Friday, May 15, 2009

The Importance of Suspense -- Part 2


Here is the second 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”. This is a subject which has interested me as a writer for a long while. I think that "Suspense" (as I define it in this installment) is a necessary component of effective and successful writing in any genre (but mysteries have their own peculiar requirements and possibilities for generating Suspense which deserve special notice). I'm thinking through this topic for the first time as the thread progresses; everything is tentative and exploratory. I'd be very happy if bloggers would make comments, register points of agreement and disagreement, provide insights from their own experience, and join in this effort. (Vergil)

Broadly speaking, it’s Suspense that keeps readers moving forward through a story. If predictability, the great enemy of Suspense, once manages to come within the gates, readers’ interest will be undermined; indifference and boredom will likely ensue. To hold their readers, authors must, at all costs, avoid boring them.

It strikes me that Suspense is like the head of steam that drives a train or turns the screws that propel an ocean liner on its course. The author's job is to maintain the pressure so that forward movement never flags. There are many ways that authors can do this, many devices and maneuvers that will bind readers fast and keep them turning pages. All these tactics serve the double strategy of making readers want to know what happens, and care about what happens. Since in their diversity these discrete tactics result in various kinds of Suspense, it might be wise to conceive ‘Suspense’ in the plural. Successful authors will empower all of these “suspenses”—whatever their source and causative agency—to work together as a whole to net readers in a web from which they can’t escape. Let’s examine some of these tactics and see where they take us.


The “inverted” detective story: reader as spectator

• Pioneered in the early 20th century by R. Austin Freeman, the “inverted detective story” employs a narrative structure where, early on, readers witness the crime and know who the murderer is. What the reader doesn’t know is whether, and by what means, the killer will be caught. Suspense arises from reading on to discover these things, and from watching the detective reconstruct the crime, gather evidence, and apprehend the perpetrator. (The inverted detective story has been represented in recent years by the popular Columbo TV series, with Peter Falk as the detective.) Foreknowledge of the murderer’s identity tends to put readers into the role of spectators rather than that of being detectives in their own right working to unravel the mystery alongside the protagonists or in competition with them. (Readers who like playing detective, or solving puzzles, or matching wits with the protagonist and/or the author, may not be as gripped by the inverted detective story as they would be by a more conventional whodunit. Those who enjoy watching a problem-solving protagonist at work, or observing the psychological unraveling of a criminal ego, may greatly enjoy the inverted detective story.)

The caper: reader as observer/”participant”

• In the subclass of crime novel called “the caper”, the plot entails an illegal undertaking (usually a theft of money, jewels, or rare artifacts—or feasibly an assassination or act of sabotage) organized and planned by a group of conspirators each of whom has a specialized role to play in the enterprise. By the author’s focusing on the personalities of the conspirators and largely adopting their point of view, the criminals become the story’s collective protagonist. The reader is thereby led to identify with them and take an interest in the outcome of their enterprise. To that extent, the reader is not only an observer of the action as it develops, but also a vicarious “participant” in the scheme. Suspense arises from readers’ (a) not knowing whether the undertaking will succeed, and (b) (through having “participated” in the planning of its stages) being aware, in a general sense, of what might go wrong. As the action unfolds, readers’ suspense is intensified as complications aggregate—setbacks, unforeseen accidents, miscues, stumbling blocks, and interpersonal squabbles—that threaten to disrupt the caper or defeat it altogether. (This tendency of well-laid plans to go astray has frequently led caper novelists to invest their stories with irony and humor. But even farce can be productive of Suspense. On the other hand, some capers are deadly serious; and one type of suspense these generate is anticipatory dread.)

Coming up:


• Cliffhangers
• 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!)
• Danger to be faced or escaped from
• 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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