Surprise: to strike or occur to with a sudden feeling of wonder or astonishment, as through unexpectedness.
Shock: a sudden or violent disturbance of the mind, emotions, or sensibilities.
Suspense: a state or condition of mental uncertainty or excitement, as in awaiting a decision or outcome, usually accompanied by a degree of apprehension or anxiety.
All three definitions are from Dictionary.com
I am currently writing a short story as a break from editing. It is a horror story, and so I want to evoke suspense, surprise and shock in my audience as the basic emotional responses. These three emotions are related, but shouldn’t be confused. They do have very different implications when used in the horror genre.
Surprise can be a positive emotion as well as a negative one. It results from something unexpected happening, be it a birthday present or a cockroach crawling out from under the bath. What flavours the surprise is its origin, and the response can vary from person to person, in that what surprises one person may be a terrible shock to another.
Shock can be both an emotional or a psychological response. It is a stronger emotion than surprise, and generally has a more negative overtone. Hearing about the death of a beloved family member is a shock, not a surprise. Shock is not the same thing as ‘shocking’; a glimpse of stocking might be shocking, but it won’t create the same dramatic response as shock, with the sudden chills and dangerous change in blood pressure. It takes much longer to recover from a shock than it does from a surprise.
Suspense can be summed up with that old saying ‘waiting for the other shoe to drop’. Suspense is the backbone of the horror genre; it is created by the overwhelming tension when waiting for the knife to stab or the monster to move out of the shadows. Often, your audience can create worse scenarios in their minds than if you were to give them the full details of what is happening and what the villain looks like.
Of course, the horror genre is built around the actual events like gore and violence, and a good slashfest is horrific. But by building the tension first, the release is much stronger. Make your audience anticipate the worst, and then shock and surprise them with the unexpected monster. Horrible, ghastly, and scary …