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The idea of probability that the spectator works with is not technical; it is not
a product of deriving probability from a calculus. Rather, when the reader, lis-
tener, or spectator entertains the thought that some outcome is either internally
probable or improbable, that means that he or she thinks it is likely or unlikely to
occur, or that it can reasonably be expected to occur or not, given all the available
information provided for the consumer by the relevant parts of the fiction. This
hardly requires a consumer deriving specialized probability rankings subvocally;
instead, just as I surmise immediately and tacitly that a baseball headed toward a
bay window is likely to shatter it, so my estimate that, in a given fiction, it is
unlikely that the detailment of the bullet train can be averted, requires no special-
ized calculations.
It seems to me that much of the suspense sequence in a novel or a film or
whatever is preoccupied with establishing and reemphasizing the audience™s sense
of the relevant probabilities of alternative lines of action.That is, it appears to be
the case that with most suspense sequences we are already apprised of the moral
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status of the rival parties before the various episodes of suspense take hold. So,
what primarily comprises those interludes “ at least most frequently “ is an
emphasis on the relative probabilities of the competing outcomes.
In film and TV, suspense scenes are often elaborated with cross-cutting.16 As Lois
Lane and Jimmy Olsen are apprehended by bandits, we cut to Superman who is
struggling to resist the effects of kryptonite.This establishes the probability that evil
will befall Lois Lane and Jimmy Olsen and the improbability of their rescue by
Superman. By the time that the bandits are mere seconds away from executing Lois
and Jimmy, there is a cross-cut to Superman finally aloft, but because he is so far away,
the shot reemphasizes how unlikely it is that he will be able to save them.
Likewise, toward the end of The Guns of Navarone, the director, J. Lee Thomp-
son, cuts between shots of the British rescue armada and shots of the ammunition
hoist for the Nazi artillery, stopping just before the demolition charges that the
Allies hope will take out the cannons. But each cut, insofar as they carry the infor-
mation that the charges fail to detonate, makes it more probable in the fiction that
the guns will have the opportunity to wreak havoc on the fleet once it is in range.
A great deal of the work that goes into a suspense sequence “ whether it is visual
or verbal “ depends on keeping the relative probabilities of the alternative out-
comes of the relevant course of events vividly before the audience.
Certain sorts of events “ including chases, escapes, and rescues, among others “
are staples of popular fiction just because they so naturally accommodate suspense,
possessing, by definition, logically exclusive, uncertain outcomes that can be so
readily invested with moral significance. Also, suspense scenes often feature such
recurring devices as time bombs. In my view, bombs attached to fizzling fuses or
ticking timepieces work so well in generating suspense because, as each moment
passes, time is running out on the good, and therefore evil is becoming ever more
likely, even as the prospects for righteousness become more and more improbable.
I would not want to diminish the importance of time bombs and chase scenes for
suspense. I only urge that one be wary of reducing suspense to these devices.
Rather, the serviceability of the devices themselves needs to be explained by the
kind of general theory of suspense fiction that I have advanced in this section.17

S O LV I N G T H E PA R A D OX O F S U S P E N S E

Suspense, in general, is an emotional state. It is the emotional response that one has
to situations in which an outcome that concerns one is uncertain. Uncertainty
and concern are necessary conditions or formal criteria for suspense.Where care
and uncertainty unite in a single situation, suspense is an appropriate or fitting
emotional response.That is, suspense is an intelligible response to such a situation.
If I have no concern whatsoever for the outcome in question, a response in terms
of suspense is unintelligible. Indeed, if I claim to be in a state of suspense about
something about which I genuinely protest that I have not one jot of concern,
then I sound as though I am contradicting myself; but if I believe that an outcome
that I care about is uncertain, then suspense is in order.
