The Desire-Frustration Theory of Suspense

What is suspense and how is it created? An answer to this question constitutes a theory of suspense. I propose that any theory of suspense needs to be able to account for three curious features: (1) Suspense is seldom felt in our daily lives, but frequently felt in response to works of fiction and other narrative artworks. [Narrative Imbalance] (2) It is widely thought that suspense requires uncertainty, but we often feel suspense in response to narratives when we have knowledge of the outcome. [Paradox of Suspense] (3) The amount of suspense felt in response to a narrative typically diminishes on repeated encounters. [Diminishing Returns] I offer a theory of suspense that can explain these three features. I argue for a theory called the Desire-Frustration Theory of Suspense, which holds that suspense results when our desire to effect the outcome of an imminent event is frustrated.
Keywords suspense  paradox of suspense  art and emotion
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DOI 10.1111/j.1540-6245.2008.00309.x
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