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Play Writing - Suspense And Surprise

( Originally Published 1915 )

To sum up: when once a play has begun to move, its movement ought to proceed continuously and with gathering momentum; or, if it stands still for a space, the stoppage ought to be deliberate and purposeful. It is fatal when the author thinks it is moving, while in fact it is only revolving on its own axis. —WILLIAM ARCHER, Play-Making.

There are two theories in the theatre: the theory of expectation and the theory of surprise; in other words, some authors want the public let into the secret of the play, while others prefer that the spectators should not be initiated, but should guess if they can or be surprised if they cannot guess. I am of the latter party.—ALEXANDRE DUMAS fils. Note to "Le Demi-Monde."

The interest of the story must not simply be maintained after the "exciting moment:" it must be constantly ened, rising step by step, pausing only at the minor climaxes which mark the breathing-spaces, and then taking up its ascent again until the main climax is reached.

It would be only too easy to cite good examples of this ever-increasing tension toward climax. To tell in a general way how to attain it, on the other hand, is no simple matter. There is no power on the part of the dramatist that depends more completely upon a native endowment than this ability to screw up the emotional interest in a play from point to point, without ever allowing the key to slip in one's fingers and the tension to slacken.

Suspense the Chief Element of Rising Tension

The element upon which interest in the drama chiefly depends is that of suspense. Suspense is largely an anxious curiosity—emotional, of course—to know what is going to result from certain given causes and what in turn will happen as the consequence of these results.

A and B are bitter enemies whom circumstances have for long kept apart. A leaves the room on a brief errand, and B, not knowing where he is, enters. The evident question is: What will happen when A returns? Undoubtedly some form of conflict, for this has been clearly indicated. Woe be to the playwright who fails to gratify such an expectation, once he has aroused it! And when the conflict has come and gone, it must leave in its train other still more absorbing possibilities of struggle—unless, indeed, it be the end of the play.

It is not to be understood that the process of continued and rising tension must be hastened forward with never a moment of delay from the first curtain to the last. On the contrary, the element of suspense itself may often be best heightened by means of pause. To play on the word justifiably, expectation is held up—suspended. One must simply make sure that whatever delay is admitted has been carefully calculated with reference to its possible effect: it will either whet general curiosity as desired, or dissipate it.

An Example of Suspense

Supreme suspense is best revealed through a highly emotionalized situation that is held, revolved, viewed from one angle after another, rather than hastily terminated, and that inevitably gathers force from the very process of delay, always providing the movement is constantly upward from a lower stage of tension to a higher. For a striking example consult the bedroom scene of "The Gay Lord Quex, which has been practically duplicated, by the way, in "Under Cover." In "L'Ange gardien" of Monsieur André Picard there is a remarkably similar instance of tension. Thérèse Duvigneau has discovered the amour of Georges Charmier and his hostess Suzanne Trélart, whose husband Thérèse has threatened to inform if Georges does not instantly leave the Trélarts' château. Determined to silence this strange guardian angel, Charmier forces upon her a tête-a-tête the outcome of which the audience naturally awaits with keenest interest. During this interview, little by little the true character of Thérèse,-hitherto unguessed, reveals itself; and -a conflict which started in mutual hatred terminates in the most unexpected manner possible. In "The Gay Lord Quex" we assist at a stubborn battle of wits, relieved at the end by a touch of chivalry; in "L'Ange gardien" the struggle is one of intense passions, and it is by so much the more dramatic. At the end of Monsieur Picard's gripping if morbid climax, moreover, we are left in the utmost eagerness to learn the outcome of the bizarre situation.

In this connection, too, the novice, whether aiming at the more artificial or the serious drama, may well consider the method of Monsieur Henri Bernstein, who always works up his crescendo to an apparent climax of revelation, only to seize it afresh and carry it on up to still loftier and more thrilling heights. Thus, in "L'Assaut," the hero, alone with his fiancée, forcefully refutes the charges against his integrity, only to break down at what seems the grand climax and confess his guilt. Or, in "Israel," the tortured mother succeeds in persuading her son to call off the duel he is involved in. The curtain seems just on the point of faffing, when an idea suddenly strikes him and he begins the gradual extortion of the confession that the Jew he hates is his own father. These last instances are here cited for their technical skill, without regard to the question of their artificiality—of which more later.


This leads us naturally to a consideration of the element of surprise, which furnishes a delicate problem for the dramatist, since it depends upon a certain degree of mystification. Mr. George M. Cohan, in his "Hello, Broadway!" amusingly satirizes the professorial warnings against keeping an important secret from the audience, a procedure said to account for the failures of numerous plays. Everybody knows that, in spite of the objection raised by Lessing and other critics, one of the chief pleasures of the theatre results from the shock which follows an unexpected revelation or turn of events. "Arsène Lupin," for instance, is chiefly concerned with the pursuit of a certain bold and mysterious burglar; and, though the audience is kept in the dark as to the thief's identity until some time in the third act, the interest of the play does not suffer.