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The care and concern required for suspense are engendered in audiences of
fictions by means of morality.That is, the audience is given a stake in the outcome
of certain events in the fiction when the relevant outcome is presented as morally
righteous, at the same time that the rival outcome is represented as evil.When the
righteous outcome appears improbable, relative to the information provided in
the story up to that point, suspense is a fitting or intelligible reaction.
Improbability, relative to the information available at the relevant point in the
fiction, and moral righteousness are typically the standard conditions or formal
criteria for suspense when it comes to fiction. Where a morally righteous out-
come is imperiled to the point where it is improbable, our concern for the
morally right can be transformed into suspense. For consternation at the prospect
that the morally correct is in danger or that the good is at risk is an appropriate or
fitting response. That is, just as fear is an appropriate response to the prospect of
harm, suspense is an appropriate response to a situation in which the morally
good is imperiled or at risk.
Of course, when we say that fear is an appropriate response to the prospect
of harm, we do not thereby predict that everyone will feel fear when con-
fronting what is harmful. After all, bungee jumpers, lion tamers, and mountain
climbers do exist. Nevertheless, it is always intelligible to feel fear in the pres-
ence of the harmful, and it is always intelligible to feel suspense when we per-
ceive the good to be imperiled.
When we feel suspense with regard to our own projects and prospects, it is
because we believe that some outcome about which we care “ say winning at
bingo “ is not certain. Here, the cognitive component of our mental state is a
belief.We believe that it is uncertain or improbable that we shall win at bingo. But
when it comes to fictions, we need to modify our conception of the cognitive
component of our emotional states; since my anger at Leontes in The Winter™s Tale
cannot be based on my belief that he is an unjust person, because I do not believe
that there is someone, Leontes, such that he is an unjust person. Leontes is a fic-
tional character, and I know it.
However, it is not the case that the only mental state that can do the requisite
cognitive work when it comes to emotion is belief. Emotions may be rooted in
thoughts as well as beliefs.18 What is the difference? If we describe believing p as a
matter of holding a proposition in the mind as asserted, then thinking p, in con-
trast, is a matter of entertaining a proposition in the mind unasserted, as one does
when I say “Suppose I am Charles the Bald.”
Furthermore, one can engender emotional states by holding propositions
before the mind unasserted.Thus, when I stand near the edge of the roof of a high
building and I entertain the thought that I am losing my footing, I can make
myself feel a surge of vertigo. I need not believe that I am losing my footing; I
merely entertain the thought. And the thought, or the propositional content of
the thought (that I am losing my footing), can be sufficient for playing a role in
causing the chill of fear in my bloodstream. For emotions may rest on thoughts,
and not merely on beliefs.
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Fictions, moreover, are readily conceived to be stories that authors intend
readers, listeners, and viewers to imagine. Indeed, fictions are the sorts of commu-
nication in which the author intends the consumer to recognize the authorial
intention that the consumer imagine the story. That is, in making fictions, the
author is intentionally presenting consumers with situations that they are meant
to entertain in thought. The author, in presenting his or her novel as fiction, in
effect, says to readers “hold these propositions before your mind unasserted” “ that
is,“suppose p,” or “entertain p unasserted,” or “contemplate p as a supposition.”19
Furthermore, insofar as thoughts, as distinct from beliefs, can support emotional
responses, we may have emotional responses to fictions concerning situations that
we believe do not exist. For we can imagine or suppose that they exist, and enter-
taining the propositional content of the relevant thoughts can figure in the etiol-
ogy of an emotional state.
Needless to say, in maintaining that the imagination of the consumer of fiction
is engaged here I do not mean to suggest that the activity is free or unbounded.The
consumer™s imaginative activity is, of course, guided by the object “ by the fiction in
question. That object “ the fiction “ has certain properties. Specifically, it presents
certain situations as having certain properties (in terms of morality and internal
probability), which properties, given the psychology of normal consumers, induces
certain emotional responses or, as Hume might have it, sentiments in us.
