Sunday, June 21, 2009

The Importance of Suspense -- Part 10

Part 10

Here is the tenth 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”. This segment concludes what I wish to say on the topic, and now it’s your turn. I see the thread as a community enterprise, though so far there’s been little participation from bloggers. Thanks to those of you who have posted encouraging comments. The rest of you, please join in. As writers and readers of mysteries, please share your thoughts and experiences regarding Suspense.

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Withholding information

As I’ve defined it for literary contexts, 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. It follows, then, that authors can increase or intensify readers’ Suspense by withholding the desired information. There are several ways of doing this. (See also Part 7)

When the requisite information is something (knowledge of motive, occurrence of event, results of analysis or interpretation, etc.) which structurally pertains to the setup of the crime, the dynamics of character interaction, the unfolding of the mystery, or the developmental working out of a solution, etc., the following tactics for withholding might apply:

a) The author can let the reader know that the desired information does exist but is currently not accessible. Various characters may make reference to it (though it may be equally inaccessible to them): [Joanna was getting impatient. “Look, I saw him take the ring from his dead mother’s hand; but I don’t know where he hid it, and now he’s dead too.”]. Or, the author or first-person narrator may hint—broadly or subtly—that the information will be forthcoming, but postpone revealing it till a later time: [“I can’t talk now. I’ll meet you for breakfast at Adolph’s at nine-thirty tomorrow and explain the whole thing. You’ll be amazed.”] If a third-person omniscient narrator does the hinting directly (without using a character as intermediary), the intimation comes close to being “there-you-have-it” foreshadowing (see Part 6): [Harriet promised Herbert that she’d bring the letter to the office so he could see for himself. He breathed a sigh of relief. “Should I tell John?” he asked. Oh hell, Harriet thought; Herbert always jumps the gun. “Not yet,” she said. “We’ve got to get our signals straight before letting him in on it. There’s too much at stake.”]. Or, in Eric Ambler’s A Coffin for Dimitrios: [Marukakis speaking to Latimer: “’If you find out any more about him in Belgrade I should like you to write to me. Would you do that?’ ‘Of course.’ But Latimer was not to reach Belgrade.”2].

To the extent that readers are sure (1) that the information withheld is crucial to understanding the mystery’s key components or (2) promises grave potential consequences for characters or the outcomes of important events, their Suspense can only be heightened by the delay.

b) Authors may interpose actions or particular events which delay the reader’s obtaining the desired information. In addition to increasing readers’ Suspense through the delays caused by these interventions, authors can capitalize on the inherent capacities of the interposed actions and events themselves to generate their own types of Suspense.

c) For various reasons, characters within the story who claim to possess the desired information may fail to share it with other characters [and the reader] (through inadvertence, or being distracted or interrupted): [“I was waiting for your call. I can only talk a minute, but I need to tell you what happened at the funeral; it’s very important. Oh, just a minute, Grace. I’ll be right back; someone’s at the door.”]). Or, they may be unable to share it (through absence, death, or being comatose), or may choose not to. Whatever the reason(s), the reader’s frustration at having the information withheld when closely within reach greatly augments the Suspense they feel. For authors, this type of withholding may also help to structure the narrative and calibrate the story’s pacing. However, they must keep in mind that it’s not good to frustrate the reader too much; at a certain point most people get irritated with being held off at arm’s length. Performing this fine-tuning (just enough but not too much) is one of the author’s most difficult tasks.

d) In a first-person narrative, the protagonist or sidekick/observer who knows the required information may choose not to tell the reader (Philip Marlowe, Dr. Watson). (Both are telling the story after the events have occurred and, as they “write it out”, for them the mystery “has been solved.” But, hoping to entertain and (perhaps) challenge their readers, they avoid “connecting the dots” that show how the events and clues fit together, and do not reveal the final solution until the story’s end.)

e) In a third-person narrative (limited or omniscient) it’s usually the author directly, and not the protagonist or sidekick, who keeps desired information from readers, or, alternatively, allows them just enough to be tantalized (which further increases their Suspense.). In third-person limited and omniscient-narrator stories, the protagonists themselves may not have the requisite information either.

f) Readers may be deceived by some character who, having the requisite information, misrepresents it by telling lies. In a first-person protagonist narrative, it will be the narrator/protagonist who is lied to. If that narrator says: “Judy told me he was her father, and I believed it. But I found out later she was lying,” there is no suspense generated in the reader, because there is no information withheld. If, on the other hand, the first-person protagonist (Philip Marlowe) or the first-person sidekick/observer (Dr. Watson) suppresses his “retrospective knowledge” that the information was untrue when he first received it and withholds that information from readers until such later time in the story that he himself came to realize the lie [see (d), above], that revelation will be news to the readers (even as it was to the narrator/observer) and will perhaps come as a startling surprise. In rare cases, an unreliable first-person narrator may be the one telling the lies.

