Monday, June 8, 2009

The Importance of Suspense -- Part 8

Here is the eighth 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 see the thread as a community enterprise, though so far there’s been little participation from bloggers. I feel I’m flying by the seat of my pants. 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. E-mail contact:


Authors can maintain readers’ Suspense not only by reducing redundancy to increase unpredictability, but also by making word choices consciously designed to keep readers alert, curious, and moving forward. These tactical maneuvers can strengthen any type of writing.

Verbs are authors’ friends. They move the action by creating it; they determine and reveal what happens to characters and how things happen; they prepare the way for future events, evoke visceral responses in readers, and present fresh views of otherwise familiar (and even dull) territory. They enable authors to avoid telling about actions by helping them find ways of dramatizing them.

Authors can accomplish this dramatization by choosing action verbs—those that exhibit pith and sinew, express vigor and precision, and promise some type of consequence. In the sentence I’ve just written, accomplish, choose, exhibit, express, and promise are action verbs.

Flaccid, vague, neutral, and passive verbs should be avoided. I could have written the sentence this way: “Authors can do this by using action verbs—those that have pith and sinew, allow for vigor and precision, and suggest some type of consequence.” Now, this is a perfectly adequate sentence, and it says much of what the first sentence does: but do, use, have, allow for, and suggest do not have the “action edge” of the verbs I initially chose; do not have the precision of connotation, muscular force, and capacity for freight and forward drive. By merely “standing in place”, they don’t take the reader anywhere. Fortunately, to implement the “action edge”, writers don’t have to stretch themselves to find exotic verbs (and, in fact, stretching for the exotic is generally a grievous mistake). There are plenty of common action verbs available for the plucking. Context will point the way.

Whenever possible, authors should use active voice instead of passive voice.
ACTIVE VOICE: “The President signed the order.”
PASSIVE VOICE: “The order was signed by the President.”
“The order was signed.” (suppressed agent: who signed it?)
“It was decided that none should go.” [Who decided?]

If verbs are authors’ friends, adjectives are frequently false friends and not to be trusted. Authors should avoid using adjectives whenever possible, and avoid using vague adjectives in particular. In the following example, only two adjectives occur: one of them is vague.

“Linda started down the steps in the dark, keeping her hand on the wall to guide her descent. The stones were covered with slime. Now and then something slithered away from under her fingers. She gagged as the stench of rotting flesh rose to meet her. Then suddenly she heard a weird noise.”

The adjective ‘rotting’ is necessary to characterize the stench that causes Linda to gag. Rotting flesh possesses a highly distinctive odor, and Linda would know what it was. Most readers would too.

Weird, on the other hand, is like eerie, awful, strange, bizarre, horrific, horrible, nasty, terrible, ghastly, spooky, foul, hair-raising, blood-curdling, bone-chilling, sinister, shocking, and grim: all say very little when serving as attributive adjectives. Because these adjectives appear to have potency and emotional “grab”, unsophisticated and lazy writers frequently use them, assuming (hoping?) that they will do their work for them to establish mood, create sensation, build suspense, and scare the reader. But they can’t do the author’s work. They are inherently vague and do not specify what it is in the things they’re characterizing that makes those things “strange”, “shocking”, “blood-curdling”, etc. Rather than asserting the quality of an experience, authors should dramatize it so that readers can discover for themselves what to think and how to feel.

In the above passage, where there is a great deal of sensory detail, ‘weird’ adds nothing to the creation of Suspense. The reader would much prefer to share Linda’s auditory experience. What was the noise she heard? Snuffling? hissing? giggling? rhythmic thudding? a squeal? a crash? tinkling? buzzing? the flapping of wings? Encountering any of those “sounds” would be far more interesting, stimulating to the reader’s imagination, and productive of Suspense than simply being told that there was ‘a weird noise’. Precision in characterizing sensory experience can usually be achieved through use of action verbs and concrete nouns.


