How to Create Suspense (Ep. 214)

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(photo: Richard Leeming)

(photo: Richard Leeming)

Our latest Freakonomics Radio episode is called “How to Create Suspense.” (You can subscribe to the podcast at iTunes or elsewhere, get the RSS feed, or listen via the media player above. You can also read the transcript, which includes credits for the music you’ll hear in the episode.) In this episode, we try to answer a few questions: Why is soccer the best sport? How has Harlan Coben sold 70 million books? And why does “Apollo 13” keeps you enthralled even when you know the ending?

The episode was inspired by a fascinating research paper called “Suspense and Surprise” by the economists Jeffrey Ely, Alexander Frankel, and Emir Kamenica. We speak with all three of them about what makes a particular sport suspenseful (or boring), what makes a movie thrilling (or, as in the case of M. Night Shyamalan, increasingly not), and why these things are worth discussing within the realm of economics:

ELY: We view the construction and the development of suspense and surprise and other aspects of entertainment as basically 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 economic transactions 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. So the whole idea of how you change people’s beliefs has lots and lots of economic applications.

We also talk to some practitioners of the art of suspense. You’ll hear from the prolific novelist Harlan Coben, whose domestic thrillers are virtually impossible to put down. (His latest is The Stranger) Coben has discovered that a corpse is all well and good for creating suspense, but a missing person is better:

COBEN: 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. And hope can be the cruelest thing in the world. It can crush your heart like an eggshell, or it can make it soar. And so you raise the stakes by giving people hope and you raise the stakes by just leaving something out that maybe can complete you.

You’ll also hear from the film and TV producer Brian Grazer, who is perhaps even more prolific than Coben (usually in concert with Ron Howard, with whom Grazer founded Imagine Entertainment in 1986). Among their TV productions are Empire, 24, Arrested Development, and Friday Night Lights. On the film side, they’ve done A Beautiful Mind, Apollo 13, American Gangster, 8 Mile, Rush, and many more. Grazer also recently published his first book (with co-author Charles Fishman), A Curious Mind: The Secret to a Bigger Life. In it, Grazer writes about his long-standing habit of arranging conversations with people he admires – “curiosity conversations” he calls them.

GRAZER: So I’ve done that with probably a thousand people. And the book itself is in some ways a synthesis of these over 30 years of meetings that I’ve had. … And 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.

Most important, Grazer is willing to take us behind the scenes on a film like Apollo 13. “I can tell you,” he says, “how we created the suspense if you want.”

Yes, we want. And we get.

Kerr Lockhart

You thought APOLLO 13 was suspenseful? (It was.) Even more amazing was the play and film 1776 which posed the question "Will the 2nd Continental Congress sign the Declaration of Independence?" Believe me, 10 minutes before the end, you had no idea how it was going to happen, and started to worry that the country you lived in never existed!

Khalid Mahmud


Stephen R Marsh

You promised the formula for suspense on Friday Night Lights football games and did not deliver after the break.

BTW if soccer had four quarters and goals in the first scored one point, in the second two points , etc it would create suspense without too much of the gyp factor -- an area of game design often illustrated by TV game shows.

Finally, having buried three children I have thoughts on terminal illness and care. I'll share them after you share the football game formula.

Crispin White

You might like this after all that excitement. It has achieved cult viewing status in the UK. Nothing happens for 2 hours, but it is strangely compelling.

All Aboard! The Canal Trip (I hope you can see it, otherwise try BBC America)

It is a two-hour, real-time canal boat journey down one of Britain's most historic waterways, the Kennet and Avon Canal, from Top Lock in Bath to the Dundas Aqueduct. Using an uninterrupted single shot, the film is a rich and absorbing antidote to the frenetic pace and white noise of modern life.

Taking in the images and sounds of the British countryside, underpinned by the natural soundscape of water lapping, surrounding birdsong and the noise of the chugging engine, this is a chance to spot wildlife and glimpse life on the towpath while being lulled by the comforting rhythm of a bygone era.

Along the journey, graphics and archive stills embedded into the passing landscape deliver salient facts about the canal and its social history.



I find there is a lot of suspense in opera (which I love) and yet you know what the ending will be. Opera is known as the art of dying.

And the more often I listen to my favourite opera the greater the suspense, although the effect is driven by the music not the plot. Suspense in a music is a whole subject on its own and I'm not expert enough to explain it. But what I do recall is the shock I felt on listening to Turkish music that had quarter tones that don't exist in western music. It was electrifying.

Trevor Pike

Thanks for the great podcast! Although, you have quidditch a little wrong. The game does end when you golden snitch is caught, it is worth 150 points, however it does not guarentee a win! The team with the most points at the end of the match is the winner. The Harry Potter wiki explains in great detail! Thank you!

