How to Create Suspense Full Transcript
This is a transcript of the Freakonomics Radio podcast “How to Create Suspense.”
[MUSIC: Danielle French, “Harsh Reality” (from Drive)]
Harlan COBEN: Chapter One. “The stranger didn’t shatter Adam’s world all at once. That was what Adam Price would tell himself later, but that was a lie. Adam somehow knew right away, right from the very first sentence, that the life he had known as a content, suburban, married father of two was gone forever. It was a simple sentence on the face of it. But there was something in the tone, something knowing and even caring that let Adam know that nothing would ever be the same. “You didn’t have to stay with her,” the stranger said.”
COBEN: I’m all about suspense, trying to make you turn that next page. I want you to start The Stranger at 11:00 o’clock at night and think, “I’ll read 10 or 15 minutes.” And the next thing you know, it’s 4:00 in the morning. That’s the kind of book I try to write.
And it’s worked out pretty well for him.
COBEN: The Stranger is my 27th book. I’m told worldwide, I’m around 70 million books in print.
Stephen J. DUBNER: Presumably you know what you’re doing, so let me ask you this: any rules of thumb for optimal creation of suspense and surprise?
COBEN: I usually — and I used to say always, but in one or two books I haven’t — know the ending. I know that final twist and surprise. I compare it [to] if you’re travelling someplace. So I’m travelling from New Jersey to Los Angeles. I can go off-road, I always do in the books. I can go via the Suez Canal or I can stop in Tokyo, but I’ll always end up in L.A. Because I can see L.A. I know L.A.’s the ending, and thus I can move in a way that can surprise you because I know I can get back on that road. If you know where your last destination is, I can lead you astray in a lot of different ways and still, at least myself, keep my eye on the prize. I really do want to fool you in the end. I don’t really like to do it through manipulation, but I can do it in slightly in an interesting misdirection. Also, the other way is to play with what you’ve normally seen. Play with your normal perceptions. There’s a lot of times when you’re reading one of my books — I hope — when you’re going, “I know where he’s going with this.” I’ll play with knowing that you’re going to think that, and then smack you in the back of the head.
[MUSIC: Snapper, “When She Was Bad” (from The Snapper Blog)]
Coben has come to the conclusion that a corpse, while perfectly useful for creating suspense, is not necessarily as useful as a missing person.
COBEN: I often have missing people in my books and a missing component is really interesting. In the case of a missing person versus a murder: if a person’s dead, they’re dead. I’m just trying to solve the crime. But if a person is missing, you have hope. Hope can be the cruelest thing in the world. It can crush your heart like an eggshell, or it can make it soar. You raise the stakes by giving people hope and you raise the stakes by just leaving something out that maybe can complete you.
Tell me this, dear listener, have we raised your hopes? Are we going to crush your heart like an eggshell — or make it soar? And, what are we leaving out?
* * *
[MUSIC: Spencer Garn; “Solar Gazer” (from Psychedelizodica)]
We were talking with the novelist Harlan Coben about how he creates suspense on the page. And what, you may be asking yourself, can this possibly have to do with economics? Good question.
Jeff ELY: I’m Jeff Ely, professor of economics at Northwestern University.
Alexander FRANKEL: Alex Frankel, assistant professor of economics at the Booth School of Business at the University of Chicago.
DUBNER: Okay, cool. And Emir?
Emir KAMENICA: I’m Emir Kamenica. I’m professor of economics at the Booth School at the University of Chicago.
DUBNER: Gentlemen, I hold in my hands a 2015 issue of The Journal of Political Economy, or The JPE as economists call it. It’s one of the most highly regarded economics journals in the land. This particular issue features a paper by the three of you called “Suspense and Surprise.” To the layperson, to me, what’s a paper like that doing in a journal like this? I say that with all admiration, I hope you know.
ELY: And the admiration was noted.
