I’m an avid fan of Jane Austen’s works. They’re wonderfully written, witty, and interesting. Also, the language used is older English, so it’s delightfully elegant.
In grade 12, I read Pride and Prejudice for school; it was the first book by Jane Austen I’d ever read, and I fell in love with it.
The next one I read was Emma.
And as I read it, I noticed something that Pride and Prejudice managed to achieve that Emma didn’t.
Warning: this post is going to be full of spoilers for both Emma and Pride and Prejudice. If you have not read them, do not read any further.
Also, make sure you read my previous post! I use a lot of terminology in this post that I explained in that post, and you’ll get more out of this post if you read that one first. 😉
Confession time: I read Dear Mr. Knightley shortly before reading Emma – and in doing so, accidentally spoiled the whole story for myself. 😅😂
However, this actually created a more enjoyable reading experience for me – which is what first drew my attention to this subject.
Now, my previous post was on suspense and tension: what it is, why it’s important, and how to create it. Suspense is created when you introduce information and then hold it suspended, unanswered, but promising answers. Readers are left wondering how it will be answered – and that’s what happened when I knew what was going to occur in Emma.
I knew that Emma was going to end up with Mr. Knightley, and that Mr. Elton was going to be a mistake. These left me curious, desiring to know what would happen throughout. I viewed Mr. Knightley as a love interest, rather than a kind mentor and friend. That changed my perception entirely, and is why I enjoyed the scenes from his POV (point of view) so much.
As you can probably already tell based on the subject matter of this post, Emma didn’t possess suspense, while Pride and Prejudice did. But at the same time, Emma contained a lot of plot twists. So… which works better?
I want to break down how they both did (or didn’t) use suspense and plot twists – and how you can do the same.
Plot Twists VS Suspense
Have you ever read an amazing book where you had a plot twist thrown at you partway through that left you reeling?
What a great feeling, huh?
But here’s the thing: leading up to that, the author would have been sowing seeds of foreshadowing and setting up for the twist… but obviously, they couldn’t reveal anything about it. It’s a twist! It’s like a bomb going off: it’s a single explosion, and then it’s used up. That means you can’t show too much of it, or else you’d spoil the twist.
Suspense is the ticking of the bomb as it counts down to go off.
Here’s a quote by Alfred Hitchcock that explains what I mean perfectly:
There is a distinct difference between “suspense” and “surprise,” and yet many pictures continually confuse the two. I’ll explain what I mean.
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!”
In the first case we have given the public fifteen seconds of surprise at the moment of the explosion. In the second we have provided them with fifteen minutes of suspense. The conclusion is that whenever possible the public must be informed. Except when the surprise is a twist, that is, when the unexpected ending is, in itself, the highlight of the story.
Emma is longer than Pride and Prejudice, and it has quite a few plot twists throughout it: Mr. Elton being an awful person, Harriet falling in love with Mr. Knightley, Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax being secretly engaged the whole time, and Mr. Knightly actually being in love with Emma being some predominant ones. But while they were happening in the background of the whole story and had a big reveal, all readers got to see was the surface: Jane Austen pulled the wool over everyone’s eyes, and that’s exactly what you want to do during a proper plot twist.
Pulling the wool over people’s eyes does not keep them engaged. There has to always be something else that’s getting them through the book. The reason I read Emma so quickly was because I actually was aware of some of those things going on in the background; I had insight that the main character, Emma, didn’t!
It made the book a lot more interesting to read – like, to a ridiculous degree. It dragged me through the boring parts, and I finished the novel within a week: I was staying up late, getting up early, and reading in between work, completely hooked.
Suspense is a powerful weapon. Writers need it in their arsenal.
See, we love stabbing readers in the back, making them cry, and tripping them up. A bomb carefully planted is an incredibly powerful weapon as well.
Oh, the sound of that bomb ticking is music to a writer’s ears.
Pride and Prejudice
*cracks knuckles* Okay, so here’s where the fun begins.
Because it actually, you know, began. At the beginning. Of the book.
