The term dates back to Alfred Hitchcock, and while the concept almost certainly predates the fat man, he provided its most catchy formulation:
There is a distinct difference between "suspense" and "surprise," and yet many pictures continually confuse the two. I'll explain what I mean.Agro aptly displays the distinction. There's zero surprise because, as stated above, we know how the story plays out. Yet Affleck ratchets up the tension by telling everything. We see the six Americans struggling with cabin fever even as their compatriots in the embassy have guns held to their heads. An Iranian maid wonders to the Canadian ambassador's wife just how long her strange houseguests plan to stay indoors. Crews of child laborers painstakingly reassemble the embassy's shredded documents, their progress punctuating the period by which the revolutionaries will realize that some people made it out of the compound. When Mendez arrives on the scene, one of the Americans steadfastly refuses to play along with the cover story, finding it ridiculous. Suspicious phone calls begin. During a trip to establish the group as a film crew, Iranian agents surreptitiously snap photos of them. The U.S. government decides to pull the plug mid-mission, only to have Mendez's CIA comrades frantically scramble to persuade high-level officials of its viability even as he's on his way to the airport. You get the idea: Even familiar tales can turn tense through skillful revelation.
We are now having a very innocent little chat. Let's suppose that there is a bomb underneath this table between us. Nothing happens, and then all of a sudden, "Boom!" There is an explosion. The public is surprised, but prior to this surprise, it has seen an absolutely ordinary scene, of no special consequence. Now, let us take a suspense situation. The bomb is underneath the table and the public knows it, probably because they have seen the anarchist place it there. The public is aware the bomb is going to explode at one o'clock and there is a clock in the decor. The public can see that it is a quarter to one. In these conditions, the same innocuous conversation becomes fascinating because the public is participating in the scene. The audience is longing to warn the characters on the screen: "You shouldn't be talking about such trivial matters. There is a bomb beneath you and it is about to explode!"
(Picture: CC 2008 by arash_rk)