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Freakonomics

How to Create Suspense

The episode was inspired by a fascinating research paper called “Suspense and Surprise” by the economists Jeffrey Ely, Alexander Frankel, and Emir Kamenica. We speak with all three of them about what makes a particular sport suspenseful (or boring), what makes a movie thrilling (or, as in the case of M. Night Shyamalan, increasingly not), and why these things are worth discussing within the realm of economics:

ELY: We view the construction and the development of suspense and surprise and other aspects of entertainment as basically optimally economizing on a scarce resource, which is the ability to change someone’s beliefs.

KAMENICA: There’s lots of settings where someone that’s about to engage in economic transactions cares about what the other person thinks. A salesperson wants you to think that they like your car. A lobbyist wants a politician to think that this policy that’s good for the industry is good for them. So the whole idea of how you change people’s beliefs has lots and lots of economic applications.

We also talk to some practitioners of the art of suspense. You’ll hear from the prolific

 novelistHarlan Coben, whose domestic thrillers are virtually impossible to put down. (His latest is The Stranger
) Coben has discovered that a corpse is all well and good for creating suspense, but a missing person is better:

COBEN: If a person’s dead, they’re dead; I’m just trying to solve the crime. But if a person is missing, you have hope. And hope can be the cruelest thing in the world. It can crush your heart like an eggshell, or it can make it soar. And so you raise the stakes by giving people hope and you raise the stakes by just leaving something out that maybe can complete you.

You’ll also hear from the film and TV producer Brian Grazer, who is perhaps even more prolific than Coben (usually in concert with Ron Howard, with whom Grazer foundedImagine Entertainment in 1986). Among their TV productions are Empire, 24, Arrested Development, and Friday Night Lights. On the film side, they’ve done A Beautiful Mind, Apollo 13, American Gangster, 8 Mile, Rush, and many more. Grazer also recently published his first book (with co-author Charles Fishman

), A Curious Mind: The Secret to a Bigger Life
. In it, Grazer writes about his long-standing habit of arranging conversations with people he admires – “curiosity conversations” he calls them.

GRAZER: So I’ve done that with probably a thousand people. And the book itself is in some ways a synthesis of these over 30 years of meetings that I’ve had. … And in some ways, and at some times, they became insights that gave me an interesting or new perspective on what could be a movie or television.

Most important, Grazer is willing to take us behind the scenes on a film like Apollo 13. “I can tell you,” he says, “how we created the suspense if you want.”

Yes, we want. And we get.

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