In writing a third-person limited or third-person omniscient narrative, the author can simply have a character tell a lie (which, for the reader, may pass for the truth), and wait till later for the unmasking [see (e), above]. If authors use this device as a means of withholding, at some point they must enable readers to become aware of the deception in order to rectify their false impression. Finding that a crucial piece of information thought to be true is actually a lie forces readers to reassess their previous assumptions, speculations, and understandings. Having to arrive at a new mental configuration produces its own type of Suspense.

g) If they’ve missed the cues and clues that the author has planted, or have been misled by the author’s false trails and misdirections, readers may not be aware that the information they desire is accessible. Allowing for this possibility, authors—to play fair—should probably provide additional clues or alternative avenues of revelation which would help a careful reader obtain the required information. (This is the redundancy principle put to good use.)



A flashback is a narrative device that takes the reader backward in time to observe “firsthand” the dramatization of events that took place prior to the story’s present unfolding. Structurally a flashback is an inset piece within the frame narrative of the story proper. Readers’ knowledge that they’re witnessing past events which have a bearing on the “present” may dilute whatever Suspense the action of the flashback might have engendered in its own right. While readers’ curiosity may prompt a desire to know precisely what effects the depicted actions had on subsequent events (a kind of Suspense), observing those actions (known to be in the past) may not have the same urgency as experiencing the progressive unfolding of the main narrative. Flashbacks may not have the same potency for generating Suspense as actions whose outcomes are not yet determined, and authors should be aware of this.

A particular flashback may be one of a series of flashbacks depicting a sequence of steps that collectively develop a composite picture. Watching this incremental shaping of an emerging complexity can generate Suspense. As an example, I will use the analogy of a classic motion picture, familiar to many, that illustrates the principle clearly (in this case, a picture is worth ten thousand words)—Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane:

Within the frame narrative of a reporter’s quest to understand the complexities of the deceased Charles Foster Kane, a portrait of the tycoon emerges from the dramatized recollections of people who knew him. It’s only a partial portrait, of course, because each of the sources has only personal, limited knowledge of Kane to recall. The movie opens with a flashback: Kane’s death, and his final word, the mysterious “Rosebud”. Determined to learn the meaning of ‘Rosebud’, the reporter reads a diary and interviews a number of people. He learns much (and the audience learns it with him, through watching dramatized flashbacks), but he doesn’t learn the significance to Kane of his dying word. He admits defeat, and, as central observer, leaves the stage. The camera’s eye, assuming the role of omniscient narrator, then zooms to a bonfire consuming the detritus of Kane’s life; and there, for one moment, the audience sees the child’s sled which had been important to Kane in his loveless and blighted childhood, its painted brand name blistering in the flames: ROSEBUD. And, for the audience, much becomes clear.

Flashbacks may help to explain “how we got here”, but they tend to reveal information rather than withhold it. Watching a dramatized flashback may generate topical or immediate suspense in readers as the action plays out; and the information that a flashback provides may indeed answer questions raised by present action in the main narrative. But this topical, localized Suspense generated by particular flashbacks is separate from that which arises from experiencing the accumulation of information provided by a series of flashbacks. The essence of flashback is dramatizing what happened, not telling about it. Telling without showing is simply recounting, or abstract summary. Abstract summary doesn’t generate Suspense.


Playing fair with readers’ needs and expectations

Authors must respect their readers. They can’t afford to alienate them, talk down to them, irritate, or bore them. Readers have discretion, after all, to choose which books they wish to commit part of their life-time to reading. It’s therefore to authors’ advantage and material benefit to regard their readers as friends and allies, engaging with them in a shared (and hopefully enjoyable) experience.

Mystery-writers (particularly of the whodunit variety, who set puzzles for readers to solve) engage with their readers in a mutually-understood game. Their job is to keep readers from discovering the truth before the story’s end. Readers who choose to play will accept the challenge and try to solve the mystery before the protagonist does. This friendly competition between author and reader, like all games, is governed by rules of play. Since authors—knowing all along “who done it”—have the advantage over readers, they must play fair by providing readers all of the essential clues which the protagonist uses to solve the crime. These clues may be disguised, hidden in a welter of detail, or upstaged by misleading “red herrings” drawn across the trail—but all of that is within the rules of the game; and readers, expecting to be misled, know that they’ve got to be on their toes. But the clues have to be there. Otherwise, the author is not playing fair.

The author must be mindful of readers’ needs and expectations: one of their expectations is that the author will play fair. No last-minute revelations for which there’s been no preparation. No rabbits out of hats, no forgotten wills popping out of secret drawers, no parking tickets or hotel receipts that no one knew existed, no gods descending with ropes and creaking pulleys from the flyloft to set things right. If readers decide that an author hasn’t played fair with them, but has hedged, or fudged, or cheated, they very well may choose not to read more of that author’s books.