In the case of "Under Cover," as has been remarked, it is not until the last fen minutes of the piece that we learn that the "smuggler" hero is in reality a secret service detective who has been following the trail of a grafting customs official. The validity of Mr. William Archer's contention' that the majority of subsequent audiences will be apprised of the startling disclosures and mechanical trucs of the first night of a play is certainly discredited by the success of this "daring innovation." As a matter of fact, Mr. Archer greatly overestimates the amount of advance information possessed by the average playgoer. He assures us that "the clock-trick in `Raffles' was none the less amusing because every one was on the lookout for it." Personally, I must subscribe myself as a chronic playgoer who was entirely unprepared for this ingenious method of escape adopted by the "amateur cracksman." Moreover, it was apparent that the great majority of the audience shared in the complete surprise. One perhaps reads about such matters in the reviewer's column, but does one generally retain them in memory? As for "Arsène Lupin," the masked lift similarly utilized at the close of that similar play was also entirely unexpected. The identity of the burglar, however, was vaguely recalled in advance. And the chief trouble with "Under Cover" is precisely that the experienced playgoer, knowing that the hero of a melodrama, in love with an honest girl, cannot possibly be permitted to remain a crook and cannot be satisfactorily "reformed," and having heard mention of a mysterious "R. J." as a world-beating sleuth, instinctively senses from an early moment what the author is at such pains to conceal—that Stephen Denby and R. J. are one and the same. In other words, for the sophisticated at least, the surprise is diminished, if not defeated. I for one would certainly be far from grateful to a neighbor at the performance of "Under Cover" who would take the trouble to warn me in advance of Denby's real business. And I am no more grateful to the critic who details to me the plot of any new play that I am likely to have an opportunity to see performed. " Within the Law," I remember, proved quite tame to me, because I had read the plot—the principal part of melodrama—so often before I saw the production.

In another recent play in which Mr. Rol Cooper Megrue has had a hand, "It Pays to Advertise," there are some effective bits of surprise. One comes when the apparently stern father, who has violently antagonized the girl of his son's choice, suddenly proves to be merely conspiring with her to stimulate the youth to enterprise. Much more delightful is the totally unexpectable moment when the Parisian "countess," before whom everyone has spoken so freely on private and personal matters in the belief that she cannot understand English, abruptly drops her voluble French and starts talking in Bowery lingo.

Although "crude surprise" is, indeed, to be avoided, a story play that gave the spectator no gentle shocks at unexpected turns would be unquestionably handicapped in its bid for favor. Knowing the story of a new play before one sees it does not prevent one's taking pleasure in it, as one often does in a second performance; but the pleasure then is somewhat different.. The main source of interest, of course, lies in watching the reaction of events upon the given characters. Still, we always take keen de-light in unguessed means of escape from seemingly blind-alley situations, especially when skill has entered into the preparation for the surprise.

In "The Playboy of the Western World," for example, when the swaggering Christy Mahon, just arrayed in his new clothes, has—in words—deepened the wound he gave his father to the point where the old man was "cleft with one blow to the breeches belt," it is certainly pleasant to behold without warning the supposedly dead Mahon Senior suddenly appear in quest of his son. Fortunately, however, this shock of surprise is not kept for the climacteric moment of Christy's triumph in the sports, but occurs some time before. In consequence, we have the added pleasure of anticipation in watching to see what will happen when the conquering hero is confronted with his battered "Da," and how Pegeen Mike will take the unexpected downfall of a poet-lover robed by her in romantic illusion. We have the double delight of surprise, again, when after being "killed in Kerry and Mayo too" old Mahon comes to life a second time. "Expectation mingled with uncertainty is one of the charms of the theatre."

How Much to Keep from the Audience

As for keeping a secret from the audience, this tentative rule, nowadays often cited, may possibly be of service: If the information withheld be essential to an understand- ing of what is happening on the stage, failure is probably inevitable; but, on the other hand, if the concealment takes place without obscuring the action or unduly bewildering the spectator, it may prove a source of added pleasure at the moment of revelation.

The skill of exposition, as we have seen, often manifests itself in the way the author parcels out the information to his audience bit by bit. Meanwhile, he is keeping secret after secret, for a longer or a shorter period; and his entire play will, in a sense, have to proceed upon the same plan. "On Trial" is a remarkable example.

In all drama some eventualities are predicted, others are merely foreshadowed, while still others are abruptly presented without preparation. In many cases, nothing short of the innate dramatic instinct could be relied upon to determine which of the three courses ought to be followed.

One common failing is the practice of telling too much in advance, which generally results in useless repetitions as well as the blunting of the dramatic point. For instance, in Messrs. Paul Armstrong and Wilson Mizner's melodrama, "The Greyhound," a climacteric scene in which the detective outwits the sharper in a game of cards is rendered tame because it has already been explained just how the scheme will be worked. The reader will doubtless be able to multiply similar instances from his own experience as a playgoer.