ELY: We view the construction and the development of suspense and surprise and other aspects of entertainment as optimally economizing on a scarce resource, which is the ability to change someone’s beliefs.
KAMENICA: There’s lots of settings where someone that’s about to engage in an economic transaction cares about what the other person thinks. A salesperson wants you to think that they like your car. A lobbyist wants a politician to think that this policy that’s good for the industry is good for them. The whole idea of how you change people’s beliefs has lots of economic applications.
[MUSIC: The Widow’s Bane, “Wormwood Waltz in C Minor” (from The Widow’s Bane)]
Okay, so if you want to think about how to optimize suspense and surprise, the first thing you want to do is distinguish between the two, right? Here again is Harlan Coben.
COBEN: Suspense is keeping people engaged, gripped and turning the pages. Someone can put a gun against your head, and you still want to read. That’s suspense. Surprise is when you reach that ending, or when you reach certain points in a book and you almost gasp out loud because the book took you in a place you didn’t expect to go.
The three economists offer a bit more formal definition of suspense and surprise. They both revolve around our existing beliefs. Here’s Kamenica:
KAMENICA: If you have two outcomes, a belief is a number between zero and one that indicates the probability that describes your views at that moment how likely a particular outcome is.
Suspense has to do with our beliefs before an event happens; surprise, afterward.
KAMENICA: A moment has suspense if my belief in the next period is a very volatile thing. I don’t quite know what I’m going to think the next period.
So suspense is the anticipation that your beliefs will change. With a surprise, your beliefs have already changed — a lot, if it’s a big surprise. Alex Frankel gives the example of watching a baseball game.
FRANKEL: It’s full count, bases loaded, two outs, something is going to happen at the next pitch that’s going to change your beliefs about how the game will proceed going forward. That’s the moment when you’re really on the edge of your seat. You’re excited. Suspense in a more formal way looks at a measure of how much are your beliefs at the next period, your beliefs in one moment likely to be different from your beliefs today. That captures how much information is about to be revealed. On the other side, surprise is trying to capture the excitement you get after something big happens. Your beliefs just changed whether or not you expected them to change. There’s a home run. Your team is now more likely to win. You’re excited. You’re celebrating.
DUBNER: I don’t know exactly how to ask this question. I don’t think I want to say, “Which sports are the best necessarily for suspense and surprise?” Although, that is what I want to know.
KAMENICA: If you compare soccer to lots of sports which are popular in the United States, one thing you find is that soccer scores very low based on the data we collected in terms of the amount of surprises that it generates. But it does score very high on suspense. Even that observation alone might change the conversation from which sport is boring. ‘Boring’ suggests a certain uni-dimensional measure of excitement. Partly what we’re doing is we’re emphasizing a two-dimensional measure of excitement.Maybe by boring you mean, “Quite often nothing surprising happens.” Yes that’s true. But there’s very few times in soccer where you really can safely get up and leave for five minutes and come back knowing you didn’t really miss anything dramatic, which you can quite often do in basketball and baseball, simply because nothing dramatic could possibly happen over the next five minutes.
DUBNER: Knowing what you’ve learned from analyzing surprise and suspense in sport, if the three of you could come up with a brand new sport that would be extraordinarily fulfilling for the maximum number of people, what would that sport be?
FRANKEL: Going back to the idea that excitement is two-dimensional, we don’t necessarily want to give one answer. But we can talk about how we would maximize suspense, how we would maximize surprise, separately. Let’s do that: as we said, soccer is very suspenseful. At any moment something very big could happen. The sport we would propose to be even more suspenseful than soccer has even fewer goals, but goals are bigger. How do we get that? In soccer, any goal you score can only get you from being behind to being tied, or being tied to being ahead. It can’t move beliefs by all that much. If someone is two goals ahead, the next score doesn’t change your beliefs much at all. Here’s the game we propose: The last team to score wins. Now, at any moment, you blink, you could miss the game-winning goal. Of course, the rules have to be changed a lot to accommodate this. When you’re ahead, you only play defense, you’re no longer trying to score, and so forth. But that would be a very suspenseful game.
