Thursday, June 4, 2009

The Importance of Suspense -- Part 7

Here is the seventh 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 see it as a community enterprise, though so far I’ve been struggling with it alone; and sometimes it feels as though I’m chopping my way through a dense jungle with a dull machete. Thanks to those of you who have posted encouraging comments. I’d be very happy if interested bloggers would weigh in, state areas of agreement and disagreement, and share insights and examples from their own experience.


Before moving on to discuss tactical maneuvers, I’d like to mention two further structural devices that authors frequently use to create Suspense:

Withholding of information (from reader or protagonist)

Suspense is intensified when readers' urgent need or desire to know is thwarted, blocked, or put on hold. By exploiting their anxiety and impatience to know, an author is able to “up the ante”, or increase the readers' suspense-quotient, by providing impediments and delays. One way of doing this is simply to withhold information. If necessary information is withheld from protagonists who are attempting to solve a crime, their resultant anxiety and puzzlement are shared by readers who are identifying with them and don’t have the information either. The frustration the protagonist feels, combined with their own frustration, increases readers’ Suspense. (The exception is the “inverted mystery story” discussed in Part 2, where the readers know from the beginning who the murderer is, and the suspense they experience comes from watching the detective work the case and nail the perp.)

On the other hand, in a typical whodunit, information possessed by the detective protagonist (perhaps resulting from ratiocination—Poirot’s “little grey cells” or Holmes’s “science of deduction”—or simply basic good luck) is withheld from readers, who, desiring that information, are thereby kept in a perpetual state of Suspense, with no choice but to keep reading. However, in a well-written whodunit, the author will have “played fair” with readers by embedding clues throughout the text which would enable careful readers with ratiocinative skills to gather the same information as possessed by the detective. Since the author’s aim is to sustain readers’ Suspense at a high level by keeping them “guessing”, these embedded clues may be disguised, hidden, submerged in extraneous material, or surrounded by false or misleading signifiers (“red herrings”). Readers who find themselves baffled will have to wait till the end for terminal action and/or the detective’s explanation to “reveal all.”

Still, even astute readers who have found all the right clues and put them together and think they have the mystery solved don’t know for sure until they’ve read all the way to the end. Their Suspense arises from having to wait to see if their solution is right. And, if they’re in the hands of very skillful authors, they may be surprised to discover at the end that they are wrong. Though having played fair with readers and provided all of the requisite clues to enable them to arrive at the true solution, the authors have still managed to mislead them.

Reader’s knowledge of something unknown to the detective or other characters

Authors writing in the third-person omniscient point of view can create acute Suspense for readers by giving them knowledge or awareness of something important (frequently a danger or threat) of which the protagonist and other characters of concern are ignorant. For example: if the author allows readers to observe a hit man making plans to kill someone of concern (the detective, or the Prime Minister, or the sweet old lady in the corner candy store), and then forces them to watch the plan inexorably unfold, Suspense arises as a blend of the readers’ anticipatory dread, inability to warn the victim, and impotence to prevent the killing. Or, if readers have been made aware that something constitutes an important clue, they feel suspenseful anxiety or disappointment when the unaware detective overlooks or misinterprets it. Or, if knowledgeable readers watch the unwitting detective walking into a carefully set trap. Or, if readers know that something horrible—a headless corpse, an axe murderer, a spitting cobra, or (feasibly, worst of all) a malevolent Unknown Menace—is waiting in the closet as young Jennifer comes skipping down the hallway to hang up her coat, they want to shout “Don’t open the door!”—but can’t, of course, and must simply go on reading to see what happens.

This device does not work in a first-person narrative, where a character identified as ‘I’ (often the detective protagonist) is telling the story. It must be set up by author acting as the omniscient narrator who sees all, knows all, and, in this case, is letting the reader know things that the protagonist or other characters don’t.