*gesticulates wildly* FROM THE MOMENT WE MET THESE CHARACTERS! THEIR INTERNAL CONFLICT! WAS SHOWN! Even when Elizabeth wasn’t aware that Mr. Darcy was truly in love with her, readers WERE! And what happened as a result??
We sat through Jane Bennet being ill at Mr. Bingley’s house for forever because of all of Elizabeth and Darcy’s interactions!
We eagerly tore through balls and parties!
Even just a nod of their heads to one another, because we. 👏 freaking. 👏 KNEW.
I am getting so riled up about this right now. 😂 But like-!!
*takes in a deep breath* *tries to be calm*
The fantastic thing I can point out here is that she coupled them together. Not just Elizabeth and Darcy, I mean.
Sorry, couldn’t resist. Suspense and tension with plot twists!
Who saw the whole thing about Wickham coming? Or Lydia? Who knew what had occurred in the past between Georgiana Darcy and Mr. Wickham? There were some huge plot twists in this story!
Oh, darling, suspense is what hooked readers from the start.
How to Recreate this – Together
While I have bashed Emma, I don’t hate the book. On the contrary, I still enjoyed it. I liked the plot twists, too, and think we can definitely learn from them. Also, side note: I watched the BBC version of Emma with my mom and sisters recently, and *chefs kiss* it was amazing. I can honestly say for once the movie was better than the book – BUT BEFORE YOU KILL ME, it actually does the story almost word for word, action for action, emotion for emotion… and only deviated to fix the issues I had with the book. So, it was the book, but visual, and tweaked slightly so that it was perfect. For instance, it drew more attention to the questions that were raised, which heighted the suspense and tension immensely (which was one of my biggest issues with the book). It even created some scenarios for Emma and Mr. Knightley that hinted at and helped set up for their romance. Seriously, it was so good. 10/10 recommend (after you read the book, of course 😉).
There were more things it did that I think really helped – like the way it really focused on characters, their backstories, and internal conflict – but for the sake of this post, let’s just focus on the suspense and plot twists.
Both this movie with its small fixes and Pride and Prejudice present us the key to the best way of doing suspense and plot twists: by using both.
You can hit readers with a plot twist, but also keep them eagerly turning pages with suspense; when used together, they create an incredible harmony, each one layering and building upon one another to make the other even better than it was before.
The best way to do this is by twining elements together: what you use to set up a plot twist should also be used to create suspense. A great way to do this is through foreshadowing, which I have
gleefully written posts about before.
This sets your reader up not only to be shocked and hooked, but desperate to know the answers. Give them part of the answer – suspense – and they’ll want the whole. Throw in conflict – tension – and it will prolong it. Set up stuff throughout – foreshadowing – and you can create a plot twist that will hit readers right in the gut.
Some of my favourite scenes from Emma were the ones from Mr. Knightley’s POV; that was because they revealed stuff that Emma herself didn’t know. That’s part of the reason I personally love writing from more than one POV in my books: you can set up so much suspense, simply by giving information to the reader that the other characters don’t know.
How to do This
I have analyzed both books a bit now, so let’s discuss some actionable tips you can take away from this post!
Foreshadowing: one of my favourite subjects. Most people know that foreshadowing is necessary for a good plot twist, but I, of course, enjoy breaking the rules a wee bit.
In the past, I have pushed the envelope when it comes to what you can do with foreshadowing. I get excited every time I think about my post where I talked about flashbacks: I love flashbacks as they are, but in that post, I talked about my favourite thing to do with them. I seriously believe that it takes them to the next level. As you probably can guess, it was foreshadowing.
I’ll leave you to read that post if you want to find out more on foreshadowing flashbacks, but for now, I want to push that envelope again by proposing that foreshadowing is actually good for suspense as well.
*pushes glasses up nose* *steeples fingers*
Suspense, remember, is when something is held suspended. This could be, for example, a question. The presence of the question alone promises an answer. That could be considered foreshadowing, in a sense.
