Anticipation and suspense are both ways we look forward toward the future. While similar, anticipation is often more psychological, while suspense typically refers to narrative structure. As a psychological mechanism, anticipation shapes an individual’s behavior. The anticipation of a reaction alters the normal stimulus-response mechanism and its relation to affect. While a hand might recoil from a hot stove the first time because of burning pain, subsequent avoidance results instead from the fear caused by anticipating the sensation. Moreover, this fear may, in turn, evoke further feelings of distress or relief. This mechanism serves, of course, an essential function in the educational process. By learning to anticipate pain, the individual also learns to prevent it.
Anticipation also fuels the social nature of affects. Just as we learn to expect the burn, socialization teaches us to expect certain responses to behaviors. As Adam Smith shows, even when an act goes unnoticed, a man who acts in accordance with society’s perceived values feels satisfaction from the approval. He will “anticipat[e] the applause and admiration which in this case would be bestowed upon him, and he applauds and admires himself by sympathy with sentiments, which do not indeed actually take place, but which the ignorance of the public alone hinders from taking place” (139). This claim echoes contemporary affect studies, particularly with regard to the degree of freedom an individual has in society. Children learn propriety through “playing at” emotions and the anticipation of particular responses teaches them as much as a hot stove (Stein 153). By encouraging the individual to act or feel in accordance with anticipated societal approbation or disapprobation, anticipation fundamentally influences other affects.
Anticipation can also be an affect in its own right, as in the general “state of anticipation.” As with other affects, in the case of both physiological reflexes and socialized behavior, anticipation has autonomous status, as its mechanics lie outside of individual control. Reflexes, behavior, and emotions depend more on the training of anticipation than on rational thought. Moreover, anticipation can also detach from particular objects, gaining more of an atmosphere, a phenomenon perhaps most apparent in crowd and mob scenes. People commonly describe the “buzz” that takes shape when there’s the possibility of an exciting event or important announcement. This buzz, building primarily off anticipation, may be divorced from any single cause. Through affective contagion, the excitement of others spreads, even if there is no evidence of a genuine reason for that affect. Instead of expectation, as in the socialization and behavioral examples above, anticipation here builds off of an open-ended possibility.
While we rarely characterize everyday life in terms of “suspense,” the term serves as anticipation’s aesthetic equivalent. In a narratological sense, plot and its pleasures depend upon alternating between suspense and satisfaction. A story establishes uncertainty, which it will then resolve or not, in deliberate subversion of suspense. In this sense, suspense seems to contrast with anticipation, as suspense relies on uncertainty, while anticipation comes from expectation. Narrative suspense largely derives from the reader’s capacity to imagine possible outcomes, harnessing the tension that results from multiple anticipations operating at the same time.
The “structural affect theory” of W. F. Brewer and E. H. Lichtenstein considers suspense in relation to curiosity and surprise. All three phenomena involve knowledge of an event, but differ based on the order in which the text reveals outcome, causation, and related events (Hoeken and van Vliet 277-279). Several studies have shown that suspense does not depend entirely on the lack of knowledge. Even when a story’s ending is known, its narrative ordering and pace still allow suspense to develop (Hoeken and van Vliet 285). Moreover, suspense also emerges out of the reader’s identification with a character, an aspect of sympathy where the character’s concerns become the reader’s (Knobloch et. al. 261). Additionally, the experiences a reader brings to texts have some influence, as a story presented as “fiction” will often generate different expectations or allowances of suspense than one presented as “news” (Knobloch et. al. 281). The reader’s familiarity with generic conventions thus create a set of expectations that affect how the reader responds to the text’s narrative structure, including its use of suspense.
Deleuze, Gilles and Felix Guattari. What Is Philosophy? Trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Graham Burchell. New York: Columbia UP, 1994.
Hoeken, Hans and Mario van Vliet. “Suspense, Curiosity, and Surprise: How Discourse Structure Influences the Affective and Cognitive Processing of a Story.” Poetics 26 (2000): 277-286.
Knobloch, Silvia, et. al. “Affective News: Effects of Discourse Structure in Narratives on Suspense, Curiosity, and Enjoyment While Reading News and Novels.” Communication Research 31.3 (June 2004): 259-287.
Smith, Adam. The Theory of Moral Sentiments. New York: Penguin, 2009.
Stein, Ruth. Psychoanalytic Theories of Affect. London: Karnak, 1991.
Tomkins, Silvan. “What Are the Affects?” Shame and Its Sisters: A Silvan Tomkins Reader. Ed. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick and Adam Frank. Durham: Duke UP, 1995.
Uidhir, Christy Mag. “An Eliminativist Theory of Suspense.” Philosophy and Literature 35.1 (April 2011): 121-133.