The ways of generating and maintaining suspense I’ve so far mentioned strike me as essentially structural devices—relatively complex strategems which, in accord with their respective sets of rules and requirements, address largescale concerns. These include: revealing and withholding information, establishing internal continuity and texturing, managing the content of dialogue within the context of the whole narrative, ascertaining how characters will interact with events and with each other, planning and orchestrating the crises and dangers to be faced, planting clues, mapping the incremental emergence of facts that point to solutions, deciding whether or not to use cliffhangers and foreshadowing, and (as will be discussed later) determining what narrative point(s) of view to adopt to best tell the story.

I would like to discuss next another set of tools which I call tactical devices. They too serve the strategic aim of generating and maintaining readers’ Suspense. While they are just as important as the structural devices discussed above, they operate on a smaller scale in a more immediately delimited field: the palette knife as opposed to the broad brush. Fine-tuning as opposed to macro-scanning. In deployment and overall effect, the various types of structural and tactical devices inevitably exhibit some overlap, crossover, and interfusion; but I think that conceptually separating the two provides some very useful distinctions.


Exciting action. The solving of intriguing puzzles. The threat of danger. Observing the interplay of interesting characters in challenging situations. The Suspense produced by all of these keeps readers turning pages. But there are other means at the author’s disposal for producing Suspense. These are tactical devices which, though often unnoticed by readers, are pervasive in their effects, and include some of the author’s most powerful tools. They include: authors’ word choices; narrative pacing; withholding of information; use of setting, locale, atmosphere; and exploiting readers’ subliminal and archetypal fears.


Authors’ word choices

I’ve suggested that readers’ experiencing of Suspense arises through the process of their not knowing what comes next, but wanting to know, and caring about what information will emerge. Getting readers to care about what happens is an author’s primary responsibility, because if readers don’t care, they won’t finish the story. Once readers have been made to care, the author maintains their Suspense by not allowing them to know with certainty what will be coming next. This fuels their desire to know and keeps them reading. But they’re not just reading pages, or paragraphs, or sentences to see what’s coming next: they’re also reading words in sequence.

Previously I’ve said that in dialogue it’s not possible for readers to know for certain what the next speech will be, or what response will be made to a particular utterance. Now I will go further and suggest that Suspense is generated when readers do not know for certain what the next word will be in a sequence of words. To maximize Suspense, it’s necessary for the author to keep the reader wondering what the next word will be and reading on to find out.

In Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass, Alice encounters an apparent nonsense rhyme in the first stanza of “Jabberwocky”:

'Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimbel in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.

Although she can’t understand it, Alice says, “It seems to fill my head with ideas—only I don’t exactly know what they are.” In The Structure of English (1952), the linguist Charles Carpenter Fries holds the view that her “ideas” are “without doubt the structural meanings for which the framework contains the signals”; and he isolates the structural signals as follows:

Twas _______, and the _______y _______s
Did _______ and _______ in the _______:
All _______y were the _______s,
And the _______ _______s _______.

The structural signals which suggest to Alice the functions of the nonsense words that fit the blanks in Fries's frame are part of the grammar of English, which all users of the language know, and which native speakers gain in childhood as they acquire it: (1) word order, which is that of conventional English; (2) function words, such as it, was, and, the, did, in, all, were; (3) inflectional markers, such as –s (noun plural) and indications of verb tense and number; and (4) co-occurrence phenomena, such as ‘were the (NOUN)s’ (plural verb, plural noun).

In an English utterance, the blanks in the structural frame will be filled with “content words”—nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs—in accord with the given structural signals. Thus, in the original poem, brillig is either an adjective or a noun; slithy is an adjective; toves is a noun plural; gyre and gimbel are verbs; wabe is a noun; mimsy is an adjective; borogoves is a noun plural; mome is probably an adjective [possibly a noun]; raths is probably a noun plural [possibly a verb in the present tense]; outgrabe is probably a verb [and probably in the past tense because of past-tense ‘were’ in the line above]. By virtue of the structure, the blank could possibly contain a noun ['The boy eats cake'], but probably not in this context, because that would make raths a present tense verb in non-agreement with past-tense ‘were’. An adjective could also feasibly occur in the last blank: [And the painted lips red'].

