Suspense and Avoiding the Inevitable

Everyone has been talking about Game of Thrones. Something big happened. I have read the books but since I’m blessed/cursed with a useless memory I can’t remember what it is (I did read them ten years ago). I’m trying to avoid the shock and the horror of my online peers so that I can experience it myself as if for the first time.

I have, however, stalled watching the first season two episodes from the end. D bought me the box set for Christmas and I watched the first episodes over the space of about two days. It’s now June and I haven’t finished the series. I’ve still got those two episodes waiting. I can’t bear it, because I do know what happens at the end of series one and I don’t want it to happen, so I did what I always do and switch off. Still, the box set is sitting on my shelf, and I know that in the back of my mind I need to get back to it, that it’s only television and it’s already happened anyway.

This isn’t the first time that I’ve done this with a TV series that I was enjoying. In season 4 of The Wire there’s a storyline in which Bubbles creates a hot shot of heroin and sodium cyanide for someone who is bullying him. Of course it all goes wrong, and the viewer knows it’s going to go wrong. That sort of tension is too much for me. I feel it in my whole body, the fear of something horribly inevitable. I switched The Wire off half way through an episode in series 4 and didn’t return to for eight months.

This is how suspense works. The audience knows something that the characters on screen (or on the page, or stage) don’t know. It causes a visceral response in the audience who know what is going to happen, whose imaginations are fired up by the expectation of what is to come. For me, it’s too much. I get paralysed by inevitability. I know what will happen to Ned Stark, and I don’t want it to. With the luxury of DVDs I can just stop watching. Yes, I am totally lame. I will return to GoT soon, I promise!

Here’s Alfred Hitchcock, “Master of Suspense”, talking about creating tension:

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