The Bomb Under the Table
Alfred Hitchcock's secret to suspense
Hey — it’s Nathan.
In 1970, the American Film Institute sat down with “the master of suspense” Alfred Hitchcock. They asked him two questions:
What is the difference between surprise and suspense?
How do you leverage suspense to immerse people in your stories?
He answered both questions with one analogy — the bomb under the table (video version).
This is a gem, so I won’t belabor the point. Three ideas to focus on:
1. The Power of Anticipation
The ticking clock isn't just a measure; it's an instrument, heightening emotion with every tick. Time is the silent amplifier.
2. Believable Bombs
Your audience tends to have a great BS meter. So drawing them into the world you've built requires grounding your threats. But how do you make that threat believable?
It’s about the context of your story. If you’re doing a George RR Martin impersonation, then yeah threaten to kill off the whole cast in chapter 3. But if you’re digging into a personal story, then maybe your “bomb” is that deep-rooted sense of shame you’re fighting or the fear of embarrassment you want to overcome.
The “bomb” doesn’t need to be earth-shattering. It needs to be specific and realistic within the context of the story you’re telling.
3. The Possibility of Relief
Further along in the interview, Hitchcock dropped this quote on the importance of giving your audience relief:
At the end of The Dark Knight, the Joker has two ferries trapped in the harbor. It’s a wonderfully terrifying social experiment. But a perfect example of the ‘Bomb Under the Table.’
Anticipation: One ferry carries civilians and the other prisoners. The Joker gives both groups a detonator to blow up the other ship. He promises, “You might wanna decide quickly. Because the people on the other boat might not be so noble.”
Believable: The Joker isn’t trying to blow up the entire city. But instead 300 people on a ferry. You’ve watched him commit atrocities this bad for the last two hours. If a ferry could blow up, there’d still be plenty of story left for the third movie in the already-announced trilogy. Specific and realistic.
Relief: Expecting an explosion, The Joker says, “And here we go…” Then nothing happens. Watching The Joker’s grin fade, the audience instinctively takes a massive sigh of relief. That built-up tension is released. A payoff.
If you want to see Hitchcock’s theory in action, here’s that 4-minute clip.
Have an awesome weekend,
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5 things I found interesting this week:
3,567 sci-fi ideas waiting to be brought to life. Packy McCormack wrote a great piece on sci-fi ideas that have been turned into products and those that still haven’t been.
Make Good Art. Neil Gaiman’s 2012 commencement speech at the University of the Arts is one I come back to.
First chapter mistakes new writers make. You liked last week’s Abbie Emmons video so much I wanted to include another. Wish I’d seen this one a few years ago.
“Re-reading is probably more important than reading. Seek to cognitively own a great book rather than just reading it.” Loved this quote from Farnam Street.
Be a Recorder. Rick Rubin, the legendary music producer, on the skill of listening.
A Sentence (or Two) I Wish I Wrote
Reply with your best guess of what novel this comes from. I’ll send the 19th correct reply a copy of Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott.
“I wish it need not have happened in my time," said [character 1].
"So do I," said [character 2], "and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.“
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