However, once we’re in the thick of things, you’d think you wouldn’t really be able to foreshadow anything anymore – unless, of course, you want to spoil the answer.
But I would like to propose that we can.
Now, when it comes to a suspense arc, the whole point is to hold something suspended; we want to keep it unanswered for as long as possible. However, we can foreshadow other elements surrounding it.
Let me explain.
A huge suspense arc in Pride and Prejudice is, of course, the main plot: will Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth get together? Obstacles are thrown in their way, hurdles that they must overcome from every direction, and other characters attempt to stop them. Conflict ensues. Suspense and tension are prevalent.
One extremely large obstacle is how Elizabeth essentially throws Mr. Darcy’s first proposal back into his face.
This is a bit of a plot twist moment: Elizabeth had no idea how much Mr. Darcy actually felt for her until this moment, and he had no idea what she actually thought of him until this moment. It changes the whole playing field for the rest of the book, and it wasn’t exactly something that was foreshadowed.
But think of this: readers knew that Mr. Darcy was in love with Elizabeth, but Elizabeth didn’t. They were left to wonder how will she react when she finds out?
The more we got to know each character, the more the suspense grew.
Because we began to get an inkling of how they would react.
What kind of happened was that potential outcomes were somewhat foreshadowed. Readers were left to speculate, which kept up the suspense, but this served to tighten and heighten the tension even further: Elizabeth clearly doesn’t like Mr. Darcy. That’s the setup. The foreshadowing is done in small moments, when feelings are proposed to her and she dismisses them. Readers get to see what her reaction to the truth might be.
It’s a kind of foreshadowing of character: it is the most delicate version of foreshadowing. I mean, foreshadowing in general is a very sneaky art, but this is like, a trickle in comparison. You’re just barely starting to weave a new kind of thread into the tapestry of your story.
As another example, when it comes to Emma, we get to see in a very memorable moment after the picnic where she cries in the carriage after Mr. Knightley’s scolding. She clearly values his opinion of her, which serves as that kind of foreshadowing of character.
In all honesty, this concept is less foreshadowing than characterization. However, I want you to be able to clearly see in your mind the way that this must be set up beforehand, so everything can make as much sense as possible, as well as be the most seamless, the way foreshadowing in general must be. Applying this term to it assists you in understanding it.
Now! *claps hands together* When it comes to plot twists, I think everybody knows that you should always foreshadow one. Unless you are me when I was 11. In which case, you think that if you don’t know that the plot twist is coming, then the readers won’t either (they won’t), and you will therefore pull off an effective plot twist (you won’t) that no one sees coming (they won’t). 😂
*dropkicks my younger self away*
OKAY LET’S IGNORE HER AND HER BAD ADVICE, SHALL WE?
When you use the word foreshadow, that alone contains the idea of twisting the plot in some way in the future. Merriam-Webster defines it as:
Beforehand: what a great way to describe it. You represent or indicate something that will happen, beforehand. That means that it will happen afterwards.
By setting something up before you need it and having it in place to use later, that alone can take readers by surprise – making a good plot twist. So, before I begin to talk about how this works so well, let me just say: always, always, ALWAYS foreshadow plot twists. I don’t care what else you do with a plot twist, even if it involves killing off my favourite character; just please foreshadow your plot twists ahead of time. This sets them up to be SO much more satisfying, make SO much more sense, and hit readers SO much harder!! Endless benefits!
You don’t even have to foreshadow a lot; just once. Lead up to it. Depending on how big the twist is, and how involved, you may need more or less foreshadowing. But readers are very unforgiving towards un-foreshadowed plot twists, because they feel random, out of the blue, and unplanned. Very unprofessional.
Okay! *dusts off hands* Now that I have that rant out of the way, let’s continue. 😝😂
When you have a plot twist, any foreshadowing is good (as long as it’s not obvious and reveals everything, of course; if you want to learn more about that, I have written posts on how here and here). But, if you want to add a little something more to it to make it even more swoon-worthy, then here’s my tip for you:
Foreshadow it by using elements that tie into your suspense arcs.