DUBNER: Can I offer a slight modification of that, which is maybe more realistic? Everyone’s been out playing and it’s getting dark, and you’re like, “Okay, last score wins.” And everybody’s like, “That’s not fair.” But you do it anyway, and it’s fun. What about this: this is how we play FIFA in my house sometimes, an end-to-end goal in soccer. Now, this wouldn’t happen in real soccer, but in FIFA you could modify it. If I dribble in real soccer from mid-field in and score, that’s two goals’ worth. Does that accomplish some of what you’re going for?
FRANKEL: It could get some way there. There’s going to be a trade-off again. Any time you allow for these big scoring opportunities, it means that what happens earlier in the game is going to be less impactful on your beliefs. When I score the first goal, you no longer think that it’s as safe a lead as it was.
KAMENICA: The two things to add to what Alex said are for his specific proposal, what we’d want to do also is have goals shrink over time, so that scoring becomes less likely.
DUBNER: You mean the physical goals shrinks over time.
KAMENICA: The physical goal shrinks over time. You could imagine when the two posts touch each other, that’s when the game is over. This is an answer within a particular context of a sport. It is a tweak rather than design. Your question was about a design. The reason why the design is difficult is that almost every setting that is–that provides entertainment has a lot of sort of cultural elements that are part of it that make it actually the game that it is. Okay, you can’t change the game so much so that it stops resembling the actual thing that people recognize as a game. There’s a lot of elements that are complementary to the provision of information like particular athleticism or particular traditions or so on. Those are absolutely integral to people’s engagement and investment in the outcomes. That’s why it’d be really hard to design a sport from scratch, because you’d have to build this whole mythology around it as well.
DUBNER: Well, what about Quidditch?
Daniel Radcliffe as Harry POTTER: Sir, it’s Quidditch tomorrow!
TEACHER: Then I suggest you take extra care, Mr. Potter.
DUBNER: That seems like it was a pretty great design of a brand-new sport/game that had all kinds of suspense, surprise and even high stakes.
KAMENICA: We have a proof that Quidditch can’t be optimal, don’t we?
FRANKEL: Every time someone has tried to explain the rules of Quidditch to me — I have not read the Harry Potter books I should say.
DUBNER: That’s got to be step one.
FRANKEL: They have tried to explain the rules, and they get into these small details about people chasing a …
FRANKEL: A snitch.
VOICE: The golden snitch.
POTTER: I like this ball.
FRANKEL: There are complicated rules, and all of that stuff that happened in the first nine-tenths of the game doesn’t matter at all because then someone … What is it, they catch the snitch?
VOICE: Harry Potter has caught the snitch!
FRANKEL: And then the game is over and they win.
VOICE: Gryffindor wins!
ELY: If we want to venture off into game theory, there’s actually some interesting strategy associated with catching the snitch because the rules are that the game ends. But if you’re behind, of course you don’t want the game to end. It’s a really interesting theoretical question from a game-theory point of view. What do you do when you’ve found the snitch and you’re behind? You actually have to make sure that the other guy doesn’t know that you found the snitch . You have to fly in completely random directions in order that your path of flight doesn’t reveal any information about the location of the snitch. That might be a pretty interesting task to do, even if you were on a broom.
[MUSIC: Western Haunts, “Blue Tides” (from The Ambassador)]
Okay, so first of all, you may be thinking: “Wow, economists are such killjoys! How can you turn something as fun as sports into a sack of math?” Well, if it’s any comfort, they can also take the fun out of non-sporting events too. Alex Frankel here:
FRANKEL: One thing that is interesting about the realms of movies or novels relative to sports, is that in sports, the rules are all known very well. Reading a book, it’s a lot harder to know what you should believe. Or watching a movie. These things are going to depend on the formulas of the genre. How likely do you think plot twists are? It’s not going to be determined by the rules of the game in the way that sports are.
