The Difference Between Intrigue and Suspense

Are you hooked on the new current thriller and don't know why? Do you fear for the future of its protagonist? Perhaps you're experiencing intrigue or could it be suspense? That's what we're going to talk about in this article.
The Difference Between Intrigue and Suspense

Last update: 30 October, 2022

Whether you’re watching the last scene of an exciting movie or the end of your favorite video game, the role that suspense and intrigue play can be decisive. To understand how they work, we first need to establish the differences between intrigue and suspense.

A specific event and its expectation can arouse either interest or rejection on your part. One of the variables that differentiate between one or the other option is attribution. This involves the thoughts that you attribute to a certain event that’s taking place or is about to take place.

There are two types of allocation: approach and withdrawal. When you perceive an event in a pleasant, good, or desirable way, you tend to get closer. On the contrary, if you perceive the event as something bad, unpleasant, or even disgusting, you move away from it. In short, attributions generate within you certain emotions that prepare you for action. Psychologists call this state arousal.

Scared friends with the computer
Suspense is hope or fear due to the anticipation of the outcome of a specific situation.

Arousal

In plain terminology, arousal is the alertness or preparation that you feel in situations marked by anticipation. In a more rigorous sense, arousal is a biological and psychological change that precedes or follows an event. It’s characterized by increased heart rate, hypersensitivity to events, increased attention, and subjective feelings of arousal.

This is precisely what happens to you when you reach the end of a movie that’s kept you on the edge of your seat for two hours. You also feel this kind of excitement when you arrive at the dungeon of the terrible baddie in your favorite video game. Basically, your body is preparing itself because you understand, in some way, that something out of the ordinary is about to happen.

You experience arousal in both approach and withdrawal attributions. In other words, whether you perceive it as something positive or negative. In effect, the arousal state causes you to feel the outcomes with greater intensity. As a matter of fact, it’s thanks to suspense, that the endings of your favorite movies, books, and video games are so pleasurable.

Julie Anna Guidry, a researcher at the University of Louisiana (USA), discusses this arousal phenomenon in her article, The Experience of… Suspense.  She states that suspense is “an experience of anticipatory arousal, that involves the emotions of hope, fear, or both hope and fear. It is elicited by situations in which one is uncertain about an upcoming or important outcome”.

Why you like suspense

Therefore, suspense is nothing more than the emotion of hope or fear that you feel in anticipation of the outcome of a specific situation. It’s something that scriptwriters deftly handle, exploiting it right up to the climax of the program before your brain starts to tire.

Indeed, suspense is produced by an event that you know is going to happen and that has the potential to elicit in you a state of arousal. Therefore, suspense places you, in a way, in an exciting position, but also in an anticipatory one.

However, suspense doesn’t always work. Its success is related to how exciting the event is that you’re expecting to happen.

It could be said that an optimal level of suspense is one in which you perceive that an event may have negative consequences. The kinds of situations in which the individuals involved have little chance of coping with or avoiding.

For example, you might anticipate what’ll happen, but not what the character will do and what it’ll lead to. You might see a thief preparing for a robbery and therefore anticipate what’s going to happen. But when will it happen? And what’s going to happen next?

Suspense is a vicarious feeling. This means you can feel it through another person. That’s why, in suspenseful stories, you find you really identify with the characters.

Man watching tv intrigued
Intrigue feeds an interest in what’s going to happen.

The differences between intrigue and suspense

Now you know what suspense is and what it generates within you, you need to know the mechanisms of intrigue. While suspense is based on the anticipation of imminent danger, intrigue is much less invasive. Basically, it focuses on feeding the viewer’s interest in what’s going to happen.

One of the main differences between suspense and intrigue is that, in the first case, the viewer usually has more information than the characters. However, an intriguing situation might mean you watch a security guard who hears a strange noise, without having any idea whether deep down there’s any need for them to worry.

Intrigue can be considered as a dose of uncertainty around a specific situation. It’s a phenomenon that generates your interest in a natural way. That’s why you like intriguing stories so much because, as with suspense, you experience the arousal state. However, with intrigue (whether or not you know more or less than the characters) your anticipation or the possibility of a certain event happening (whether it’s positive or negative) arouses your interest and allows you to experience a far more pleasant outcome.

As the psychotherapist, Ana Livier Govea (Govea, 2022) claims, thrillers provoke strong emotions of intrigue, mystery, and danger. Not to mention the degree of suspense that the resolution of the conflict can generate. In fact, intrigue and suspense go hand in hand, but they occur within you for different reasons.

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  • Guidry, JA (2005).La experiencia de …suspense: comprender el constructo, sus antecedentes y sus consecuencias en contextos de consumo y adquisición.
  • Govea, A. L. (2022, 15 marzo). Psicoterapia de juego: Desde Los Enfoques Congnitivo-Conductual, Psicoanalítico, Humanista, Gestalt (Primera edición). Editorial Terracota.

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