Suspense, like mac & cheese

SPOILER ALERT: If you have not seen all three of the original Star Wars movies, or the Harry Potter movies/books, there are spoilers below.

Image courtesy of cuppycake feind (

Between Christmas and New Year’s, my husband and I embarked on a Star Wars Trilogy viewing.  The first three movies, mind you–Star Wars, Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi (no Jar Jar Binks for us!)–which is the second time we’ve done this in our eight years together.  Or maybe the third time.  We’ve also done it with the Lord of the Rings movies, and once with Indiana Jones.

Of course we’ve each seen those movies many, many times before.  In fact, when I was seven, I watched Star Wars pretty much every single day for a few months while I was recovering from some heavy medical stuff at home.  I think I had it memorized.

So, you know, when we watched them the other week, we knew what was going to happen.  We knew Luke was going to destroy the Death Star, and that Leia was going to wind up with Han, etc, etc, etc.

But did that stop my hands from sweating when Luke swooped his fighter plane down into the maze of the Death Star, risking his life–and R2-D2’s, and the future of the galaxy!–when he listened to Obi-Wan Kenobi say “Luke! Trust your feelings,” causing him to switch off his computer and allow The Force to guide his shot?

No!  My hands were sweating, my heart was racing.  I was EXCITED.

But, why?  I mean, I knew he was going to succeed.  There was no surprise involved.  Isn’t surprise integral to suspense?

That was what I wondered.  How could the movies’ suspense still work on me even though I knew what was going to happen?

As I wondered about this paradox, I found myself thinking of the Harry Potter movies as related examples:  When I saw the movies, I had already read all the books, so I knew how the stories ended.  But with each movie, it had been a while since my reading, and so I had forgotten some of the details (like Neville Longbottom pulling the sword of Gryffindor out of the Sorting Hat–what a great moment!!), which DID result in surprise and the suspense that comes from not knowing exactly how everything is going to play out.

But I had not forgotten these details when I re-watched the final movie with my husband at home.  But I was waiting for certain moments, like that one with Neville and the sword.  Waiting….anticipating….I couldn’t wait!

So, I learned, anticipation creates it’s own suspense.  Sometimes it’s as good, if not better, than the suspense that comes from surprise.  It’s like mac and cheese–you know it’s gonna be good, so you’re psyched to experience it again.  And again.

And again.

Kerri Majors, EditorOn a related note, I think this is why so many books with predictable plots still work.  Even if we’re pretty sure he’s gonna get the girl, or she’s gonna save the universe, or The Head Baddy is gonna get what’s comin’ to him, we wait for it.  We want it.  And we’re willing to experience these plots again and again because they please us.  Like mac and cheese.

And now I also know what we’re having for dinner 🙂

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2 Comments Post a Comment
  1. I think you make an excellent point! I remember one of my theatre teachers explaining that this is why the Greeks gathered in such great numbers to see the retellings of stories like Oedipus or Antigone, even though they knew the stories so well! It’s also a great reminder that readers, first and foremost, want a story to be an experience. During the best stories, we’re right their with the characters our hearts racing as our emotions careen. And we love reliving those experiences!

  2. Kerri says:

    So true! Thanks for the augmenting response, Jill.

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