Sunday, May 10, 2009

The Importance of Suspense -- Part 1


I'd like to start a thread called “The Importance of Suspense" with a group of posts and comments focusing on "The Categories of Suspense in Mystery-Writing: How to Launch and Maintain Them”. I’ll kick it off it with a first installment (with more to follow). Please comment; I’d really like to know your thoughts on the topic.

As authors of mysteries, how do we keep our readers turning pages? By netting them in a web of Suspense, using as many types and categories of withholding and surprise as possible. If a story’s interesting and well-told, readers will be curious to know what comes next in the narrative, and how the plot will be resolved. While readers’ curiosity certainly contributes to the creation of the Suspense they experience, management of their curiosity is not totally within the author’s control. But what authors do have complete control over are the devices for generating Suspense which they employ in weaving their web.

Before discussing the devices which produce different categories of Suspense (some of them peculiar to the mystery genre), we need a general definition: In a literary context, Suspense is a state of mind created when readers (a) do not know what’s coming next in the narrative or what the outcome of a conflict or sequence of events will be, but (b) want to know, and (c) care about what happens. The last two are crucial: if readers don’t want to know what happens, or don’t care about events and outcomes, they probably won’t finish the book.

To create a web of suspense, authors must keep their readers continuously “guessing” as to the next developmental incident and the shape of ultimate outcomes. Predictability is the great enemy of Suspense. Readers should not be allowed to know with certainty what lies ahead, and authors should sprinkle the path with surprises.

Knowing that surprises will occur provides readers with pleasurable anticipation and keeps them wondering what they will find around the next bend. This “looking ahead”—informed by (b) and (c) above—urges readers onward, anticipating (1) the probability of being frequently surprised and (2) learning whether their expectations regarding outcomes are to be fulfilled or reversed.

Authors know that anticipation is powerfully conducive of both hope and dread. Once engaged, readers are compelled to read on to discover whether their hopes are vindicated or their dreads justified. But engagement can occur only if the author has successfully made readers want to know and truly care about what happens.
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[More to follow]
Projected topics in this thread:

• R. Austin Freeman’s “inverted detective story” (Dr. Thorndyke), where readers witness the crime and know who the murderer is. This is a special category of Suspense: the generative device is wondering whether and by what means the killer will be caught, and watching the detective reconstruct the crime, gather evidence, and apprehend the perpetrator. (Represented in recent years by the popular Columbo TV series, with Peter Falk as the detective.) The inverted detective story tends to force readers into the role of spectators rather than being detectives in their own right working to unravel the mystery alongside the protagonists or in competition with them.

Suspense generated by:
• Cliffhangers
• Reader’s knowledge of something unknown to the detective: “Don’t open that closet!”
• Sequence of connected events (the domino effect) which (perhaps) can be partially foreseen.
• Reader’s “participating” in the planning of events to come: watching the caper being organized, and therefore knowing what could go right or what might go wrong; then watching the caper unfold
• Readers witnessing the introduction of complications and stumbling blocks which might disrupt a well-planned caper.
• Interaction of characters (competition, misunderstanding, hostility, love relationship, etc.)
• The progress of misunderstanding or crucial revelations within dialogue.
• Solution of problem or puzzle (perhaps against a deadline of some sort), or the cracking of a “code” (Can it be done? It better be!)
• Foreshadowing (perhaps in dialogue): something to anticipate, to look forward to (with eagerness or dread)
• Danger to be faced or escaped from
• Action or event (the chase, the pursuit, a coming assassination, will they find the child in time?, etc.)

Suspense as a function of:
• Verbal choices by the author
• Narrative pacing
• Withholding of information (from reader or protagonist)
• Setting, locale, atmosphere (Dartmoor, Vienna 1882, Mexico, a large hotel, a ski resort, a morgue)
• Isolation (mountain cabin in blizzard, secluded island with no helicopter or telephone, a dark cellar (“No one will hear your screams.”)

And perhaps we will discover many additional topics and categories.

Copyright © Robert D. Sutherland, 2009


In his short story “Knock”, Fredric Brown says the following:

“There is a sweet little horror story that is only two sentences long.
‘The last man on Earth sat alone in a room. There was a knock on the door . . .’
“Two sentences and an ellipsis of three dots. The horror, of course, isn’t in the two sentences at all; it’s in the ellipsis, the implication: what knocked at the door? Faced with the unknown, the human mind supplies something vaguely horrible.”1

1Fredric Brown, “Knock”, in Shot in the Dark, ed. Judith Merril (Bantam Books, 1950), p. 40

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