Is there a difference? – Absolutely, yes, although the two are closely connected. Before I anwser that question in more detail, let me ask you another one. Is it necessary to use both in fiction writing? I suppose not. As the author, you’re free to write anything, anyway you want to. But if only surprise or suspense is used I have to question, how well is the story written?
Now, let’s talk about surprise and suspense, and I think you’ll see why it’s so important to use both.
The use of surprise seems to come out of the blue. The reader is not expecting it. It blindsides him. But the effect is short-lived. He may receive a shot of adrenaline, but the thrill soon passes. Good writing should contain a susrprise here and there to excite the reader.
Suspense, on the other hand, begs the question, what is going to happen next? it’s suspense that keeps the pages turning. Suspense isn’t necessarily surprising, but it builds from the surprise. Consider Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. We know the story well, but if we were reading it for the first time, we might be surprised that a ghost would be part of a Christmas story. As the story progresses, suspense begins to make us wonder who will visit next? What will be the outcome?
What about a story about a serial killer? The surprise may be when the first murder takes place in a passive, rural town. Then we see murders are to be expected. Suspense takes hold when we don’t know who will be next – how, where or when it will happen. The only way to find out is turn another page. After all, that is the goal, isn’t it.
Try surprise and suspense in your stories and see what happens. You just might create a New York Times bestseller.