Harlan Coben agrees with this point, and he says that from the novelist’s perspective, this is harder than you might think.
COBEN: My world has to actually be more realistic than the real world. I remember a few years ago there was that horrible case of the girl, Elizabeth Smart, who was kidnapped when she was 15. It end up being a homeless guy who had done work in their house. If I had written that as a book, you’d say, “Wait a minute. No cops looked at the homeless guy, the crazy homeless guy with the God complex who was working in her [home]?” You would throw the book across the room because it’s completely unrealistic.
The economists, being economists, have of course thought about this numerically:
[MUSIC: Johnny Sangster, “Levanto Adventure”]
DUBNER: In a mystery novel, what is the ultimate number of plot twists?
KAMENICA: Three on average.
FRANKEL: The number is not in our paper.
DUBNER: But you’ve written it elsewhere, yes?
ELY: Yes. You wanted a short answer. The short answer is three on average. The slightly longer answer is, “It depends on the preferences.” You could imagine someone who really likes to have tiny little surprises. But, according to reasonable parameters, the number is small and probably around three.
Their reasoning is pretty simple, if you think about a given person’s capacity for surprise as a scarce resource. Too few plot twists and you bore the reader or viewer; too many and you overwhelm them. I put their premise to Harlan Coben:
DUBNER: Do you think about it that way? Do you think about this arsenal of surprise and suspense that you have to have enough of to pay off. But if you do too much then it’s not good?
COBEN: It’s a tough balance all the time. The key is to make it organic. If I am guilty [of anything, it’s that] I go too far. I rarely met a twist I didn’t like. In fact, I’m doing this TV show in France right now and I had this ridiculous twist at the very end that changes the whole thing, and I loved it. It was such a great twist. But as I’m watching it, I’m like, “The only problem is you forget the wonderful emotion you felt the scene before.” As much as it pains me, I’m going to get rid of that last twist. One of the hardest part of the job is to make sure that the ending — because I don’t want to surprise you, I need to move you emotionally with the ending. It’s one thing to stir or fool the mind and the pulse, but I also have to stir the heart. That’s the hardest part of my job. That’s the part that really freezes me sometimes.
ELY: Every creator wants to get the bang out of the surprise that he creates.
That’s Jeff Ely:
ELY: He doesn’t internalize the fact that if he creates yet another surprise, that’s going to prime the audience to expect yet another surprise the next time he watches some other guy’s movie. If all of the filmmakers could get together and collude, they would agree to have fewer surprises in order to make each surprise more valuable and make everything more suspenseful. But each guy is self-interested and so he’s producing too much of it.
KAMENICA: We’re advocating for the consolidation of the media industry.
ELY: Alex and I, before coming in here, we were talking about superhero fights. Every single time that the superheroes are going to knock each other out, but they’re going to come right back up. There’s really absolutely no surprise whatsoever involved in watching superheroes fight. That’s because, at some point in time, superheroes were new. The guy who was first controlling the superheroes took advantage of the fact that people weren’t experienced with them. They used all — they got all the surprises out of the way. Now we’re stuck with the legacy of that, which is that that genre has been completely tapped out in terms of the excitement.
[MUSIC: Pat Andrews, “Big Superhero (Redux)”]
FRANKEL: Think of a writer writing something about a sporting event. You’re watching Friday Night Lights about a football match, you can guess there’s they’re going to be down by three touchdowns. Then, they’re going to have some epic run at the end where they tie it up and then win at the last second. This is something that’s very unlikely to happen in an actual football game and probably extremely likely to happen in a TV show about a football game. They’re taking advantage of our beliefs from one frame and then just adding too many surprises, exploiting it in the other.
[MUSIC: The Surf Zombies, “Aqua Waltz” (from Something Weird)]
Brian GRAZER: I can tell you how we created suspense if you want.