Using language as a tool for generating suspense

Suspense can be created and maintained by using language to speed up the narrative. Short sentences tend to move readers forward more quickly; long and complex ones tend to slow them down. In building to climaxes, it’s usually good to speed up the narrative, and shorter sentences help to accomplish this.

Authors should avoid long-winded descriptions and expository explanations. Suspense is lessened when the reader is bogged down with verbosity and extraneous detail. The author Elmore Leonard provides sound advice to authors in his “10 Rules of Writing”, several of which he mentioned during an interview by Charlie Rose on May 27, 2009: pertinent here, “leave out the parts that people tend to skip (long blocks and descriptive passages)” and “stay away from descriptions unless you’re good at it. Do descriptions from point of view of the character.”

Authors should not let language be a bar to readers’ understanding. If they are writing to be read beyond the present moment, they should avoid the heavy use of slang that, though speaking for its era, becomes dated as time passes, and ultimately strikes readers as opaque and quaint. Some of the pulp fiction of the 1930’s and ‘40’s reprinted in recent anthologies reveals this. Here is an example from “Homicide Hunch” by Robert Leslie Bellem, author of the popular Dan Turner mysteries: “He had a narrow mulish puss with black sideburns running down past his ears to emphasize the glitter in his slitted glims. …He grinned as he thrust the roscoe against my favorite vest. ‘Want a hole in your tweeds, snoop?’ …I glued the measuring glimpse on him, wondered how much chance I had of swatting his rod aside and planting a set of fives on his sneery panorama. …I set fire to a gasper, took a hinge around the joint. ….When I piped this divan, I widened my peepers and choked: ‘What the—?’ There was a blonde quail stretched out on the glossy cushions, trussed hand and hoof with knotted ropes. Her piquant pan would have been gorgeous even without its heavy makeup.” (quoted in Tough Guys and Dangerous Dames, ed. Robert E. Weinberg, Stefan Dziemianowicz, and Martin H. Greenberg (Barnes & Noble Books, 1993), pp. 462-463).

Authors should be sparing in the use of simile and metaphor. (Raymond Chandler, who was proficient at coining similes, perhaps used them too much. (“Oh, here’s another one,” the reader says.) When similes begin to call attention to themselves, they tend to slow the reader down (e.g., The sunset was like an open wound.) and thus jeopardize the intensity of the Suspense that’s been established.

Writing dialogue; use of speech ascription tags

In Part 6, I said that dialogue is a highly efficient way to move the story, create suspense, enhance dramatic intensity and interest, and provide information. In writing mystery fiction (or fiction of any type), authors should use dialogue as much as possible. In addition to everything else it does, it removes the necessity for long passages of expository description, and therefore contributes to the creation of suspense by speeding things up.

There are some rules for writing effective dialogue that immediately come to mind. (1) Speeches should reflect the way people actually talk—using contractions, sentence fragments, ejaculations and swear-words—in keeping with the speaker’s character, upbringing and habits, the physical environment, and the contextual circumstances in which the dialogue occurs.

Equally important: (2) authors should make sure that all the characters don’t talk the same way. Their speech should be consistent with their regional and social dialects, social and educational standing, habits of mind, temperament, aims and motives.

In writing dialogue, (3) authors should use as few ascription tags as possible, identifying speakers by their order in sequence, verbal echoes, providing answers to questions that clearly follow from the questions asked, and other internal cues, such as—at long intervals—use of the other speaker’s name:

She stared at him in disbelief. “Oh, John, do you really believe that?”
He shook his head. “Not since I was ten years old.”
“Good. I thought I was going to have to call in a psychiatrist.”
“You should’ve let me know. I could’ve recommended one.”
“Oh, I have my own.”

