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IRIS Wiki - Narrative Theories - Suspense


Suspense is a concept that has been investigated in literature studies and media psychology. Terminologically, it is derived from the everyday phenomenon that consumption of certain types of (textual, audiovisual, other types of) stories comes along with a specific emotional experience that is a mixture of aversive and positive states. So “Suspense” is not a theory, it is rather a phenomenon that frequently occurs in readers, viewers, and users of stories that is to be explained by a theory of suspense.

Various authors have proposed theoretical accounts that explain the emergence of suspense in story audiences (see Vorderer, Wulff, & Friedrichsen, 1996 for an overview). Knobloch (2003) highlights the contributions by Richard Gerrig (Stony Brook University, USA), William F. Brewer (University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, USA), and Dolf Zillmann (University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa, USA).

Histo-geographical placement

Reflections on suspense can be traced back to ancient Greek drama theorists, especially Aristotle. Much contemporary reasoning about the conditions and processes of suspense mirror Aristotle’s thinking about drama audiences’ responses to the faith of characters (see Hiltunen, 2002). Especially Zillmann’s framework recurs explicitly to Aristotle’s propositions. Modern lines of suspense theory have grown from psychological research in arts perception, especially literature studies. Although there is much reasoning about suspense in the humanities as well (e.g., Dollerup, 1970), the social-scientific approaches reviewed here offer the advantage that they have been built mostly on experimental studies with readers of (non-interactive) stories. Today, suspense research is branching out to cover audience experiences in various modes of narrative and non-narrative (yet dramatic) communication settings, such as different story genres (e.g., mystery, thriller, surprise stores) or media categories (e.g., live sports spectatorship, tabloid news). A few attempts have also been published to reason about the impact of interactivity on suspense processes (Vorderer, 2000; Klimmt et al., 2009).

Type of story

All theories of suspense specify elements of characteristics of stories that are required to facilitate an experience of suspense (see “brief description” section). In general, most theorist agree that readers (users) must perceive a sense of uncertainty about the progress and outcome of a story in order to feel suspense. If the ending of a story is perfectly clear, uncertainty is absent, and no suspense will arise. However, if the readers cannot predict who will win a conflict, master a challenge, or win a competition, for instance, uncertainty is present, and there is a reasonable chance that suspense will occur. References to story requirements of uncertainty can be found in the propositions by Gerrig (1996), Brewer (1996), and Zillmann (1996) – see Knobloch (2003).

A second important requirement for suspense, which is highlighted especially by Zillmann is the perceived story relevance. Readers / users must find that what is happening in the story is important (to them). Without an (emotional) interest in the story, it does not matter whether there is uncertainty about its outcomes or not, people will simply not care. However if for instance they care what will happen to the characters they are interested in, suspense can arise. Common techniques to attract story readers’ interest in plot development are to present interesting, appealing, sympathetic characters that bind readers’ emotional commitment (empathy, cf. Zillmann, 1991). According to Zillmann’s theory, emotional commitment to characters stems mostly from moral judgments of characters: “Good” characters “deserve” positive outcomes and audience interest in what will happen to them; “bad” characters (e.g., villains in a gangster movie) “deserve” bad outcomes and warrant audience observation whether they will receive their punishment. Addressing readers’ sensitivity for social justice thus plays a key role in attracting interest and raising perceived relevance.

Parent Theories

Aristotle’s drama theory (see Aristotle, 1961) may be taken as a parent theory for Zillmann's suspense concept. Another important conceptual root is Zillmann’s three-factor theory of emotion (see Bryant & Miron, 2003). In general, theories from cognitive psychology and the psychology of emotion were used to derive specific theories of how suspense will arise (see Vorderer et al., 1996). The theoretical genealogy of suspense in humanities approaches is of course rather routed in philosophical domains.

Child Theories


Brief Description

Zillmann (1996) models suspense as a dualistic affective state that is based on readers’ emotional investment in the story’s characters. Readers make moral judgments about characters and assign empathetic, positive emotional responses to those characters that execute morally good actions (e.g., heroes) and negative, “counter-empathetic” reactions to those characters that do morally wrong actions (e.g., villains). Moral evaluations increase the affective relevance of the characters and their faith that is narrated in the story. Readers who are emotionally committed to the characters are then confronted with uncertainty about the ongoing events in the story: Will the sympathetic, likeable protagonist achieve his goals and restore justice? Will the hated antagonists receive the punishment they deserve? Authors and directors typically maintain such uncertainty for long sequences of plot because the combination of emotional investment (readers are strongly interested in what will happen to the characters, and have formed preferences on what should happen to them) and uncertainty results in a mixture of two emotional processes: hoping (for the desired development of the story) and fearing (the undesired development of the story). As long as uncertainty is maintained (e.g., it remains unclear whether the protagonist survives and the antagonist is captured), these hopes and fears continue and rise, and this emotional condition of hoping and fearing is Zillmann’s psychological construal of the reader experience of suspense. It flows into a highly positive emotional condition in the very moment readers realize that the story has taken a desired or desirable ending (e.g., marriage of the hero with the beautiful female character he has fallen in love with plus death of the antagonist in the final shoot-out). Zillmann’s well-established excitation transfer theory explains the physiological mechanisms behind this sudden switch from the rather aversive (yet enjoyable) state of suspense to the “happy end relief” (see Bryant & Miron, 2003).

