Friday, May 29, 2009

The Importance of Suspense -- Part 6

Part 6

Here is the sixth installment of the thread called “The Importance of Suspense", which is examining "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 generated by:

Foreshadowing (perhaps in dialogue): giving the reader something to anticipate

Foreshadowing occurs when authors insert into the text hints and intimations of events or situations that ostensibly will come later in the narrative. Foreshadowing, a highly effective means of generating Suspense, is to be distinguished from foretelling, and from planning future actions, as in a “caper novel”.

Foreshadowings presage, prefigure, or raise the possibility of future events. Foreshadowing may take many different forms—a passing remark, a puzzling artifact discovered in an old desk, an eccentric person’s observed habits, the arrival in a small town of a notorious person just released from prison, a cluster of disturbing physical symptoms that may presage a serious illness, a casual discussion regarding the nature of avalanches, floods, earthquakes, tsunamis, and other natural disasters (in environments where these things could happen).

There’s a maxim from theatrical production that’s useful here: “If a gun is introduced to the audience in the first act, it had better be used in the third.” (I suppose Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler is one of the best examples of this principle in action.) Conversely, if someone is shot in Act 3, it’s helpful for the audience to have been made aware in Act 1 of the gun’s presence onstage. (And of course, if much is made of the gun in Act 1, the audience’s having to wait to see how it will ultimately be used will contribute to their Suspense).

The playwright’s revelation of the gun in Act 1 is a “plant”(a device which I would contrast with foreshadowing). Though the gun’s appearance in Act 1 is a preparation for its later use, its “planting” does not per se specify how it might be used in Act 3—just that it will have some role to play. On the other hand, I’d suggest that, while sometimes vague in precisely what they portend for later narrative incidents, foreshadowings are generally less open-ended than plants because they tend to point forward in specific directions, toward particular situations and events.

Foreshadowings can have several functions. By hinting at potential future events, (1) they prepare the way and generate suspense by whetting the reader’s anticipation. By occurring in the text prior to the events and situations they presage, (2) they lay a foundation which lends credibility to the events and situations when they do occur. And (3) if they take place in dialogue, they may possibly reveal the speakers’ anticipations, opinions, hopes and fears regarding the matters presaged—if they do, those revelations will have the collateral benefit of contributing greater depth to the speakers' characterizations.

Available to authors writing in the first person point of view and in the third-person omniscient, there’s a heavy-handed version of assertive intimation which I call “there-you-have-it” foreshadowing. Like the cliffhanger, it is frequently seen as a blatant attempt to generate suspense: “I got home late and went straight to sleep. When the alarm woke me at six, I got dressed and went to the office. I should have stayed in bed.” Or, “After some soul-searching, she did XYZ. It would prove to be a mistake.” Or, “He decided not to send the gift. Later he wished that he had.” Open-ended, for sure, and inherently vague. Of note: implied negative consequences seem to be more capable of generating suspense than implied positive consequences: “Thelma wondered if she should divorce George or kill him. She finally decided to kill him—the best decision she could have made.” These “there-you-have-it” foreshadowings leap off the page. If used often in a single work, they come to be extremely obnoxious. If they’re to be used at all, it should be only rarely, when they are the best way of achieving some sought-after special effect; and, possibly, with authors’ tongue-in-cheek awareness that their presence can evoke genre-based self-referential humor.


The growth of misunderstanding or the emergence of crucial revelations within dialogue

In writing fiction, dialogue is one of the author’s most powerful tools for advancing the story. What characters say can look backward to what’s already happened, point forward to what might happen in the future, and engage immediately with the ongoing present. And more: dialogue can establish story-line continuity; make possible evaluative and critical assessments of past events; remind readers of what they should remember; foreshadow events to come, increasing readers’ anticipation; highlight those things that speakers regard as important; deepen the speakers’ characterizations by showing how they say things, what they reveal, what they withhold, and if they dissemble (their habits of mind as well as speech).

Dialogue can suggest a vital key to a puzzle or introduce red herrings to confuse the trail; empower debate/joint planning/teamwork in fashioning hypotheses and sketching possible scenarios for solving crimes; present opportunities for making apologies and promises, issuing admonitions and warnings; allow occasions for witty repartee and humor, as well as invective, put-down, sarcasm, and insult; and, finally, teach readers useful facts about bee-keeping, poisons, family relationships, history, law, gambling, the environment, forensic technology, the binomial theorem, monastic life, military matters, the square on the hypotenuse, etc.