The more elements you have riding on one element, the more power your explosion contains when it goes off. Once too many ride on it, of course, it can become noticeable, and everything will fall apart when the reader realizes what’s truly going on. But twining suspense arcs and plot twists together??
For instance, in Pride and Prejudice, there is a mini twist of sorts when Mr. Darcy shows up at Pemberly when Elizabeth thought he wouldn’t. In the BBC movie, though, this is basically the only scene they deviate from the story: they have Mr. Darcy go swimming, of all things. 😂
As you watch the two of them, unaware of the other being there, you feel that rising dread as you wonder what will happen when they see each other??
That’s the bomb under the table concept: you know what will happen when it hits zero.
It will blow up.
In the same way, we knew that Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy were going to see one another at some point. We saw the twist – Mr. Darcy showing up when Elizabeth wasn’t expecting him to (and when he clearly wasn’t expecting her, either) – and then it intensified the suspense elements of the story – what is going to happen when they run into each other?
Meanwhile, if you look at Emma, there are plenty of plot twists to go around in it. Where it lacked suspense, it did contain about one paragraph of foreshadowing for each twist. I noticed quite quickly that Jane Austen liked to introduce questions once, and then leave them be, not having her characters think over them too much. She’d have Emma question something, get suspicious, perhaps for a line or two, and then move on. (Which, if you watch the BBC series, it fixed! It made sure to draw a lot of attention to all the questions, which made it literally so addicting. My mom, sisters, and I stayed up till ten at night to finish the final episode, okay? 😂 And my mom usually falls asleep while watching movies at night!)
Even that small amount was enough foreshadowing, however; I’d say it’s like, the bare minimum level of foreshadowing, but if you are more interested in the grand flourishing surprise at the end, then that’s definitely the way to go. I personally like to raise a few more questions and get readers to remember it more clearly; that’s what the BBC series did. Why is that such a good thing, though?
Because that creates suspense, my friend.
That leads into my next point:
I talked about this a little in the previous post, but I’m putting it in here again because it’s just that important.
*takes a sip of coffee*
When it comes to suspense, one of the best ways to really build it up is by revealing information. Just like with the idea of foreshadowing elements around what could potentially occur (characterization), it can create that rising-dread effect that we writers so love to induce in readers. *grins evilly*
If you create conflict by throwing more obstacles in the way of the character, or by revealing new and unexpected information (like a plot twist 😉), you suddenly have that screeching violin sort of effect in your novel as everything just gets that much more intense.
This was my biggest issue with Emma: like I mentioned in the last section, Jane Austen did the bare minimum of foreshadowing. And while it vaguely raised questions in a reader’s mind – enough for them to recall down the road and feel like it was set up and hinted at in some way – it didn’t reveal ANYTHING.
This drives me bananas, because I hate seeing stories that have so many elements right not use them right. I sometimes end up in agony after a story because they were literally *holds fingers together* this close to having everything right. But then, they miss out on just one element, and everything they were going for just doesn’t hold together quite right. All the ducks are lined up in a row, but the mother ducky leading them along to their destination is missing.
… actually, that a kind of weird metaphor. LET’S MOVE ON, SHALL WE?
Ultimately, the biggest problem with Emma, then, in my personal opinion, is that it doesn’t reveal anything. It has so many things going for it, so many interesting twists and turns and plot twists… but while Jane Austen vaguely mentioned questions, she never delved into anything about them. I wish that she had revealed more; that would have instantly amped up the suspense, interest, and tension as conflict ensued. I, of course, knew more than what was on the page by accident, but it would have made the story so much more gripping.
On the flip side, Pride and Prejudice is abundantly clear about literally everything from the start: Darcy, his feelings, Elizabeth, her feelings, Jane, Bingley, their thoughts, and more. As the book goes on, more and more is revealed, and you are kept glued to the page, desperate to know what happens next – even if what’s next is just another party or lunch. The suspense is on point.
