. (Make sure your computer’s microphone is on.) I’ll get the message and again – we’ll celebrate your effort, maybe share it with others on the podcast, discuss its energy and where we think the book is heading, give you some fellow-writer love, and maybe send you a free book! Here’s the Speakpipe link:

Leave Jacke A Message

It’s easy, people. It’s not rigged like the McDonald’s Monopoly game lottery. (Well, that’s not rigged either. I just sort of rigged myself on that one.)

Don’t rig yourself! Write your heart out, and when you come up for air, share your progress with me and my readers/listeners. Then go back to writing and prove all those naysayers wrong.

Writing a novel is a good thing, people. DO write that novel. (And share the first line with us!)

Onward and upward!

Good Luck NaNoWriMoers!

It’s National Novel Writing Month! And once again, I’m astounded by people who hate this project. (Has Laura Miller written her annual screed yet? I can’t wait.) Here’s a post from a while back:

NaNoWriMo: A Full-Throated Defense

What better way to tune up than to pull your favorite book off the shelf, study the first line or two, and enter our contest?

Onward and upward, everyone! Good luck with the writing!

Greatest First Lines Ever – Contest Update!

Wow, the contest to win a free book by telling me your favorite first line is going really well. Thanks to everyone for your comments, emails, voicemails, and speakpipe recordings. The entries are fabulous, especially the ones I get to hear read in your own voice. And at the end I get to give away books – another great pleasure. Keep ’em coming, folks! You’re really making my week fun.

Check out the previous post for more rules and guidelines. But the nutshell version is this: there are very few rules. Just give my special Jacke Wilson hotline a call (it’s a regular call, don’t worry) at

1-361-4WILSON (1-361-494-5766)

Or just leave your entry in the comments.

You can also email me at or follow the speakpipe instructions here to just click a button and talk at your computer for a few seconds. No strings attached!

I may pick your entry to read on a future podcast dedicated to great first lines. And of all the entries, I will pick one to win a free book of your choice. Or maybe more than one, because how can I ever choose?

Good luck!

And now… put on some headphones… sit back… and let this one wash over you…. onward and upward, people. Onward and upward…

A Contest! Tell Me Your Favorite First Line and Win a Free Book

Here we go! We’ve spent enough time agonizing over whether Literature Is Dying. Let’s put that on hold for now. Instead, let’s celebrate the greatest geniuses and most powerful books we can imagine. And let’s do that by focusing on the Greatest First Lines of all time.

What’s the criteria for a great first line? It’s up to you! It could be the line that inspired you in some way, the one you admire, the one that intrigued you, the one that pulled you into a narrative, or simply the one that kicked off what turned out to be your favorite book of all time.

Those are the rules for you: there are no real rules. Just your favorite first line. (Yes, it can be more than one sentence if that’s the best way to make your case..)

And here are the rules for me: I will select one lucky winner (or maybe a few) to receive a free book from me, Jacke Wilson. And no, it’s not one of my books (available now!), but a book of your choice.

How do you enter? You have four options.

Option #1: You can send me an email at Pretty easy! I will keep all your personal information private, of course.

Option #2: You can leave a comment below. Just type in your favorite first line(s). Simple!

Option #3 (preferred). Call the Jacke Wilson hotline and leave a message with the answering service. Why is this preferred? Why will these entries have a slight advantage over the others?  Because I will actually get to hear your voice reading your favorite line. How cool is that!

Look, I’m a sentimental sort of person. I try not to be, but I am. And I think there’s something beautiful about a person’s voice when he or she is saying something out of unselfish enthusiasm. Sharing a favorite first line for no other reason than because it was your favorite – well, that counts. Please do call – I will appreciate it!

I might also use the clip on my podcast as I discuss the contest and its results. But don’t worry, I don’t see your number or name or anything like that. I just get to listen to the message. This is to help us all celebrate literature and to possibly win a free book. No strings, I promise.

The number to call is


Just call me up, tell me the book and author (if you want), your first name (if you want), and the first lines (if you want – but really, why would you be calling if you didn’t want to do at least that? Well, maybe you have some other idea. But it’s your phone call, so do whatever you want!)

For option #4 (also preferred), there is no phone required. All you do is visit the page below – there are no gimmicks or signups, I promise. All you do is click a button and record a message. (You do need to have a microphone, but the built-in one in your computer or phone or tablet should work fine.)

Leave Jacke A Message

You get 90 seconds to identify the book and/or yourself (if you want etc.) and read your favorite first line. I’ve tried this out and it works great. Again, this is a preferred method because I get to hear your voice. It’s a beautiful thing to be able to do, so rich and expressive. I can’t wait to listen.

I’m not going to contact you in any way unless you’re the winner. I’ll be sending you the free book of your choice via Amazon. If you prefer not to use Amazon, we’ll work something else out.

Okay, there you go. Four good options. Let’s hear some favorites!

Onward and upward!

Contest Winners! The Brilliant Readers Who Guessed the Cover Themes

So here was the contest: guess the cover art themes to my book The Race and win a free copy of the book.

As a reminder, here’s the cover:

Race_12_28_final (1)

I also gave a brief description that had a few clues. I was looking for two things, or maybe three.

The book is about American politics, which the blue background and white stars reflect (as if we’ve zoomed in on a corner of the American flag).

It’s also about twilight, as a politician’s career heads toward darkness. The black and yellow at the bottom reminds me of a Wisconsin highway at night, your headlights lighting up the road as you head toward the horizon with an open starry sky ahead of you. (A good image for the loneliness of the campaign trail, at least for this particular candidate and his erstwhile biographer.)

And finally, there’s the small star that’s hanging on. Falling? Rising? Just hanging on.

“There’s some dignity in that little star!” I cried to my designer when I saw it. “It’s hanging on in spite of all the odds. No one knows why!”

My main character is elliptical in that way. Why hang on? Well, maybe he’s not capable of anything else…

I know, I know: I get a little carried away. You have to remember that I love like these, from a great Kafka series:


Aren’t those great? The eye motif, so perfect for Kafka. And the art is bold and full of expression, and the meaning has some playfulness and thought to it.

Kafka is a hero of mine, and while not at all trying to compare myself to such a genius, I thought some of the absurdities of The Race had some affinities with Kafka (also Svevo and Poe). If the spirit of the art above could work for the covers of Kafka, I thought it would work for mine too. Hence, the lowly little star, struggling to maintain its place in the heavens.

Okay! Did anyone guess? Indeed they did! Readers nailed this.  Continue reading

Update: Giveaway Over!

Five lucky winners will get their copies shipped today. Congratulations!