In addition to all of the above, dialogue is one of the author’s most powerful tools for intensifying readers’ Suspense. Not only because of what speakers say regarding future events and the making of plans, but also because the sequential give and take of verbal exchanges between two or more people is inherently dramatic and suspenseful. Dramatic because verbal exchanges demonstrate in “real time” the interactions of personalities with issues at stake. Suspenseful because it’s not possible for readers to know with absolute certainty how one person will respond to something said by the other. (Even the response to a simple yes-or-no question might result in surprise: if from previous knowledge readers know that, to be truthful, the responder should say ‘yes’ and expects that this will be the answer, the responder, in fact, might lie and say ‘no.’ Or the responder might equivocate, or throw up a verbal smokescreen (“Now why would I do that?”). Or not answer at all (silence is a response, too).

It is impossible for readers to know for certain what will occur next in conversation as utterances alternate between speakers, each of whom has personal needs, concerns, motives, purposes, and a unique view of the world. Readers can guess what the response will be to a particular utterance, but they cannot know for sure. To find out, they must continue reading. Not knowing what’s coming next, but wanting to know, and caring about the outcome constitutes Suspense.

In addition to its inherent suspensefulness, dialogue can also intensify readers’ Suspense through specific means. Let’s look at a few of these—not an exhaustive list; I’m sure you can come up with others.

Suspense can be created through dialogue when:

a) on the basis of their prior knowledge, readers can observe that the speakers unwittingly are talking at cross purposes, or past each other; or watch with dismay as a fundamental misunderstanding worsens and grows more profound (or heated) as the dialogue progresses.

b) when readers share the frustrations felt by protagonists or material witnesses who, truly knowing what happened/where the bodies are buried/the names behind the cover-up/the identity of the masked man, etc., try to impart this information to others but can’t get anyone to take them seriously or believe what they say. (Won’t Cassandra ever be believed? the reader wonders.) This device is used so often it’s more than a cliché; it’s an iconic fixture of the mystery genre, frequently predictable in the plotline and therefore tedious:—but still capable of creating Suspense as frustration builds (despite readers’ possible irritation at having encountered the too-familiar device yet once again).

c) when readers, having identified with the protagonist (an amateur sleuth or private eye), experience frustration/irritation when that detective is shown disrespect, condescension, contempt, or outright hostility by the professional police investigators. (This too is an iconic fixture of the genre, frequently encountered.) (An analogous parallel occurs in the police procedural, when friction develops because of jurisdictional rivalries or turf battles—municipal police versus the FBI; precinct vs. precinct; Homicide vs. Vice; regulars vs. Internal Affairs).

d) when through observing a series of conversations—perhaps the detective’s interviews with witnesses or the murder victim’s associates, or brainstorming sessions among members of an investigative team—readers gain assorted facts (or encounter crucial revelations) which enable them to start fitting things together and formulating a theory of the crime. (Suspense arises through excitement and anticipation as the picture emerges.)

e) when something is said in conversation that gives readers crucial information (perhaps recognized as such because of things they’ve “heard” in earlier conversations), but whose significance is not grasped by the speakers themselves. (The reader then comes to know and understand something that the speakers don’t.)

f) when a speaker says something that readers know to be untrue. (The suspense arises from knowing that the other speaker is being lied to, or misled, and wondering what later consequences this will have.)

In The Maltese Falcon1 Dashiell Hammett wrote a masterful bit of dialogue which illustrates some of the points I’ve been making. Detective Sam Spade and “the fat man”, Casper Gutman, have met for the first time in a context of mutual suspicion and distrust. Each is trying to get the measure of the other. [I have stripped away most of the narrative description and the ascription tags identifying the speakers to reveal more clearly what Hammett has accomplished through dialogue alone. It’s interesting to observe that in excellent dialogue (with only two speakers) ascription tags generally aren’t needed for readers to know which character is talking (alternating speeches and internal cues do the job).

(Gutman pours Spade a glass of whiskey, and Spade does not stop his pouring by saying “When.”)