Amy Zimmer

Loved this podcast. Made my math teacher heart go pitter pat. Will offer some kind of extra credit assignment from it, in fact, I intend to build an interdisciplanary unit around it with Stats and the Performing Arts Core at my high school. When I gave you a shout out on the Math Twitter Blogoshpere (yes, it exists), we have a fab category, #WCYDWT (What can you do with this?)

BTW, my interview dream is Steven Dubner, and my birthday is next week...


As you grow to know soccer, the suspense and surprise moments expand from just scoring to what is happening on the field, the buildup -- how one team keeps the ball away from the other team, the outcome of 1v1 foot battles, the placement of through balls, the ability of the team to work together as a cohesive unit and so on. Once you learn how to appreciate those moments, scoring just becomes an added bonus.


I'm in the middle of Neil Postman's AMUSING OURSELVES TO DEATH, so I'm very much looking forward to the segment about suspense in the news. Postman argued that television was the soma (a la BRAVE NEW WORLD) of American society, and television news was the worst because it pretends to inform us, but its primary aim, like all of television, is to entertain us.

Quentin Holness

Thank you Freakonomics blog for incorporating Dragon Ball Z with academic study and analysis!


The last thing I'd describe soccer as is suspenseful. I've really tried. I've gone to games, played it for years as a kid, read books, listened to soccer podcasts, and even have a lot of friends that are fans but it's just dull and won't catch on in America. Predictions of soccer's rise in popularity have been around since the 60's and it's still barely noticeable on the American sports landscape.

I'd like to see Freakonomics do a follow up podcast to the one they did prior to the last World Cup "Why Soccer isn't popular in America...yet" I believe it was called


Soccer is like chess in many ways. Those that better understand how the pieces move and interact with each other have a greater appreciation for the little details. In Chess, suspense comes from seeing a plan come together to take out a major piece. Similarly in soccer, watching a series of plays build into something great - potentially a goal - is where the suspense is. And when the goal comes...ecstasy. American football is a lot more predictable and much less dynamic. I've played both.


I respectfully disagree. That build up also applies to a pitcher throughout a game selecting different throws, targets, speeds, etc. The greats in almost every sport I can think of would probe and test opponents throughout a game.

I totally disagree that football is more predictable and less dynamic. A turnover can flip the momentum of a game in an instance. There are a variety of ways to score. Football is more predictable in the sense that the game clock means something and you know exactly how much time you have left.

Margo Torzsa

Quidditch would be the most suspenseful sport. You can score points throughout the game with the quaffle scoring 10pts for every goal, but if the Seekeer catches the snitch the game is over and you get 150pts. Its suspenseful because the game could end any minute and its surprising when the snitch is caught.


Great podcast again, I really enjoy listening to these.

I wonder how you think Game of Thrones fits into this theory, both the books and the TV show. In both cases we see very major characters killed off when we don't expect them to be. At first this is quite surprising but does this then lead into suspense about who's the next character that will be killed? Is this what has made the show/books so popular?

Valar Morghulis!


Although not suspence per se, I am reminded of the Matx Brothers:
After their fourth film, Duck Soup they recognized that jokes were being wasted as audience members would still be laughing at the previous ones. They started road testing the upcoming movie scenes on stage, timing the laughs to determine how much space in the movie to provide before the next lines. They found that they could make "funnier" movies while telling was fewer jokes... A Night At the Opera & A Day at the Races.
Improved ROI


what do sports have to do with suspense??

Jim Teal

Just catching up on this episode. You started talking about a sport with high stakes and something big could happen at any time and the last team to score wins, and I realized you were talking about NASCAR. All of the sudden I see how watching cars drive around in a circle in the nation's most popular spectator sport.

Mark Mach

I read the following article and thought of you.

When Radiation Isn't the Risk
2015-09-22 07:30:06.4 GMT

Sept. 22 (New York Times) -- This spring, four years after the nuclear accident at Fukushima, a small group of scientists met in Tokyo to evaluate the deadly aftermath.
No one has been killed or sickened by the radiation -- a point confirmed last month by the International Atomic Energy Agency. Even among Fukushima workers, the number of additional cancer cases in coming years is expected to be so low as to be undetectable, a blip impossible to discern against the statistical background noise.
But about 1,600 people died from the stress of the evacuation -- one that some scientists believe was not justified by the relatively moderate radiation levels at the Japanese nuclear plant.

Gustavo Azevedo

Hey guys, like allways great work on the episode. You guys should really take a look at the political and economical scene here in BraSil right now. If it wasn't sad, it would actually be funny, that a country famous for exporting Soap operas (Novelas) has it's citzens craving the news because of the political drama of the moment. Worst of all, we don't even realize it.

If you need any info or other resources from/in Brasil let me know.