“ the whodunit is a question of what – “you simply wait to find out who committed the murder” – while suspense is a question of how…” (Truffaut, p40). 

A sudden breakthrough occurred when I read this quote by Francois Truffaut in his interview with Alfred Hitchcock. In a simple sentence he summed up the relevance of suspense to anyone dealing with the creation of narrative. Suspense is method. Suspense is ‘how’ one uses the frame. Suspense is ‘how’ one reveals and conceals information/action. Suspense is ‘how’ one plays with the interaction between the narrative, and the audience. It prescribes methods to control the narrative machine, all of them relating to the use of framing. When applying these methods, the ensuing tension is born NOT from the nature of the story or the plot, but entirely from the way this story is structured, paced, framed, and perceived. These are the ultimate consideration of the graphic designer, of the author, or the filmmaker.

Due to my analyses of detective stories and suspenseful films (Hitchcock, Kubrick, Lang, etc) – I initially and erroneously felt my thesis was becoming a study of how one generates suspenseful content matter. Thinking this way, suspense had become a result I was trying to achieve, a state I was trying to create, ultimately – an end point. This switch in my perception of suspense was eye-opening. Suspense could now work by providing control over wielding the tool of the frame – a controlled way of creating internal tensions in a narrative. This is not necessarily an outcome – a result I am aiming for, but a working method that might lead to any number of outcomes. Suspense is ultimately all about audience involvement – so no matter what the tonal/visual outcome of the final piece, using methods of suspense guarantees active audience participation, and therefore a deeper intellectual and emotional connection to the narrative.


SUSPENSE; as method and outcome

A man leaves his home, hails a cab and drives to the station to catch a train. This is a normal scene in an average picture. Now, should that man happen to look at his watch just as he is getting into the cab and exclaim, “Good God, I shall never make that train!” that entire ride automatically becomes a sequence of pure suspense. Every red light, traffic signal, shift of the gears or touch on the brake, and every cop on the way to the station will intensify its emotional impact.” (Thrillers, p.30)


Suspense has emerged as a strategy, a way of using the literal and metaphorical frame to create narrative. In understanding adaptation as a process – I defined two aspects one must consider; the narrative and the narration, the story and its enunciation. I then looked to what is really involved in re-shaping and re-enacting a source narrative into a visual language, and identified framing as a means by which this is done. The practitioners I observed dealt with framing both conventionally (to reveal, to show) and unconventionally (to obscure, to delay story). This unconventional use is what I see as a suspenseful use of the frame – it uses the frame in a manner that draws attention to itself, that creates a tension between what is inside the frame and what is not. Such a use the frame, therefore, works to suspend the viewer between contradictory states. This is not about creating a clichéd sense of fear, nor a confusing state of ambiguity. Such use of the frame above all creates an intense relationship between the viewer and the narrative. As Truffaut explained, “the art of creating suspense is also the art of involving the audience.” (p40)


a. Fleshing out my own Understanding


Defining and Contextualising my understanding

I realize there are various ways one can interpret this loaded and complex notion of ‘suspense’. While my understanding of it is gained from its use in removed models – in film, literature, and theory – the notion is constantly morphing in my own mind when I consider its application in my own world, and my own work. This is an integral part of the designer’s adaptation process – the mental consideration of how this thing can be re-shaped and re-applied to a new form – possibly a form it was never intended for. There is not just a morphing of a story from one form to another in adaptation – there is a need for a morphing of the methodology itself. How does this theory become my own? How does it tempered by my own aesthetic concerns and by the new parameters of graphic design?

sus·pense n
1.                  the state or condition of being unsure or in doubt about something
2.                  a feeling of tense excitement about how something such as a mystery novel or movie will end.

From the beginning I realized that there are two dimension to suspense to consider – stemming from the most basic form of the word, whether it functions as a noun or as a verb. I first considered suspense as verb.


b. Two Faces; as a means…


All narratives are built around the structuring and then release of information. The method of suspense pays special attention to how one controls audience’s access to narrative information. This could be the most fundamental definition of suspense as a strategy – and how this strategy works in the construction of narrative. Suspense becomes a part of the narrative process; essentially by its stalling of that process. It is about using methods of concealing and delaying to make a visual sequence more engaging. This view is about the designer/filmmaker/author’s handling of the ‘suspense’ tool. It is a mechanism used not only to build the narrative, but used as an in-built navigational device for the audience to control one’s path through a narrative flow of events.

Lars Ole Sauerberg’s discussion of suspense picks up on these more quantifiable aspects of suspense as strategy – “Suspense…is an issue of “How much?” rather than either/or. The basic elements of suspense are inherent in virtually all storytelling…” (Thrillers; p.30). He also defines what he sees as the two pivotal dynamics of the suspense mechanism – the factors of concealment and protraction – “Whereas concealment is the author’s deliberate withholding of information, protraction is a matter of stretching an issue…” (pg31).