Gutman: We begin well, sir. I distrust a man that says when. If he’s got to be careful not to drink too much it’s because he’s not to be trusted when he does. … Well, sir, here’s to plain speaking and clear understanding. … [They drink.] You’re a close-mouthed man?

Spade: I like to talk.

Better and better! I distrust a close-mouthed man. He generally picks the wrong time to talk and says the wrong things. Talking’s something you can’t do judiciously unless you keep in practice. … We’ll get along, sir, that we will. … A cigar, sir. [Gives Spade a cigar. They light up.] … Now, sir, we’ll talk if you like. And I’ll tell you right out that I’m a man who likes talking to a man that likes to talk.

Swell. Will we talk about the black bird?

Will we? … We will. … You’re the man for me, sir, a man cut along my own lines. No beating about the bush, but right to the point. ‘Will we talk about the black bird?’ We will. I like that, sir. I like that way of doing business. Let us talk about the black bird by all means, but first, sir, answer me a question, please, though maybe it’s an unnecessary one, so we’ll understand each other from the beginning. You’re here as Miss O’Shaughnessy’s representative?

I can’t say yes or no. There’s nothing certain about it either way, yet. … It depends.

It depends on—?

If I knew what it depends on I could say yes or no.

Maybe it depends on Cairo?


You could say, then, that the question is which of them you’ll represent?

You could put it that way.

It will be one or the other?

I didn’t say that.

Who else is there?

There’s me.

That’s wonderful, sir. … That’s wonderful. I do like a man that tells you right out he’s looking out for himself. Don’t we all? I don’t trust a man that says he’s not. And the man that’s telling the truth when he says he’s not I distrust most of all, because he’s an ass that’s going contrary to the laws of nature.

Uh-huh. Now let’s talk about the black bird.

Encountered in this form, Hammett’s dialogue has a theatrical effect—a story advanced through speeches and minimal physical business (like a stage play). If heard, accompanied by sound effects (the clink of glasses, the pouring of whiskey, the striking of a match), it could be a radio drama (and has indeed been presented in that format). What does the dialogue accomplish? It provides information about the personalities, temperaments, purposes, and verbal habits of the speakers. It advances the story by bringing Spade and Gutman into an edgy first encounter and intimates that information regarding the black bird will be forthcoming.

It pulls Brigid O’Shaughnessy and Joel Cairo (whom both Spade and the reader have met previously) into the ambient mix, and suggests to the reader that anyone who distrusts as many types of people as Gutman does is perhaps not to be trusted himself. Spade clearly doesn’t trust him, as evidenced by his laconic answers. Gutman, who doesn’t trust Spade, puts off for as long as possible discussing the black bird—a man who clearly likes to hear himself talk, and is himself willing to “beat about the bush” with high-sounding repetitious filler to avoid telling Spade anything of substance until he’s “sure” of where the detective stands. Spade, with singular focus, will not be deflected from wanting to know about the bird.

The dialogue shows clearly how difficult it is for readers to predict with certainty what the content will be of any response to a particular utterance. Readers must read on to discover these responses, and in so doing will try to glean what they can of reliable and pertinent information relating to the problem or puzzle at hand. While readers may not consciously analyze what the dialogue is accomplishing from the author’s point of view, careful readers will at the very least assimilate the gist of what it is the author’s trying to impart regarding characterization and story. All of this, the conscious and the subliminal, contributes to the readers’ Suspense.



1 The Maltese Falcon © renewed by Dashiell Hammett, 1957

Copyright © Robert D. Sutherland, 2009


deverowe said...

Recently I read Hammett's short story THE WHOSIT KID, which he says led to the writing of FALCON. I could see the links: things that happened off-stage in FALCON were already there in WHOSIT, which is why the novel is mostly dialogue, and Floyd Thursby is shot offstage (by Wilmer), as Captain Jacoby.

Jacqueline Seewald said...

I enjoyed your discussion of suspense. I've read The Maltese Falcon more than once because it's such an outstanding example of mystery writing. And, yes, the dialogue does create suspense while developing character and furthering the plotline. A lot to be learned from it.

Jacqueline Seewald
THE INFERNO COLLECTION, Five Star hardcover, Wheeler large print