What Is Suspense?
A.H. [Alfred Hitchcock] In the usual form of suspense it indispensable that the public be made perfectly aware of all the facts involved. Otherwise there is no suspense. (Truffaut: Hitchcock (1983), p. 72, emphasis mine)
Back when I was an undergrad at the University of Maryland at College Park, I took a film class that focused on British director Alfred Hitchcock. Our main text, based largely on interviews that you can listen to at the Internet Archive, was Francois Truffaut’s book, which I still highly recommended for any film buff.
The difference between suspense and surprise
Hitchcock, of course, had a keen interest in suspense, as distinguished from surprise.
A.H. There is a distinct difference between “suspense” and “surprise,” and yet many pictures continually confuse the two. I’ll explain what I mean.
We are now having a very innocent little chat. Let us suppose that there is a bomb underneath this table between us. Nothing happens, and all of a sudden, “Boom!” There is an explosion. The public is surprised, but prior to this surprise, it is seen as an absolutely ordinary scene. Now let us take a suspense situation. The bomb is underneath the table and the public knows it, probably because they have seen an anarchist place it there.
The public is aware that the bomb is going to explode at one o’clock and there is a clock in the decor. The public can see that it is a quarter to one. In these conditions this same innocuous conversation becomes fascinating because the public is participating in the scene.
The audience is longing to warn the characters on the screen: “You shouldn’t be talking about such trivial matters. There’s a bomb beneath you and it’s about to explode!” (Truffaut, p. 73, reformatting and bold emphasis mine)