In that extraordinary psychological comedy already referred to in the present chapter, "L'Ange gardien," these matters of surprise and mystification, in their relation to the element of suspense, are well illustrated. Frédéric Trélart and his pretty young wife Suzanne are entertaining a house-party at their château, including the latter's lover, an impetuous artist, Georges Charmier, and his good-natured friend, Gounouilhac. In the course of the first act, the "good Gounou," having been mercilessly bantered by Georges, repeatedly threatens him with a practical joke by way of revenge. Presently the guests go for a stroll in the night air, after turning out all the lights by means of a switch located just inside the door. A few minutes later Madame Trélart and the painter meet clandestinely in the pitch-dark room, and presently the lights are switched on for the space of five seconds, after which someone is heard rapidly retreating along the path. The consternation of Suzanne and Georges is naturally shared by the audience. Who was it that turned on the lights? Not Monsieur Trélart, probably; for he would not have gone away. But, then, it must have been someone who has gone to inform him! Georges, however, recalls the threat of Gounouiihac and insists that they are simply the victims of the latter's promised vengeance.

The unsolved problem, of course, carries the keenest interest over into the second act; but the author is too skilful to weary his audience by a prolonged mystification. Though there is at first some difficulty in getting any reassurance from Gounouilhac, he presently makes it known that he was not responsible for the tell-tale illumination, and that none of the others of the party followed Suzanne to the rendezvous. So the thing is narrowed down to Thérèse Duvigneau, who very soon acknowledges that it was she who manipulated the electric switch.

The judicious employment of this frank device—the careful preparation for the sudden shock of the brilliant illumination after the total darkness, with all its implications and the consequent alarm—may perhaps seem to smack of artificiality and the melodramatic. However, "L'Ange gardien," far from being primarily a mere story play, is in reality a profoundly subtle study in psychology, comprising, in addition to a group of cleverly drawn types, at least one full-length portrait, so remarkably complex, so nuancé, indeed, that Monsieur Henri de Regnier, commenting on the piece, was led to suggest that such minute characterization belongs rather to the novel than to the play. The point is that wise and competent dramatists do not scruple to devise fresh theatrical expedients and to make the best use of all the possibilities of plot, even when engaged in the sincerest and most thoroughgoing realism. The interest in "L'Ange gardien" passes quickly to the psychological—if, indeed, it were ever primarily any-thing else; but it is cunningly fostered and heightened step by step through scenes of suspense to a powerful climax and an equally moving conclusion.

Danger of Misleading the Audience

If it be dangerous to mystify your audience, it is usually fatal seriously to mislead it. To set forth manifest incitements to expect certain important developments, and then not to furnish them, will scarcely be forgiven. Whatever reasonable anticipation is aroused must be fulfilled. Among the things the audience has a special right to expect and demand, as most writers on the drama have pointed out, are those incidents which are of such vital importance that they must not be allowed to take place off stage—what Sarcey called the scénes d faire. Here again the inborn gift is the final guide. What may be narrated? What must be actually shown? I remember that, when Mr. Booth Tarkington's interesting and popular story, "The Gentleman from Indiana," was presented in a stage version by the gifted Edward Morgan, the play failed quite obviously because the crucial events were not exhibited in action, but merely described in dialogue. It is a mistake to let essentials happen "off stage," whether prior to the play, or between acts.

Finally, in this connection, be it remembered that the audience is entitled not only to the scenes it has been led to anticipate, but also to the treatment indicated from the beginning. Many an author has really made a promising start and got no farther, usually because the temptation to let drama degenerate into melodrama, or comedy into farce, has been irresistible.

Dramatic interest, then, is best maintained and heightened by means of suspense, the very nature of which indicates delay, but delay without relaxation. Surprise also serves the playwright's purpose in this respect, though it is a means which must be handled with caution, owing to the often dangerous element of mystification it involves. Coleridge has pointed out that Shakespeare—in contra-distinction, one sees, to Dumas fils—relies rather on expectation in his dramaturgy than on surprise. "As the feeling with which we startle at a shooting star, compared with that of watching the sunrise at the pre-established moment, such and so low is surprise compared with expectation."' Nevertheless, this lower expedient, so long as it is not overdone, has its effectiveness and its legitimate place in the drama. And more than one noteworthy character-play or play of ideas has gained excellent advantage from the employment of this device as of all the others.


1. Commit to memory the first sentence of this chapter.

2. Make a diagram of any play plot, showing the progress of suspense and surprise.

3. Do the same for one of your own plots.

4. Point out the use of suspense in any modern play.

5. Show how augmented suspense is used to work up to a climax.

6. What do you understand by a minor climax, and the resolution of suspense, as a part of the main action?

7. Cite an instance in which the expectation of the audience is favorably disappointed by introducing a surprise.

8. What do you understand by crescendo in a plot?

9. Is it permissible to mislead an audience for a short time in order to effect a surprise? Support your answer by giving examples.

10. Is there any safe middle ground between misleading an audience and mystifying them for the sake of a surprise? Literary Remains.


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