And, what happens when a filmmaker fails to heed the laws of surprise and suspense?
ELY: Either you’re going to have to live with that and the declining box office receipts that come as a result, or you have to find a new genre.
* * *
[MUSIC: Drazy Hoops, “Happy Birthday To Me” (from Into the Red)]
What you’re about to hear is not a surprise. I ruined the surprise by telling you right before the break who we’d be talking to. But, hey, maybe you have a bad memory.
GRAZER: Hi, I’m Brian Grazer. Happy to be with you here today on Freakonomics. Currently I produce a TV series called Empire.
DUBNER: We know what it is. We know what it is. That’s a gigantic show.
GRAZER: And then 24, Arrested Development, Friday Night Lights, so a few shows like that. And then of course some movies. I won an Oscar for A Beautiful Mind and I produced Apollo 13, American Gangster, which I love, 8 Mile, Friday Night Lights, Rush, and many more I’m forgetting right now.
A Beautiful Mind is the film about John Nash, the Princeton mathematician who dealt for many years with paranoid schizophrenia. In 1994, he was awarded a Nobel Prize for his contributions to economics and game theory; in May of this year, he was killed in a traffic crash, at age 86, along with his wife. I interviewed Brian Grazer before Nash died — but his admiration was obvious. For starters, there’s the title that Grazer has given the book he just published: A Curious Mind. In this book, Grazer writes about his habit of arranging conversations with people he admires — “curiosity conversations” he calls them.
GRAZER: I’ve done that with probably a thousand people. The book itself is, in some ways, a synthesis of these over 30 years of meetings that I had. What I’ve found is that each person, each subject became a dot in a larger constellation. In some ways, and at some times, they became insights that gave me an interesting or new perspective on what could be a movie or television.
DUBNER: All right, Brian, I want to talk about suspense and surprise. The premise here is that these three economists have written a paper that analyzes how to optimize surprise and suspense.
GRAZER: Oh my God, that’s brilliant. Our show Empire operates on that axiom.
DUBNER: What do you mean by that?
GRAZER: Nobody knows why a success really works because there’s no exact formula.In the case of Empire, we’re asked quite a bit, “Why is it so successful?” Or, “Isn’t that amazing?” And “What’s the formula?” Every week it’s gone up and up and up. Well, the one consistent thing is that we create surprises or shocking moments every single week. Really shocking moments that are about betrayal.
EMPIRE CHARACTER: I’d never let anything come between friendship … except a bullet.
GRAZER: Or cheating or greed, envy, wanting the throne, but willing to do anything to get the throne. Who’s sleeping with who? “Oh my God, really?” “I can’t believe Cookie really did that.”
Taraji Henson as Loretha “COOKIE” Lyon: What if I were to disclose to the S.E.C. that I was the original investor with $400,000 in drug money.
GRAZER: That, within its entire formula, is the one thing that is the driving force of why people so dig the show.
DUBNER: Now, let me ask you this. How formulaic is that? I don’t mean ‘formulaic’ as a pejorative. But I mean, what [these economists have] done is analyzed a bunch of what they feel are successful pieces of work, whether it’s film, novels, sporting events and so on. They’ve come down to like the optimal number of plot twists, which by the way is three, and the best pace at which to release or suspend information. How to anticipate, [or] maybe upend the audience’s expectations. How formulaic is that for you, whether with Empire or with other TV shows or films you’ve made?
GRAZER: It’s not formulaic in the way you’re stating it. It’s not consciously formulaic. When horror films are made they do adhere to a formula like the one you just mentioned. But in our show, it’s much more rough-edged than that because we have other elements. We have have external music, internal music, the character’s singing. It might find a formula or an algorithm at some point, given that we’ve only done one season. Currently, we know that we want at least three of those situations, shocking or surprising moments, plot turns or twists …
DUBNER: Per episode?
GRAZER: Per episode.
