Saturday, May 23, 2009

The Importance of Suspense -- Part 4


Here is the fourth installment of the thread called “The Importance of Suspense", which hopes to explore "The Categories of Suspense in Mystery-Writing: How to Launch and Maintain Them”. I'm exploring this topic for the first time as the thread progresses; everything is tentative and provisional. I'd be very happy if interested bloggers would post comments, register points of agreement and disagreement, provide insights and examples from their own experience, and join in this effort. (Vergil)

Merriam-Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary (1973) defines ‘suspense’ as “2 a: a mental uncertainty: ANXIETY b: pleasant excitement as to a decision or outcome [a novel of ~].” To my mind, this definition is neither specific nor detailed enough to provide much insight into what readers experience in reading mysteries, or much help to authors in deciding how best they can keep their readers turning pages.

Therefore, in Part 1 of this thread, I presented the following general definition of ‘Suspense’ as, hopefully, more suggestive and useful to writers as they ply their craft: “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.

Since authors use various tactical narrative devices to induce the “state of mind” defined by (a-c) above, and since these devices create many different types, or categories, of suspense, I suggested in Part 2 that it would be useful to conceive ‘Suspense’ as a plural. These diverse categories feed into and undergird the inherent baseline Suspense that readers experience in reading a mystery: and, in so doing, they produce a state of mind constantly assaulted, tweaked, and played upon by combinations of stressors which delay, impede, misdirect, and complexify readers’ attempts to satisfy their need to know. Suspense is intensified by readers’ encounters with deceitful people and shocking events, threats and perils, unforeseen twists in storyline, dark forebodings, frightening images, physical dangers, the expectation of surprise, etc., etc. These the author plans and choreographs to maximize readers’ pleasure and to keep them turning pages.

Continuing to unpack the toolbox— Suspense is generated by:

Danger to be faced or escaped from

Danger (however manifested, and whether anticipated, immediately threatened, or actually in process) produces anxiety and requires some sort of defensive response (evasion, forestalling, flight, counter-threat/-strike, escape). Suspense arises (1) from readers’ not knowing whether, or how, the protagonist will successfully withstand or neutralize or escape from the danger, (2) from (perhaps) not knowing the source of the danger or the shape it will take, or (3) from knowing full well what the nature of the danger is, and what its consequences will be. Suspense also can arise from readers’ identifying with protagonists as they face additional and subsidiary dangers in battling to survive or in making their escape. Most thrillers, whether focused on action, psychology, or the supernatural, rely on actual, threatened, or anticipated dangers to propel their narratives.

Being confronted, stalked, or endangered by an Unknown Menace

A subclass of the preceding is danger emanating from an Unknown Menace. Suspense of high intensity can be generated by readers’ identifying with protagonists who (1) are aware of their being threatened with danger, or are actually experiencing it, but (2) do not know why they are. And, feasibly, (3) do not know who or what is behind it. A shadowy “faceless” menace (perhaps diffuse or indiscriminate in its victims) is inherently frightening, because one does not know what the extent or parameters of the danger might be, what forms it will take in manifesting itself, or even what is motivating it. The source might be a solitary anonymous stalker, a criminal conspiracy (drug cartel, combine of multinational corporations, rogue government agency, terrorists, etc.), an individual or group threatened by the protagonist’s activities, or—in the novel of paranormal terror—a malevolent supernatural force (e.g., Anson’s The Amityville Horror, Lovecraft’s “The Dunwich Horror”, Blackwood’s “The Wendigo”, Dorothy McArdle’s The Uninvited, etc.) (I am not including in this discussion the suspense generated by stories of disaster we’re all familiar with: volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, burning skyscrapers, epidemics, mountain climbing accidents, and sinking ocean liners. Somebody else can explore that topic.)

Readers tend to identify with protagonists in peril (and thus share with them whatever Suspense they experience). This is a boon to story-tellers. To increase readers’ Suspense, authors simply have to augment and intensify the dangers faced by the protagonists and the anxiety they feel. However, the relative ease of revving things up presents a danger to authors themselves. Simply stated, they may fail to make the conclusion fulfill the promise of the buildup. They paint themselves into a corner, their imagination peters out, they find that their initial premise (window dressing aside) is thin and lame.

After they have caused readers to experience keen anxiety and to eagerly anticipate a resolution commensurate with their emotional investment, authors have an obligation to provide a worthy outcome. When I read The Da Vinci Code, I thought it started well. But somewhere around the middle of the book I began to sense signs of strain, a falling off of novelty and imaginative vigor, a kind of repetition, growing predictability. I began to lose interest, fearing the worst. It came, with an ending so weak I almost felt that I had wasted my time. It’s not the only suspenseful book I’ve read that let me down at the end. I’ll bet you’ve read some, too.

But authors who hope to satisfy their readers and gain a following cannot afford to let people down. When people pick up a book to read, they are committing part of their life-time to the effort. Authors should remember this and make sure the reader's experience is worth that very precious time.

Yet to come:


• Interaction of characters (competition, misunderstanding, hostility, love relation, distrust, deceit, betrayal)
• Action or event (the chase, the pursuit, a coming assassination, will they find the child in time?, etc.)
• Sequence of connected events (the domino effect) which (perhaps) can be partially foreseen
• Foreshadowing (perhaps in dialogue): giving the reader something to anticipate
• The progress of misunderstanding or crucial revelations within dialogue
• Reader’s knowledge of something unknown to the detective: “Don’t open that closet!” (Not available in 1st. person)


• 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.”)



Point of view (1st, 2nd, 3rd limited, 3rd omniscient narrator) and how each can or cannot generate certain types of Suspense

Multiple points of view to tell the story

The unreliable or untrustworthy first person narrator

The frame narrative (first or third person)

The first-person narrator an observer/sidekick/companion of the detective protagonist

Ways of withholding information (to increase Suspense and trigger Surprise)



Playing fair with readers’ needs and expectations

Jokes as creators of Suspense (an analogy with mystery-writing)

Copyright © Robert D. Sutherland, 2009

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