Now, when it comes to plot twists, they are, in and of themselves, a reveal. They are referred to as a plot twist because they twist the plot in a new direction you weren’t expecting it to go in. If they don’t do that, they’re not a plot twist.
A plot twist could reveal a new piece of information, a new move on the board, or a new obstacle for the protagonist, for example. (Side note, betrayals are super popular because they check multiple boxes in that respect.)
You can even use a plot twist to explode a new suspense arc into existence: what will happen? How will the character react? A plot twist changes the game, and we want to know how this will affect our beloved main character – and what they will do about it.
For example, in Emma, she finds out that Mr. Elton is actually in love with her, instead of Harriet. This changes the game, because she thought she was helping her friend.
We are left in suspense, wondering how will Harriet react? What will Mr. Elton do after being refused? Will Emma finally give up matchmaking?
A good plot twist reveals information, but also introduces new questions. I once wrote a post on using questions to keep readers hooked, and this small piece from it really sums this up:
As it is said, for every question there must be an answer. But in a book, for every answer, there should also be another question. We give the reader that treat, letting them know that it’s worth it to read, because they’ll eventually find out what they want to know. But we need to continue setting a trail.
It’s even better to have multiple questions in a book. The characters are looking everywhere, but even when they get an answer, there’s only more questions. It really builds up the suspense and mystery.
Utilize Your Full Cast
This is such an awesome thing to do for suspense. *rubs hands together gleefully*
I love using other POV characters. Like, seriously: my favourite thing to do is to show the different ways characters view the same thing, and then laugh maniacally in the background when they all have totally different perspectives.
It doesn’t even have to be a big thing, either. Here are a couple I like using:
- Perceptions of other characters (how characters view each other, and then showing how they view themselves differently based on internal conflict)
- One character reveals something about themselves, but you do it from another character’s POV, so that a) you get the second character’s reaction to the new information, b) raise new questions through the second character, and c) DON’T reveal everything, because you’re not inside the first character’s head.
- What different characters know – and what other characters don’t know.
I did this quite a bit in my novel, The Coffee Shop Book: it’s contemporary, so it’s not as if I can use a lot of external things to make things intense. I relied upon the characters themselves, which is how you should always write, honestly.
But it was so much fun!! Especially in my last pass over the manuscript – creating Draft 3 – I added in a lot of suspense through things like this.
- I have my protagonist, and then my other main POV character; both of them have secrets. Most of the time when I revealed a secret, I did it from the other character’s POV; this allowed me to raise new questions and keep what I wanted to keep secret a secret.
- As the story goes on, you begin to see how their perceptions of situations differ, and therefore, see them come to different conclusions. You watch as character one begins to esteem character two, while at the same time character two is putting themselves down for the same reasons. 😂 It’s so funny (to me, at least).
- I also bring in 3 other POV characters at different points in the story, some of them only for one scene. I use these characters to give an outside perspective of the two main POV characters’ situation, as well as reveal new information: secrets the protagonist has been hiding, a plot twist I’ve been secretly leading up to, or a large plot point that will move the story along.
Knowing things is powerful, as I saw when I knew throughout Emma that Mr. Knightley was in love with her. IT MAKES SUCH A DIFFERENCE.
When it comes to plot twists, you can actually reveal a plot twist through another character’s POV that the main character doesn’t know – such as who the villain is, or what their next move is going to be. This is, of course, something that creates suspense, but when it comes to plot twists, it comes down to who it affects most.
I want to do a whole post at some point on plot twists, but for now, let me just draw your attention to the stories we are case studying: in Emma, we get some scenes from Mr. Knightley’s POV. These serve not only to foreshadow and reveal, but also to increase your understanding of the character. This is helpful for Mr. Knightley, because up till now, Jane Austen was showing him more as a mentor, friend, and brother to Emma, rather than a love interest; she needed to start pivoting our perspective of him in another direction.