When speech ascription tags are needed, authors would be wise to use ‘said’, ‘asked’, ‘replied’, (maybe ‘shouted’) almost exclusively. The frequent use of ‘said’ does not constitute “repetition” in the usual sense. Readers barely notice the occurrences, taking them more as iconic sign-posts than actual words. The redundancy these verbs confer because of their familiarity enables readers to log them in subliminally in passing; they do not call attention to themselves as would more exotic ascription verbs, such as screamed, opined, ruminated, (“Oh really?” she smiled.), hissed, squealed, (“I’ll get you,” he threatened), whinnied, mumbled, (“I want my supper!” he thundered.), laughed, snorted, cackled, smirked, sobbed, cried, etc. On Charlie Rose, Elmore Leonard advised, “Never use another verb to identify speaker except ‘said’” and “never use an adverb to modify ‘said’” (i.e., ‘he said quickly’).

Ascription tags are usually required when there are more than two people talking together. Even so, there are various ways of avoiding ascription tags: line two in the passage above (‘John shook his head.’) is an example of just one of them.

Narrative pacing

In narrative, pacing is the relative speed at which action proceeds, plot elements proliferate, and information becomes available; the speed is ”relative”, because the rates at which plot incidents occur and revelations emerge are variable, and of the author’s choosing. In an extended work, this variability is valuable for providing diverse dynamics: propulsive, pell-mell forward motion, incremental tightening of the screws for climactic showdowns, textural contrasts, opportunities for character development, and, for readers, breathing space and time for reflection.

Pacing has both a macro and a micro dimension. There is the pacing of the work seen as a whole, and, in addition, there are the separate pacings of the subordinate component parts. Each of these parts, having its own distinct integrity, contributes to the arc of the whole.

Each mystery, being unique unto itself, will have its own macro-pacing requirements. Perhaps it will have a slow beginning, “setting the stage” for what’s ahead, or perhaps it will leap forward as at the crack of an opening gun. Perhaps in the middle, it will race straight down the track leaping hurdles as they come, or perhaps it will lead protagonist (and reader) into a labyrinth of complications booby-trapped with perils. The ending will perhaps be a straightforward unmasking of the murderer and an orderly recounting of clues that led to the solution; or perhaps it will plunge the protagonist into a crisis with an outcome far from certain.

Macro-pacing pertains to largescale structures. If we go to music for an analogy, we see that in a symphony or concerto, there is a large unified structure with a beginning, middle, and ending and an aggregate pattern of pacing; and that frequently this whole is divided into sections, or movements, each of which has its own structure (beginning, middle, end), developmental needs, and pacing. In both the whole and in the subordinate parts, the structures exhibit the development of melodic materials, recurrent motifs, and variations on specific themes. Since musical expression, writing, and reading literature are phenomena that occur during a span of time, there is ample occasion and strong arguments for shifts in pacing. These in music have their analogs in mystery-writing: changes in tempo (fast/slow) and dynamics (loud/soft; stressful/calm), building of tension to climax and closure. In fiction, each unit of plot development, each sequencing of events, each individual scene and dramatic encounter, each instance of dialogue will have its own internal micro-pacing that will create and maintain the reader’s Suspense.

Finally, authors should be extremely sparing in their use of assertive “there-you-have-it” foreshadowings (see Part 6), for, while they do generate suspense of a rudimentary sort, people get tired of them; and frequent use gives readers the impression that the author is blatantly “priming the pump.”


Use of setting, locale, and atmosphere to generate Suspense

Since stories typically take place somewhere—in a city’s mean streets or the Kansas wheat fields, in prisons, high-rise office suites, hospitals, automobiles, schools, gambling casinos, factories, graveyards, jungles, governmental agencies, oceanside resorts, etc.—authors should turn those environments to account to generate Suspense. Imagine what different kinds of mysteries could be written with settings as diverse as Dartmoor; Vienna, 1882; the Mayan ruins at Chichén Itzá; a large hotel; a tramp steamer adrift in the Pacific; a ski resort; a university common room; a morgue.

In some stories, it’s setting that makes the story possible (Jack London’s “To Build a Fire”; the Yorkshire moors in Wuthering Heights); in many others, setting has a major role to play in establishing mood and determining incident. And therefore, in setting and locale authors have a powerful tool for creating Suspense.

