Katrin Riese, Mareike Bayer, Gerhard Lauer and Annekathrin Schacht

In the eye of the recipient: Pupillary responses to suspense in literary classics.

Scientific Study of Literature

Plot suspense is one of the most important components of narrative fiction that motivate recipients to follow fictional characters through their worlds. The present study investigates the dynamic development of narrative suspense in excerpts of literary classics from the 19th century in a multi-methodological approach. For two texts, differing in suspense as judged by a large independent sample, we collected (a) data from questionnaires, indicating different affective and cognitive dimensions of receptive engagement, (b) continuous ratings of suspense during text reception from both experts and lay recipients, and (c) registration of pupil diameter as a physiological indicator of changes in emotional arousal and attention during reception. Data analyses confirmed differences between the two texts at different dimensions of receptive engagement and, importantly, revealed significant correlations of pupil diameter and the course of suspense over time. Our findings demonstrate that changes of the pupil diameter provide a reliable ‘online’ indicator of suspense.