All of this analysis is simply to establish (1) that there are both function [structure] words and content words in English; function words signify how the content words relate to one another, while content words have meanings that can be found in cultural usage and in standard dictionaries; (2) that English has quite rigid word-order patterns which must be conformed to; (3) that content words in forming phrases have a preferred word order (e.g., ADJ+ NOUN: ‘They are ADJ+NOUN PHRASE [true friends].' or ‘He is ADJ [tired].', etc.; (4) that, within their given syntactic structural frames, content words have considerable flexibility, and potentially a high degree of unpredictability. Thus:

’Twas autumn, and the shiny leaves,
Did gleam and glisten in the wood:
All icy were the riverbanks,
And the tall trees stood.

’Twas lunchtime, and the hungry girls
Did munch and gobble in the cafeteria:
All mushy were the burritos,
And the refried beans cold.

This potential for unpredictability allows authors to avoid cliché, inject humor, make sudden surprising turns, and keep readers in suspense not knowing what to expect (since they find their expectations frequently being reversed).

Insofar as possible within the necessary linguistic boundaries that make communication possible, and in accord with requirements of maintaining contextual integrity and logical consistency, even on the word-level readers should be kept in the suspenseful state of not knowing with certainty what’s coming next.

In normal discourse, language provides certain standardized cues (subliminally interpreted by speakers and readers) which insure that communication does occur. These are called ‘redundancy features’. They include rules of word order, inflectional endings on nouns verbs, adjectives, and adverbs, the rules that determine which words can go with which. [She did it to him, for him, with him, after him, before him, and through him, but NOT at him. ( One can’t do things at people. ) But: She threw the ball at him (one can throw things at people—as well as to, for, with, after, and before them: but NOT through them).]

Redundancy features constitute a multiplicity of interacting signals and cues which work together to insure that communication can occur. With various pointers to aid in designating meaning, if interference knocks one or more of them out, the remaining cues can still enable the intended message to get through. In normal language use, these features work on the unconscious level to keep readers comfortably skimming along on a current of predictability, with redundancy preventing difficulties from arising. (If too many of the redundancy cues are omitted or drop out through interference, the intended message may not get through.) The purpose of redundancy features is to provide predictability. But as I’ve said repeatedly, predictability is the great enemy of Suspense. Therefore, if authors wish to increase readers’ Suspense, they have to decrease the influence of pervasive redundancy features. (This has to be done judiciously, for some redundancy is necessary for communication to occur. Having too little redundancy can disrupt communication through allowing the creation of ambiguity or nonsense.)

With reduced redundancy, readers will quickly learn that they’ve got to pay attention to the words. They can’t go skimming along “on automatic pilot” thinking that they know what’s coming next. If authors are committed to establishing and maintaining readers’ Suspense, their language choices will help to weave a complex, inescapable net. Reduced predictability will mean that people don’t dare to skip things, for fear they will miss something important. It’s only a slight exaggeration to say that readers must never know with absolute certainty what the next substantive (“content”) word will be.

The challenge for authors: they must strike a balance between allowing sufficient redundancy to make smooth reading and coherent sense, and removing enough redundancy to diminish predictability and increase suspense.

Copyright © Robert D. Sutherland, 2009


Aaron Paul Lazar said...

NIcely said, Vergil. You hit the nail on the head. That balance is one that must be achieved in the same sense that one must (in my humble opinion) balance the sense of action/tension/events with the scenes that show and promote characters who make the readers truly care about them. Whether you are interspersing homey scenes with high paced action (like I do in LeGarde Mysteries), or simply adding a bit of narrative to slow down the action and tease the reader into wanting's all a balancing act!

Vergil said...

Thanks, Aaron. Agreed: it's all a balancing act--authors can't afford to blink, much less nod off. That's one reason why writing well is such hard, exacting work. (There are others.)
I inadvertently posted your comment twice, and then deleted the repeat. Nobody has been censored.