That is, I maintain that the fictions in question can be identified as suspenseful
in terms of features of the fiction (such as the logical exclusivity of outcomes, and
their morality and internal probability ratings) that we can specify independently
of the responses they induce in a regular fashion in consumers of fiction. These
features are naturally suited to raise the affect of suspense in us.The extension of
what counts as being suspenseful in fiction is, then, codetermined by the normal
(as opposed to the ideal) appreciator™s tendency to respond with feelings of sus-
pense and the independently characterizable structural features of suspense fic-
tions adumbrated earlier.20 In the relevant cases, the appreciator™s attention must
be focused on those structural features of the fiction, and his or her imagination is
guided or controlled by them. In such cases, the thoughts that he or she is
prompted to entertain as unasserted by what is in the fiction (as opposed to what-
ever passing fancies fleetingly strike her) will raise appropriate feelings of suspense.
Nor should it seem bizarre that thinking various thoughts, in addition to hav-
ing certain beliefs, should figure in the generation of emotional states. For from an
evolutionary perspective, it is certainly a distinctive advantage that humans have
the capacity to be moved by thinking p as well as by believing p, because this
capacity enables humans to be educated about all kinds of dangers that may come
to pass in the future, but that do not exist and do not confront us in the here and
now.The imagination is surely an asset from the Darwinian point of view; it pro-
vides a way in which not only cognition but the emotions, as well, can be pre-
pared for situations that have not yet arisen. Adolescents vicariously learn about
love and parental responsibility by imagining these things, and these acts of imag-
ination serve to educate their feelings.
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Certain emotions are cognitively impenetrable, and this impenetrability can be
explained in terms of the adaptive advantages it bestows on the organism. Adopt-
ing the role of armchair evolutionary biologists, perhaps we can speculate that, in
the case of many emotions, they can be induced by mere thoughts and thereby are
insulated from exclusive causal dependency on particular beliefs, because of the
overall adaptive advantage this delivers to humans in terms of educating the emo-
tions in the response to situations and situation types not already at hand.
However, be that as it may, suspense fictions present audiences with situations
that we are to imagine. For example, we entertain (unasserted) the thoughts that
the train is about to derail with the much-needed medical supplies and that this
outcome is all but unavoidable. Because we entertain this thought as unasserted,
we do not call the police to alert them. Nevertheless, this thinking does help gen-
erate the affect of suspense in us. And this affect, in the case under discussion, is
appropriate, fitting, and intelligible. For it is always intelligible that we feel con-
sternation when we entertain the supposition that the good “ something that is
morally correct “ is threatened or is unlikely to come to pass.
What does all this have to do with the paradox of suspense? According to the
paradox, if a fiction is experienced by readers, listeners, or viewers as suspense,
then the outcome of the events that give rise to suspense must be uncertain to said
listeners, readers, and viewers. On the other hand, it seems that it is simply a fact
that audiences experience suspense in reaction to fictions they have already seen,
heard, or read. But how is that possible, since if they™ve already seen, heard, or read
the fiction, then they know how the fiction ends “ that is, they know the relevant
outcome “ and, therefore, they cannot believe, for example, that the righteous
alternative is uncertain? This contradicts the earlier presumption that audiences
gripped by suspense must be uncertain of the outcome.
However, if what has been claimed about the emotions in general, and the
emotion of suspense in particular, is right, perhaps there is a way out of this
conundrum. A presupposition of the paradox is that the response of suspense on
the part of audiences requires that they be uncertain of the relevant outcomes. I
understand this to mean that the audiences must believe that the relevant outcomes
are uncertain or uncertain to them. For example, they must believe that the rele-
vant moral outcome is improbable. Yet the audience cannot believe this if they
actually know the relevant outcomes already, because they have encountered the
fiction in question beforehand.