Relation with Interactive Storytelling

Suspense experiences that arise from uncertainty about the further progress of the narrated events and the desire for a specific type of progress typically come along with corresponding relief experiences. Relief is the emotional response to the observation of ‘happy ends’ in drama episodes (i.e., when a movie comes exactly to the end the viewers have hoped for), and similar affective reactions have been argued to occur after the successful resolution of suspenseful video game episodes. Because players can and must interact with the game to resolve suspenseful situations, they can attribute positive episode outcomes to themselves. Motivational theories (e.g., Weiner, 1985) argue that if individuals believe they are responsible for positive events, self-esteem is increased due to feelings of pride and competence. The boost of self-esteem is specific to interactive video games (compared to non-interactive entertainment media) and is assumed to intensify the positive experience of excitation transfer when positive episode outcomes occur (see above). Thus, a dual mechanism of game enjoyment is triggered by suspenseful episodes that end in the way players desire: (1) Happiness/relief experiences due to excitation transfer (Zillmann, 1996a) and (2) increase of self-esteem that manifests in feelings of pride and competence (Weiner, 1985). Because interactive storytelling applications share with video games the element of user impact on displayed events, we argue that the same dualism of relief and increased self-esteem based on feelings of success and competence is at work if users of interactive stories manage to resolve an episode in the way that matches their intentions.

The experience of suspense that results from hoping for a specific outcome and the uncertainty about the outcome transforms into a strongly positive experience of relief and pride. However, if users shape the plot events in a way that leads to an undesired outcome (e.g., an autonomous agent becomes angry instead of providing positive feedback to the user), the stage of suspense will not turn into this double-positive experience, but rather shift to a state of frustration (due to the lack of relief and the impression of own failure, because users have to attribute the undesired outcome to themselves just as they attribute positive outcomes to themselves). The ups and downs of desirable and less desirable episode outcomes can generate significant affective dynamics of suspense, relief/pride, and frustration, which can result, over a longer period of time, in a highly pleasurable meta-experience of participating in the interactive story. Suspense is, as the precursor both of relief and frustration experiences, a key element of this affective dynamics, and it is an important tool to keep users involved and curious about how the story can and will proceed.

Systems/Tools using this theory

  • Research within the mimesis project includes some computational implementation of suspense theory. It means that the generation of story events is calculated to maximize the experience of suspense for the reader (Cheong & Young, 2008).
  • Facade is an example where suspense may occur in users of an interactive story. The dynamics of the interpersonal constellation among two virtual agents (Grace and Trip) and the (limited) possibilities of the user to affect it may cause both empathetic involvement with the characters plus unsecurity how the drama will go on, especially how it will go on depending on what the user decides to do within the storytelling environment.




  • Aristotle. (1961). Poetics (translated by S.H. Butcher). New York: Hill & Wang.
  • Brewer, W. F. (1996). The nature of narrative suspense and the problem of rereading. In P. Vorderer, H. J. Wulff, & M. Friedrichsen (Eds.), Suspense: Conceptualizations, theoretical analyses, and empirical explorations (pp. 107- 127). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.
  • Bryant, J. & Miron, D. (2003). Excitation-Transfer theory and three-factor theory of emotion. In J. Bryant, D. R. Roskos-Ewoldsen & J. Cantor, (Eds.), Communication and emotion: Essays in honor of Dolf Zillmann (pp. 31-60). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
  • Dollerup, C. (1970). The concepts of "tension", "intensity", and "suspense" in short-story theory. Orbis Litterarum, 25 (4), 314-337.
  • Gerrig, R. (1996). The resiliency of suspense. In P. Vorderer, H. J. Wulff & M. Friedrichsen (Eds.), Suspense: Conceptualizations, theoretical analyses, and empirical explorations (pp. 93-105). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
  • Hiltunen, A. (2002). Aristotle in Hollywood. Bristol: Intellect Books.
  • Klimmt, C., Rizzo, A., Vorderer, P., Koch, J. & Fischer, T. (2009). Experimental evidence for suspense as determinant of video game enjoyment. Cyberpsychology and Behavior, 12 (1), 29-31.
  • Knobloch, S. (2003). Suspense and mystery. In J. Bryant, D. R. Roskos-Ewoldsen & J. Cantor, (Eds.), Communication and emotion: Essays in honor of Dolf Zillmann (pp. 379-396). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
  • Raney, A. A. (2003). Disposition-based theories of enjoyment. In J. Bryant, D. R. Roskos-Ewoldsen & J. Cantor, (Eds.), Communication and emotion: Essays in honor of Dolf Zillmann (pp. 61-84). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
  • Vorderer, P. (2000). Interactive entertainment and beyond. In D. Zillmann & P. Vorderer (Eds.), Media Entertainment: The psychology of its appeal (pp. 21-36). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.
  • Vorderer, P., Wulff, H. J. & Friedrichsen, M. (Eds.). (1996). Suspense: Conceptualizations, theoretical analyses, and empirical explorations. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
  • Zillmann, D. (1991). Empathy: Affect from bearing witness to the emotions of others. In J. Bryant & D. Zillmann (Eds.), Responding to the screen: Reception and reaction processes (pp. 135-168). Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
  • Zillmann, D. (1996b). The psychology of suspense in dramatic exposition. In P. Vorderer, H. J. Wulff & M. Friedrichsen (Eds.), Suspense: Conceptualizations, theoretical analyses, and empirical explorations (pp. 199-231). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.