Mark Mayerson

Writer, Cartoonist, Sculptor

The Elements of a Scene:
Suspense and Surprise
(July 12, 2011)

This is the seventh and last in a series analyzing a scene from The Grapes of Wrath. This entry is about suspense and surprise.

When people think of suspense in movies, they tend to think of film makers like Alfred Hitchcock or big set pieces where you're on the edge of your seat wondering what will happen. All sporting events are built around suspense. Who will win? Will there be any memorable plays or blunders? Game shows and competitions are the same. Who will be voted off the island or eliminated? While the above are certainly good examples of suspense, suspense is actually at the root of any kind of storytelling. Suspense is anything that makes you wonder what will happen next.

If you've ever watched a story and guessed early on how it comes out, it's boring to sit through. Why bother to watch if you know what's going to happen? Audiences want to know what will happen, but not too soon. The audience is counting on the storyteller to keep it in suspense until the story's resolution.

Hollywood conventions usually mean that the audience knows in advance how the film will end, but doesn't know how the story will get there. Does anyone think that the bad guys will actually win in a Hollywood film? Who expects James Bond, Batman, Luke Skywalker or Harry Potter to fail at the end of a story? Who expects that the lovers won't get together or that the characters' problems will get worse? Unless the film is billed as a tragedy or based on a historical event known to the audience, these things don't happen.

How the good guys win, the lovers unite, and the problems are solved are up in the air and that's why the audience watches. Without being curious about what happens next, there's no reason to stick around.

The above scene is a small example of how suspense operates even in a scene that lacks overt drama. Pa Joad tries to buy bread. Will he get it or will the waitress kick him out? As the audience is invested in the survival of the Joad family, it cares about about what happens and waits to see if Pa will succeed. There is other suspense in that the truck drivers are totally silent during the encounter. What are they thinking? What will they do? The audience knows how Pa, the waitress and the cook feel about the situation, but what about those truckers?

Surprise is another quality that is attractive to audiences. Like suspense, surprises work against predictability. However, surprises have to be logical and fit into the world of the story. As David Mamet, playwright, screenwriter and director, says, "Make them wonder. Answer their question in a way both surprising and inevitable."

If a genii appeared in the above scene and made Pa Joad a rich man, it would be surprising, but not inevitable. It would violate the world of the story, where poverty and hunger are real and where there are no obvious solutions. A surprise has to be believable in the context of the story, or it alienates the audience instead of satisfying it.

In the scene above, it appears that the waitress is pressured into selling the bread by the cook. She bows to his wishes. The surprise comes when she sells the candy so cheaply. She's reached a point where she doesn't want to disappoint the children and while she's been penny conscious, refusing to sell a 15 cent loaf for 10 cents, resulting in a nickel loss, she now sells ten cents worth of candy for a penny, a 9 cent loss! She's gone further than we ever expected.

The other surprise is the truck drivers walking out without their change. As I said above, they are silent during the encounter and when one of the drivers calls the waitress on the price of the candy, he sounds gruff, not understanding. When they validate what she's done by leaving money to make up the shortfall, it's a surprise to both the waitress and the audience.

The elements I've talked about in this series are in every good scene and story. I don't claim they are all that's necessary, but they're a handy list: setting, personality, objective, motive, conflict, obstacles, resolution, business, arc, suspense and surprise. If any of them are missing, it's worth re-examining the story. The above scene is just three minutes long, the same length as many animated shorts. If screenwriter Nunnally Johnson can fit them into three minutes, animation creators have no excuse to leave them out.