This definition is valuable in that it poses ‘suspense’ as a working method – and the designer’s ability to control the viewing frame (be it the frame of the page or the frame of the screen) in order to affect an audience’s reading of any given narrative, is the underlying focus of all my studies. But to leave the definition there is to underestimate the potential of suspense. Suspense goes beyond the simple structural constraints of how much and at what pace information is released. I looked at the word then as a state rather than a process. Suspense can be more than a mechanism used by the designer to adapt structure - it becomes a response or experience the designer is trying to create for the viewer.


b. Suspense; as an end…

“Suspense centrally involves the idea of suspension. We are suspended between question and answer, between anticipation and resolution, between alternative answers to the questions posed, and sometimes between ambivalent emotions and sympathies that are aroused by a suspenseful situation…a heightened state of suspension – between the mundane and the marvelous, the modern world and the heroic past, the seen and the unseen, pain and pleasure, concealment and revelation.” (p35-36).

Suspense is therefore the designer’s ability to suspend their audience between two states – be it two visual tones, two visual languages, or two meanings. This is not ambiguity, rather the careful creation of contradictory states/meanings in a piece that the audience is shifted between. This varies, from the tension created between two elements interacting on the screen, to the potential tension between two narrators presenting a story. There is a wonderful suspense that can be derived from playing with shifting the viewer between two states. The method of suspending an audience between two narrational modes – two ways of seeing – is of prime interest. This technique bridges the notion of suspense as a means and an end. This is first a strategy used by the designer, and then becomes an experience for the viewer of being suspended between different points of view. This can transform the entire narrative structure – imbue it with a whole new meaning and a new dimension. This becomes a play with the revealing and concealing of the narrative frame, the tension for the audience between believing/sharing the ‘frame of reference’ (see ‘Vertigo’) and then doubting that frame of reference. This can render a whole new reading of the narrative. Suspense therefore can be enfolded by the designer as a strategy, and unfolded by the viewer in their own experience. 


c. Two Faces; structural and emotional

Another fundamental dichotomy at the core of ‘suspense’ was gleaned from a comment by Hitchcock-“Mystery is an intellectual process, like in a ‘whodunit.’ But suspense is essentially an emotional process. You can only get suspense going by giving the audience information.”(p17; Suspense, Humour and Tone) This statement contains a few pivotal ideas that have built my own understanding. While Hitchcock refers to the importance of the more structural view of suspense – that giving the audience information and how this is done is key – there is another aspect to consider. There is an awareness of suspense’s ability “…to provoke both an intellectual and affective response. This ability to determine how we feel by controlling what we know…” is fundamental.

This addresses my original contentions about the challenge of adaptation – dealing with transposing both the structure (form) of the narrative, and also considering the tonal qualities of narrative. Hitchcock seems to suggest that suspense deals with both and creates a symbiotic relationship between the two. That is to say – the formal structuring/patterning of the narrative affects the tonal qualities, and the tonal qualities affect the way we experience the structure of the narrative. Above all, it confirms that these aspects of adaptation, of visual narration, are interconnected and must both be considered when applied to projects.


d. Terminology

I have tracked suspense from other forms and media – observed it, defined it, broken it into its working parts, and named those as generalized concepts that can then be used. This is the point where I form my own theory and create my own methodology.

It made sense at this point to embed this thesis enquiry within a terminology that reflects its hybrid and fluid nature. The lens through which projects and texts are read and adapted is informed by film and literary theory. This thesis involves a constant interplay between narrative structures in different media, and the language used to describe this progress must reflect this hybridity.

Part of defining my own terminology is going beyond the simple naming of terms – but fleshing out these terms to ensure they function as true working methodology. These terms were born out of removed narrative models (film and literature) – and now must be contextualized in order to be useful to my own work.

The methodologies for creating narrative have emerged from all my visual and theoretical research. These methods are derived from sometimes complex and diverse sources (both from theory and the work of practitioners). Above all, they are seemingly removed from graphic design – I needed to find a way to crystallise precise strategies from this tangled web of filmic and literary narrative devices. Naming these strategies is a key point in my thesis progress – they are now both specific and generalized - which is necessary if they are to be pragmatically applied. They have become my own.

The notion of the frame was the first and most fundamental tool to create narrative and suspense. I have added to my growing terminology – stalling action, narrative gaps/pauses, juxtaposing point of view and visual clues have all crystallised as key mechanisms for creating visual narrative. Derived from literary and film narrative models, these can now be applied to my own projects and tested out. These concepts now function as nexus points between fields, sites of overlap that allow me to synthesise making and theorising. These function as terms applicable to film, literature, and through my own application, graphic design.

The really interesting part of this whole process is when adaptation kicks in – when observed mechanisms are translated into my own language. Finding ways to apply these strategies to projects is the unknown part of this process. It involves shifting the strategy from its original application (in film or novel narrative structure) and allowing it to live within a graphic design context. Each project (each application of a technique) has involved the entire process of adaptation, informed by case studies, interpretation of content, application of technique, and new outcomes each time.


FRAME ; exposing the frame; using to reveal and conceal content

JUXTAPOSITION: formal tensions, transitions, tonal contrasts.

PAUSE/GAP ; omission of content, condensation, protraction

ECHO mirror/repetition

CLUE/CATAPHOR; foreshadowing, fragmentation; relationship between parts and whole.