DUBNER: Right. At least you agree with them on the number.
GRAZER: But it’s not within the formula. It’s not that precise yet.
DUBNER: When I was looking at all the films that you’ve been involved in, and TV show. Thinking about surprise and suspense, one that came to mind again and again: Apollo 13. I don’t know if you’ll agree with me that that is innately suspenseful.
GRAZER: It’s very suspenseful.
MOVIE CLIP: This is Houston. Say again, please?
Tom Hanks as Jim LOVELL: Houston, we have a problem!
GRAZER: It was the goal to make it suspenseful. It was hard to do.
DUBNER: That’s what I was thinking! Because we know what happens at the end.
GRAZER: Exactly. We know what happens at the end, which is the most important factor. Secondarily, we’re limited to only a couple of worlds. Mostly, it was the world of the space capsule.
DUBNER: Exactly! It’s pretty inactive, considering it’s a space mission. A lot of the shots are instrument panels and more instrument panels and the switch being switched and then we get to see some sweat. Yet, it’s unbelievably suspenseful. I don’t know if you had any data on how many people actually knew that they all got back okay. Did you know anything about what the audience was expecting on that front?
GRAZER: No, we didn’t know. We assumed it was a pretty high number though. You’re going to market the movie. Marketing brings attention to it. People say, “What’s it about?” They say, “These guys tried to get to the moon and made it back.” You know what I mean? Once it got on people’s minds, there’s a pretty high percent thought they made it back safely. I can tell you how we created the suspense if you want.
DUBNER: Tell me. That’s why we’re here.
GRAZER: We created suspense by living inside the psyche of these guys, these astronauts. Spending a little more time than people are comfortable showing their lives. Their lives with their families and people that are really important to them. Once they got on that rocket and that engine is blowing them up … Off into outer space, you’re cutting to their families all the time. In fact, that one girl at Cape Canaveral is crying and she sees her husband go up. It gets you really emotional. Every time there was a worry in outer space, you cut to mission control trying to solve the problem. Then, when the problem couldn’t be solved, you often are cutting to the family, the priest, or people in the external world that are really important to those three astronauts, in their lives; the kids, the kids in school.
DUBNER: When you’re on the set, what’s it like to watch scenes being shot that will end up as very suspenseful, but in the actual shooting there’s nothing remotely suspenseful about it at all?
GRAZER: It’s boring. They’re just pieces of things. When you’re trying to create suspense, you’re getting little pieces of things. You’re not shooting full sequences. In fact, when we’re shooting everything in the rocket — because we decided to show zero gravity by having zero gravity as opposed to taking the wires off digitally or anything like that — we had to use this special KC-135 jet that produces parabolas, meaning, weightlessness of about 24-28 seconds. You’d get about 16 seconds of screen time per parabola. You had to build those minutes tiny brick by tiny brick the entire time.
DUBNER: What’s it like to watch the finished product when you know how it was assembled? Does the suspense and surprise work on you? You were invited to show Apollo 13 at the White House by President Clinton. By then you’d seen the film at least a few times. This was a little bit before the release, does the suspense still work on you by that point, or is it more like you’re looking for the rivets?
GRAZER: On that movie the suspense does still work for me. Equal to or more than the suspense, the emotion. When that rocket takes off and you hear that James Horner music … That rocket launch was storyboarded by James Cameron. It’s the sum total of what the entire Apollo program felt like to me. What it’s place in the world was, the enormity of the program in relation to geopolitical politics. It’s just so powerful and human. I’m moved by it every time.