Narrative jokes analogous to mystery stories in the creation of Suspense

For writers of mysteries concerned with maximizing readers’ Suspense, a useful analogy might be found in the suspensefulness typical of narrative jokes. These jokes are fictional constructs cast in a story-telling format. [Other sorts of jokes—puns, knock-knock jokes, question-and-answer jokes (Why does a chicken cross the road?, How many psychiatrists does it take to change a light bulb?, What did the plumber say to the priest from under the sink?, etc.), dirty limericks, and satiric epigrams—achieve their humorous effects through different means and won’t be discussed here.]

Humor in narrative jokes arises from reversals of expectation, juxtaposition of unusual or contradictory elements, ludicrous situations, misunderstandings, hyperbole and exaggeration, the deflation of pomposity, and the intellectual appreciation of verbal wit. The essence of the humor in narrative jokes is surprise: the audience must not be able to predict the outcome of the narrative (the punchline, or conclusion).

If the outcome is predictable, or if listeners realize they’ve heard the joke before, there is no surprise or expectation of surprise, and hence no narrative Suspense. Knowing this leads tellers of jokes to say “Stop me if you’ve heard this one.” Or, “Did you hear the one about …?”. If a listener knows what’s coming, telling the joke isn’t worth the effort. Which raises the question, Why do people tell jokes?

Beyond establishing a kind of social bonding and setting an affable tone for subsequent personal interactions, telling jokes provides a highly stylized medium for sharing pleasurable experience and producing laughter. The teller hopes to give pleasure and make the listener laugh. Accomplishing this is pleasurable to the teller. The listener chooses to listen to the joke in the hope that it will be funny. This process produces anticipatory Suspense for each: the tellers hope that the joke won’t fall flat and dread that it might; the listeners hope that the joke will be worthwhile (surprising and funny), and dread that it won’t be, or that it will prove to be in bad taste or embarrassingly bad, in which case they will have to feign enjoyment or register offense if truly offended. These anticipations and anxieties create much Suspense: and neither party knows how things will go until the joke is told.

The suspense generated by waiting for the punchline can be enhanced by the teller’s mode of telling. Most narrative jokes are told from the third person omniscient point of view; the teller is not personally involved but tells the story from “outside”: [“Three nuns were crossing the street…”, or “Old George liked his beer; could polish off two bottles and a half while everybody else was opening their first; then he’d laugh at them for being so slow. Well, Harley Sipes, he got tired of this and decided to play a trick on George…”]. Humorous narratives told in first-person tend to be personal anecdotes.

Some people are better at telling jokes than others. One component of telling a joke well is the teller’s skill at being able to increase and maintain the listener’s Suspense in moving toward the punchline. As with any story-telling, a great deal hinges on pacing and timing. If there is dialogue within the joke, the “speeches” must be rendered well; and if there are ethnic dialects among the “characters”, the teller can enhance the experience by mimicking their traits. Some jokes, like some children’s stories, are episodic, with repetitive features that incrementally build to a climax (“Goldilocks and the Three Bears”, “The Little Red Hen” [“Who will help me bake the bread?” “Not I,” said Ducky Lucky, Goosey Poosey, Turkey Lurkey, and Foxy Loxy…], “The Three Billy Goats Gruff“ (who have to deal with the Troll under the Bridge—and do). In the skillful telling of jokes all of these structural considerations contribute to the listener’s Suspense.

And sometimes there is a significant intellectual component as well. I will conclude with a joke of layered complexity: a geriatric joke with physical disability at the core, but benign and humorous for all that, and speaking to the human condition we all share. The teller should differentiate the voices of the three speakers. It's a joke of just the right length, totally unpredictable on first hearing—and even when familiar still capable of evoking a smile:

Three elderly Englishmen are on a train. One looks out the window and says, “Good Lord, it’s Wembley!”
The second says, “No, it's not. It’s Thursday.”
The third says, “So am I. Let’s get a drink.”



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. In the course of a well-written narrative, readers will experience many types of Suspense generated by various structural and tactical devices that authors have ready to hand. All elements of a story can (and should) contribute to the creation of Suspense: plotting, pacing, characterization (and characters' interactions); challenges and difficulties to overcome, dangers to face, problems to solve; crises and the withholding of information; dialogue that characterizes, looks forward and backward, and both reveals and conceals; choice of words and sentence structure (so that readers do not know with certainty, even in a particular phrase, what word is coming next). To maximize Suspense, authors must eliminate predictability (that Great Enemy) whenever possible, and establish clearly the expectation of surprise.

Suspense is a chief component of narratives that people want to read. It is the sine qua non of mystery-writing, and a major requirement for most types of writing. Without it, pages will not turn.


2Eric Ambler, A Coffin for Dimitrios. In Intrigue: Four Great Spy Novels of Eric Ambler (Alfred A. Knopf, reprint, 1960), p. 202

Copyright © Robert D. Sutherland, 2009

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