Imagine if she’d just thrown in the reveal of his true feelings without any hint at it in the least! That would have been jarring, and instead of sweet, might have left readers feeling disgusted, let down, or even betrayed. But these scenes allow us to better see Mr. Knightly and understand him – and like him, which is necessary for character development, as well as any good love interest. 😉
Jane Austen, I have noticed, is somewhat notorious for long explanations at the end of her stories for everything she is leading up to the whole time and hiding in plain sight; she wants to make sure to answer every question she has raised, which is good. She follows through on every promise she makes. But these scenes from Mr. Knightly serve to show his and Emma’s differing perceptions of the same occurrences – and it changes how we see these things, and even the character’s relationship.
Now, that is more suspense and foreshadowing/characterization related than a plot twist, I will be the first to admit. But that’s the thing: when it comes to plot twists and using other characters, it ultimately always ends up twining both plot twists and suspense and tension together in some way, shape, or form.
*rubs hands together for the umpteenth in this post* Okay, so this is where I want to make a point.
I have been looking at suspense and plot twists separately, but this is ultimately what Pride and Prejudice got right that Emma missed out on: it used both.
Any time you show a plot twist from another character’s POV, that’s instant suspense; same goes for betrayal, death, or any other discoveries. You can utilize your cast and make it affect more than one character beyond the protagonist. Use the reader’s favourite character, change the game, turn the tables.
Using both together instantly takes them to the next level.
In Emma, there are a lot of twisty things going on in the story. But as cool as those are, we don’t get to see any of them. Had we been able to see at least something of them, there would have been so much more suspense and tension. However, that was the route Jane Austen decided she wanted to take for this story: she wanted something that appeared calm on the surface, but in reality, was rife with conflict underneath.
And then we have Pride and Prejudice: from the start, we know exactly how each character feels about one another. Jane Austen intensely utilized her cast: she was an omniscient narrator, jumping from one character’s mind to another to show what they were all thinking and feeling, even if it was just a side character. This meant we got to watch the beginnings of Mr. Darcy’s feelings. What’s great is that she then stopped showing his thoughts, and then it was a shock for us when he proposed the first time. Leading up to that, however, we saw that Elizabeth intensely disliked him, especially after she found out (*mimics* “found out”) about what he’d done to Mr. Wickham.
Was it a plot twist when Lady Catherine de Bourgh showed up at Elizabeth’s house and demanded to know if she intended to marry her nephew? Heck, yes! And did that instantly create suspense and tension? You bet it did.
And Wickham; was how he was treated a plot twist? Did it create suspense? Yes, and yes. And what about when it was revealed what actually happened? That instantly twisted the plot, and created so much more suspense and tension: Elizabeth knew while the rest of her family didn’t, it raised her opinion of Mr. Darcy, and later caused what Wickham and Lydia did to be just that much more terrible.
The thing about introducing questions is that revealing the answer is so much more satisfying. Think about it: have you ever looked forward to something? You were left giddy with excitement over it, or impatient for it to occur.
The same goes for giving answers to questions.
At the end of a story, the ultimate question of the story – the largest suspense arc – is answered. If it is favourably, such as in the way readers were hoping for, then the outcome is so much more satisfying.
And if it is answered in a way that is the exact opposite that people wanted, then that makes it just that much more heartbreaking, as readers have become so invested.
Sometimes, we are evil authors and want to do that. Other times, we just want to write novels like Jane Austen where the love interest doesn’t like to dance but is secretly good at it and the couple rides off together into the sunset in a carriage at the end after they are married.
Whew! That was one whopper of a post! But once I get going on this subject, I get going. 😂 Suspense and tension can be such a difficult concept to grasp, beyond just the vague impressions you get of it when you see it in a story or movie. I hope this post helped to demystify it for you, at least somewhat. 😊
If you enjoyed this post, you might also like:
I already have some more case study posts in the works. 😆 These are posts I’ve actually wanted to do for years; I love discussing stories, no matter what format they’re in. If you want to see those in the future, make sure to subscribe!
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Have a great day, my friend; write on.
Are there any books or movies you’d like to see me case study for a specific element?
What do you think of Pride and Prejudice and Emma?
What is your favourite plot twist or suspense arc you’ve ever written?