[MUSIC: Spencer Garn, “Korla’s Dream (Part 1)” (from Psychedelizodica)]
Brian Grazer has been phenomenally successful as a producer. In 1986, he co-founded Imagine Entertainment, along with Ron Howard. Including the projects they’ve made together, Grazer’s movies have taken in more than $13 billion, with 43 Oscar nominations. His TV shows have been nominated for more than 150 Emmys. It is of course impossible to attribute Grazer’s success to simply understanding how to dish out suspense and surprise. But according to the economists, you can make somewhat of the counterargument: that if you fail to handle suspense and surprise properly, the market will punish you. Here’s Jeff Ely:
ELY: When I give this talk, I show a plot of the filmmaker — and I can never pronounce his name right — M. Night Shyamalan. I’m about to disparage him, but I actually think The Sixth Sense was a great movie.
MOVIE CLIP: I see dead people.
ELY: I really liked it. I even liked the second movie, Unbreakable, quite a lot. But when I present this, I show a plot of M. Night Shyamalan’s box office numbers for his films starting with The Sixth Sense.
And that plot shows a clear downward trend since The Sixth Sense.
ELY: This is an example of why — once you’ve lost control of the audience’s expectations by exploiting their naiveté the first time around, once you’ve exploited the audience the first time — they’re coming to expect it. Either you’re going to just have to live with that and the declining box office receipts that come as a result, or you have to find a new genre. You have to reset the audience’s expectations in some way. Apparently he failed to do that.
As Harlan Coben said about writing thrillers, you’re not just creating suspense and surprise on their own; you’re creating them in relation to the consumer’s expectations, which are constantly being upgraded. Still, I felt kind of bad for how Ely disparaged Shyamalan. Especially after I started reading what the online hordes have had to say about him. Consider the four-part YouTube video called “M. Night Shyamalan Sucks”:
Clip from YMS: M. Night Shyamalan SUCKS (4 of 4): “I’m talking about, like, people lining up to see the movie because your name’s on it to nobody seeing the movie because you’re name’s on it.”
[MUSIC: Pat Andrews, “Hey Holmes”]
But the economists’ ideas about surprise and suspense stuck with me — especially when they started talking about a medium that I care about more than suspense films: the news.
FRANKEL: The way that economists have tended to think about the news is that surprise and suspense aren’t a part of it at all.
That’s Alex Frankel.
FRANKEL: There’s no entertainment value, there’s a value of information because it tells you what to do. People want to be informed, they want to learn to make the right decisions. If you think of why you go home at night and watch the six o’clock news, that’s probably not relevant to it. You don’t want to see the news in order to make better decisions in your life. You’re probably there in order to be entertained. You just like watching this, you’re engaged with it. And that’s the aspect we’re trying to bring in, that the standard economics is really missing the entertainment aspect.
ELY: You can see this as a part of the way that they present the news, and this is common to all television, of course. But the fact that it’s also common to the news reveals that it’s a lot more like the rest of television than one would think if you thought of it just as information. When you go to a commercial, they’ll typically tell you a little bit about the story that’s about to come, enough to generate suspense about what they’re going to tell you after the commercial break, but without fully revealing it. You have something to anticipate and a reason to stay tuned through the commercial break that would probably not be so relevant if you were just trying to be informed.
[MUSIC: Pearl Django, “Dragonfly” (from Swing 48)]
So this is an interesting view of the news, isn’t it? And it led me to wonder: why do we consume the news? There are a lot of standard, sort of high-moral-ground answers to that, right? We consume news to be “informed citizens,” in order to make better decisions, elect better politicians, all in service of building a more stable democracy. That’s what they tell you in school, anyway. But what if we really consume the news mostly because it quenches our massive appetite for suspense and surprise? When you read about some horrible civil war halfway across the globe – does that really make you a better citizen, or are you just attracted to the drama and the terror, the same way you might be attracted to a Harlan Coben novel or a Brian Grazer film? So in our next episode, we will take the conversation we had today and turn it toward the news. Now typically, here is the place where I would tell you who you’ll be hearing from in our next episode, and I’d play you a few clips of what they have to say. But that would kind of ruin the suspense, wouldn’t it?
This is a transcript of the Freakonomics Radio podcast “How to Create Suspense.”