Sunday, May 17, 2009

The Importance of Suspense -- Part 3


Here is the third 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 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 and examples from their own experience, and join in this effort. (Vergil)


A “cliffhanger” is a break or pause at a critical juncture in narrative flow which leaves unresolved a crisis in action or plot development that cries for resolution. It creates Suspense for engaged readers by temporarily withholding knowledge regarding the crisis’s outcome which they desperately want to have. When a cliffhanger occurs, it’s usually at the end of a chapter or installment. The use of cliffhangers was common in the 19th and early 20th centuries, when popular magazines published long novels in serial installments. Cliffhangers were a device to ensure that readers, to learn what happened, would eagerly anticipate (and purchase) the magazine’s next issue.

Nowadays many people hold cliffhangers in low esteem as a cheap and “easy” way to generate suspense. In books, where chapters are contiguous, and resolutions follow fairly quickly on the heels of crises, the use of cliffhangers is transparently obvious as an attempt to create suspense, and can, if badly handled, smack of sensationalism. As a tactic, the cliffhanger’s value is further diminished when it’s used too frequently in a work, or when readers find the eagerly-awaited resolution to be a disappointing letdown that trivializes the crisis which aroused their concern. It does authors no good for readers to feel that their trust, good will, and emotional investment have been manipulated through the use of a device which is seen to be little more than a cheap trick, or, worse, a type of cheating.

That said, it’s nonetheless true that cliffhangers can and do create Suspense. If well-managed and used judiciously, they have a legitimate place in the author’s inventory of devices for ensnaring readers. And there might well be particular occasions where they would be especially effective. But, all in all, cliffhangers should be used sparingly.

Solution of problem or puzzle (Can it be done? It better be!)

By definition, mystery stories embody and dramatize the solving of puzzles: discovering truth in obscure and murky situations, ascertaining the motives behind unethical and criminal acts, reconstructing time-lines and sequences of events, establishing accountability and determining guilt, forecasting and preventing future harm, interpreting clues to find a missing “treasure”.

These activities produce many types of Suspense, whether the puzzle-solvers are police professionals, amateur sleuths, insurance investigators, or private eyes. Detectives, like readers, are motivated by “not knowing, but wanting to know, and caring about what it is they learn”. How they go about solving their puzzles, and whatever types of suspense they experience in pursuing that activity, echo and parallel the types of Suspense readers feel who identify with them and join their quest. It follows that, whatever else they are, mystery stories—as vehicles for the solution of puzzles—are inherently and quintessentially suspenseful.

However, for this present section, I wish to pull back from the global suspensefulness of the mystery story and focus on the specific type of Suspense that arises from requiring detectives to solve a specific problem or puzzle within the narrative.

These internal problems and puzzles may be highly diverse. In a police procedural, for example, the detectives may be working against time to figure out the MO and personality traits of a serial killer, and clues implicit in the patterning of the murders, in order to save further lives. Or, before the timers detonate them, finding where on the airplane or in the convention hall the bombs have been planted. Working against a deadline or playing “beat the clock” with dire consequences as the price of failure can greatly intensify the suspense that readers feel.

The entire story frequently revolves around solving the puzzle. For example, breaking a code or cipher in espionage thrillers, where lives are at stake, or a battle can be won by monitoring the Enemy’s internal communications without their knowing. In The Da Vinci Code much of the action depends on the decipherment and interpretation of arcane symbols and the messages they imply. In “The Adventure of the Dancing Men,” Sherlock Holmes cracks a pictographic cipher and learns that a woman's life is in danger, and then uses the cipher himself to trap her husband's killer; in “The Musgrave Ritual” he processes verbal clues in the form of a riddle to solve a disappearance and find a treasure. Other examples can readily be found in classical and contemporary mysteries.

In this category, the Suspense arises from the reader’s not knowing whether the detective (1) will be able to solve the problem/puzzle, and (2) if so, whether the solution will lead to beneficial consequences, and/or will be accomplished in time to prevent some anticipated catastrophe. (In some stories, part of the suspense in solving a problem or cracking a code may arise from a competition, or race, between the protagonist detective(s) and an antagonist or rival group, with something of value to be gained as the prize for winning.) Success in solving the puzzle must result in a significant payoff (saving lives, preserving a cultural or historical artifact, finding a treasure, etc.) both to maximize the creation of Suspense in “getting there”, and to justify the degree of Suspense which the reader has experienced.

More to come:


• Danger to be faced or escaped from
• Being confronted, stalked, or endangered by an Unknown Menace
• 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

1 comment:

Jacqueline Seewald said...

I enjoyed your discussion of suspense in mystery writing and learned from it as well. Thank you.

Jacqueline Seewald
THE DROWNING POOL, Five Star/Gale 2009
THE INFERNO COLLECTION, Five Star hardcover, Wheeler large print