In The Hound of the Baskervilles, for example, while suspense is created in part by the family legend of the supernatural hound and by the eccentric neighbors, it’s the physical environment that contributes most: the isolation of the moor, the obscuring fog (which hides life-threatening dangers), the gloomy Hall, the dark of night, and (to be shunned) the Great Grimpen Mire which can suck down men as well as ponies. Contrariwise, in what appears to be a cozy village nestled in the countryside, with jolly neighbors and sunlit church bazaars, cold-blooded murder can occur among the rhododendrons, and unspeakable horrors lurk behind locked attic doors. Highly specialized settings can provide unusual and intriguing business: e.g., backstage at the theater, a scientific outpost in the Antarctic, a rodeo, a cruise liner in the Caribbean, a traveling carnival or circus, a séance, a highway construction site, an art museum, a restaurant, a hunting trip in the African or Canadian wilderness, a concentration camp).

To illustrate how setting can be made to establish atmosphere and mood, and to generate suspense by hinting of unpleasantness to come, I’d like to quote the opening sentence of “The Fall of the House of Usher” by Edgar Allan Poe, the great-great-grandfather of us all.

“During the whole of a dull, dark, and soundless day in the autumn of the year, when the clouds hung oppressively low in the heavens, I had been passing alone, on horseback, through a singularly dreary tract of country, and at length found myself, as the shades of the evening drew on, within view of the melancholy House of Usher.” (60 words)

Though Poe has used more adjectives that I would normally recommend, he uses them quite effectively; note how many of them concretely (as opposed to vaguely) characterize the nouns they modify. We know what kind of a day it is: dull, dark, and soundless, with clouds hanging oppressively low; we know when the day is in the calendar (in the autumn of the year); we know who is speaking: a character named ‘I’ who has been traveling alone on horseback for the whole day; we know something of the locale: a singularly dreary tract of country; we know the time of day: evening (with its ominous creeping shadows) and we know what the speaker sees in the distance. The adjective ‘melancholy’ is evocative, and we want to know why the house is so characterized. Since we don’t know why the traveler sees it so, and he merely asserts it, is this adjective perhaps self-indulgent on Poe's part? At any rate, Poe accomplishes a great deal in this sentence—with consummate efficiency.

[As an aside, contrast this with the opening sentence of Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado”, which also generates suspense:

”The thousand injuries of Fortunato I had borne as I best could; but when he ventured upon insult, I vowed revenge.” (21 words)

We don’t know who Fortunato is; we don’t know what the thousand injuries consisted of; we don’t know the nature of the insult; and maybe we don’t need to know. But we do know that the ‘I’ has vowed revenge. And though as readers we don’t know yet what this will be, we certainly want to know.]

Finally, as a subclass of the category of setting/locale, I’ll mention the power of isolation to generate suspense. [Examples: an empty road through a blasted heath, a mountain cabin in a blizzard, a secluded island with no helicopter, boat, or telephone, a dark cellar (“No one will hear your screams.”)] Anxiety, fear, and a sense of helplessness arise when characters are cut off from contact with other people, from means of succor, rescue, or support. Empathizing with the characters, readers share in these emotional responses and thus have a deeply vested concern with what happens; not knowing the outcome, they desperately want to know. Many mystery writers have found physical isolation to be an effective device for generating suspense. When featured in a story in combination with other types of suspense-generating devices, isolation can augment and enhance the effects of those.

Copyright © Robert D. Sutherland, 2009


johnny dangerous said...

That's one of the first rules of 'raising the stakes' - Isolate the protagonist - especially when threatened by a foe with an advantage (as when Agent Starling is in the dark basement and Dr Lector is equipped with night-vision goggles).

Vergil said...

See also the entertaining discussion of speech ascription tags posted by Aaron P. Lazar on his blog --
on May 29, 2009.