But notice that the problem here resides in the assumption that suspense would
only take hold if the audience believes the outcome is uncertain. But why suppose
this? The audience may not believe that the relevant outcome is uncertain or
improbable but, nevertheless, the audience may entertain the thought that the rele-
vant outcome is uncertain or improbable.That is, even though we know otherwise,
we may entertain (as unasserted) the proposition that a certain morally good out-
come is uncertain or improbable. If an emotional response can rest on a thought,
then there is no reason to remain mystified about the way in which audiences can
be seized by suspense even though they know how everything will turn out.
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For they are entertaining the thought that the morally correct outcome is
improbable relative to the information within the scope of the fiction operator
that is available up to the relevant point in the fiction.That is, the paradox of sus-
pense disappears once we recall that emotions may be generated on the basis of
thoughts, rather than only on the basis of beliefs. Indeed, emotions may be gener-
ated in the course of entertaining thoughts that are at variance with our beliefs.
Nor is the recidivist reader, listener, or viewer of suspense fictions irrational or
perverse in any way. For in contemplating the proposition unasserted “ that the
heroine in all probability is likely to be killed “ the recidivist, despite what he or
she knows about the last-minute rescue, recognizes a situation in which the good
is unlikely, and it is always appropriate or intelligible to undergo consternation in
reaction to even the thought of such a prospect.
In terms of the way in which I set forth the paradox of suspense in the open-
ing section of this chapter, the strategy that I have just employed to dissolve the
paradox involves denying its first premise, namely, that if a fiction is experienced
with suspense by an audience, then the outcome of the events that give rise to sus-
pense must be uncertain to the audience.This seems to me to be the best way to
dispose of the contradiction.21
Competing proposals might suggest that we reconsider the second proposition
in our inconsistent triad, to wit: It is a fact that audiences experience fictions with
suspense in cases where they have already seen, heard, or read the fictions in ques-
tion. The motivation for this seems to be a theoretical conviction that it is just
impossible to undergo suspense when one knows how a fiction will end “ impos-
sible, that is, for anyone who holds the first and the last propositions in the para-
dox. But here it seems to me that theory is recasting reality in its own image; for
it appears obvious that people do re-experience suspense with certain fictions
with which they are already familiar. As I noted earlier, the existence of block-
buster movies like The Fugitive and Jurassic Park depends on recidivists for their
astronomical success; it is the people who go back to see the films from six to six-
teen to sixty times who turn these films into box-office legends.
Perhaps a more popular route in negotiating the paradox of suspense is to
deny the last proposition in the triad “ if audiences have already seen, heard, or
read a fiction, then they know (and are certain) of the relevant outcomes. One
way to do this is to postulate that when confronting fictions, audiences are
induced into a special sort of psychological state that might be described in terms
of self-deception, denial, or disavowal. This way of dealing with the paradox
accepts the phenomenon of anomalous or recidivist suspense as contradictory and
then postulates disavowal as a psychological mechanism that enables us to live
with the contradiction “ it is a mechanism that suffers mental states during which
one both knows and does not know by repressing the former.Thus, the disavowal
account resolves the paradox (or contradiction) of recidivist suspense by portray-
ing the audience as irrational.
Psychoanalytic theorists are particularly prone to this mode of explanation,
because they believe that people are extremely susceptible to disavowal anyway.
THE PARADOX SUSPENSE 269
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For example, male fetishists “ of whom (if psychoanalytic film theorist Laura
Mulvey is correct22) there are more than you might expect “ are said to be
involved pervasively in the disavowal of their knowledge that women lack penises
because that knowledge would stir up male anxieties about castration.
Yet if there is some comparable process of disavowal in operation when audi-
ences consume fictions, then this sort of explanation requires, it seems to me, a
parallel motivation for our denial or disavowal of our knowledge of the outcomes
of fictions.That is, why would we be compelled to disavow our knowledge of the
end of a story? It is hard to imagine generalizable answers to that question.
Recently, a nonpsychoanalytic explanation of anomalous suspense, which also
appears to undermine the supposition that recidivist audiences in suspense contexts

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