Monday, May 25, 2009

The Importance of Suspense -- Part 5

Part 5

Here is the fifth installment of the thread called “The Importance of Suspense", which is discussing "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)

Suspense is generated by:

Interaction of characters (competition, misunderstanding, hostility, love relation, distrust, deceit, betrayal)

Characters are the lifeblood of mystery fiction. Without them, there would be no mystery demanding solution; it’s human consciousness, after all, that interprets a set of circumstances and events as constituting a mystery.

In large measure, readers read to associate with the characters—enjoying their diverse personalities, observing them responding to events, identifying with them, fearing for them, urging them on, second-guessing them, judging them, wishing them well. And of course authors enjoy the characters too: they’re fun to create, launch into play, and orchestrate in their interactions. Suspense as I’ve defined it arises from characters’ interaction with events, or their interactions with each other. I’ll discuss the former in the next section. Here I want to discuss Suspense that arises from “interpersonal” engagements.

Many types of human interaction are capable of generating Suspense. People disagree, compete, fall in love, harbor bigotry and prejudice, mistrust others’ motives, lie, cheat, betray, nurse grudges, seek revenge, pass judgments, and enter into seductions. The particular interactions that might produce Suspense for the reader are as infinite as the individual characters that authors create to people their stories.

The following types of interactions come to mind by way of illustration: any conflict with an uncertain outcome; any misunderstanding needing to be resolved; a proposal of marriage; providing counsel or advice to a close-minded, headstrong person (who might be in denial); convincing an aged but stubborn parent to give up the car keys; disagreements regarding the significance of something; a person’s making a report and telling a truth, but not being taken seriously, nor believed; betrayal of a trusting friend for personal advantage; hiding a shameful secret from someone who has a need or right to know; mistrusting someone (insurance salesman, lawyer, nursing home director, cop, judge, or mortician) who promises something of benefit; a child’s providing emotional support to a grandparent at a time of crisis; spouse’s deceiving spouse to hide an adulterous affair, etc. And of course the necessary baseline conflict between the protagonist(s) and antagonist(s) is a given. For readers, Suspense arises from not knowing the outcome of the particular interactions the fictional characters engage in, but wanting to know, and reading on to see what happens. (Will she say yes, or reject him? will Aged Parent give up control of the keys? will “Cassandra”, who knows the truth, ever be believed? will Millicent find out that Edward is cheating on her?)


Characters’ engagements with action or event (the chase, the pursuit, a coming assassination, will they find the child in time? Etc.)

Characters’ interactions with events are a common source of Suspense for readers. These interactions include characters’ responses to events that have already happened or are currently in process, as well as those yet to come that they’re anticipating or planning for. Some stories are chockablock with stressful events that hurl the protagonist from crisis to crisis so fast there’s no breathing space or oasis of calm. In a long work, such a rapid and unremitting pace can fatigue the reader; and by the narrative’s always being in a state of crisis, particular crises lose their force, emotional impact, and what special meaning they might’ve had.

The manufacturing of crises whose outcomes aren’t immediately certain is, I think, a relatively easy way to create Suspense: simply put the hero in harm’s way, push the button, and let the chips scatter as they must. Authors who wish to write thrillers (and even lazy authors) can fabricate a reasonably propulsive tale that satisfies readers who enjoy, and are content with, the titillation of constant Action. But this ease of using crisis to generate Suspense should be a warning to authors who aspire to write fiction of a different sort than action-thrillers.

And truly, “event” encompasses much more than crisis. It can be something as small as opening a door, or cleaning a wound, winning a bet, or sending an e-mail. On the other hand, it can be a longterm process, like settling a labor strike, or writing a novel, planting a garden, or planning a heist. It’s by identifying with characters as they interact with events which have significant but uncertain consequences, and thereby vicariously sharing in this interaction, that readers themselves experience Suspense.

Some actions and events are inherently more suspenseful than others. A standard device for generating suspense is The Chase. Though they are a cliché, chases do quicken the reader’s pulse; it’s their effectiveness at doing so that’s made them a cliché. And to be sure, they contribute legitimate suspense to a story (unless there are too many of them, in which case they become repetitious and a drag). For all his story-telling skills, the late Robert Ludlum seems to have been much given to The Chase: in the books of his I’ve read (and I stopped after six) it seemed that his protagonists were always on the run. A final word regarding The Chase: for the reader, pursuit can be as suspenseful as flight.

Suspense is created when characters are forced to interact with events that present them with overwhelming odds, that hinder them with apparently insurmountable obstacles, that confront them with catastrophic situations which can be defused only by luck, pluck, cleverness, and speed. (Can the protagonist forestall the scheduled assassination and thus prevent a war? find and deactivate the ticking bomb in the next four minutes? discover where the kidnapped girl’s been hidden and rescue her before she goes into diabetic coma? Etc.)

Again, these devices frequently embody cliché: just consider how many novels, short stories, stage plays, radio dramas, films, and crime & detective TV series have used them. But skillful writers are able to avoid readers’ seeing them as clichés by employing them in fresh and surprising ways—so effectively that readers don’t consciously recognize them as something they’ve seen before. And they haven’t:—because in the hands of skillful mystery writers the devices come to have a new life in unique surroundings, freshly minted in a space not visited before, a space inhabited by original, interesting characters embarked on what for them is an uncharted journey. Once enmeshed in the author’s well-woven web of suspense, readers have little choice but to join in and continue the journey with these characters, responding to events and circumstances as they come.


A series of connected events whose sequential unfolding produces consequences (the domino effect) that can be partially foreseen

A useful way of generating suspense is for the author to plan a logical series of connected events which, when set in motion, go down sequentially like dominoes to produce consequences which readers can partially foresee. (Each of these consequences, in turn, becomes a new event with its own potentials for generating suspense.)

When this device is used, readers’ Suspense arises from a (partial) understanding of the projected series of events and the fact that the occurrence of one will trigger the occurrence of the next, and so on. To the extent that readers can foresee the sequence, they feel excitement and suspenseful anticipation based in either hopefulness or dread. (Frequently the “caper novel” exemplifies the use of this device.)

I stress that the reader’s foreknowledge must be only partial, because, as I said in Part 1, “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.” While generating Suspense through partial foreknowledge and anticipation, authors must always allow for an element of surprise and the unexpected. Knowing (from experience) that the author they’re reading is inclined to spring surprises also intensifies the readers’ Suspense.


Yet to come:

• 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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