Friday, June 12, 2009

The Importance of Suspense -- Part 9

Part 9

Here is the ninth 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. 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:

I plan a brief concluding statement for Part 10.


Exploiting readers’ subliminal and archetypal fears

I’ll mention one other tactical device for generating Suspense: authors’ exploiting in their fiction readers’ subliminal and archetypal fears. There are some fears that seem to be endemic to the human species. They’re widely distributed around the globe, among diverse peoples and cultures and civilizations (including those that have never been in contact). Very ancient, many of these fears are represented through event, symbol, and metaphor in mankind’s oldest literary texts and incorporated into the sacred writings, symbology, myths, and doctrines of the world’s great religions. When these fears are stoked and fostered, they produce powerful emotional responses, including anxiety and terror. If authors are adept at evoking such fears through their writings, they have at hand a ready tool for creating Suspense. Readers who experience these fear-based emotions will want them assuaged; but not knowing if or when or how the author will accomplish this, they must keep reading to find out.

Without becoming too Jungian, I’d suggest that these fears constitute a kind of “racial memory”, expressed—perhaps overtly, perhaps obliquely through metaphor—in ancient myths, legends, and the grimmer sort of folk and fairy tales. In human affairs, they’ve manifested themselves for thousands of years as superstitions, warnings to the unwary, and diverse rituals designed to cure, exorcise, or forestall evils that the fears attest.

Many of these archetypal fears exist subliminally, in the pre-conscious, until something occurs to bring them to the surface. In mystery fiction, they and the Suspense they engender may be central to the story, or perhaps peripheral to other elements. But if authors want to evoke these ancient, universal fears to generate Suspense, they must use narrative means to force them out of the shadows into the characters’ and readers’ conscious awareness. [“Yes, dear Character (and Gentle Reader), there really is a Bogeyman, and he’s waiting for you just there, in the dark at the top of the stairs.” Or, “You, Character, have sinned, and we’re going to punish you by cutting off your nose and gouging out your eyes and sending you into the world with a tin cup to beg your bread.”] These fears are the stuff of nightmare. I’ll list a few. You can probably come up with more.

a) Fear of the supernatural: (ghosts, demonic possession, zombies, mummies (the undead generally), ghouls, trolls, vampires, werewolves, -tigers, -jaguars, witches, formal curses, etc.

[Why is the Vampire so evocative and pervasive as an iconic figure of terror? Western culture, at least, will not let it go.] Don’t take it as a joke when I say, Vampires have existed for a very long time—in various guises, with mixed qualities of horror and eroticism. Yes, Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897) is wordy and a little stuffy (told through long journal entries!), but it does have an exciting and scary climax. And yes, though Tod Browning's and Bela Lugosi’s memorable film version (1931) may look a little campy now, it too was an iconic event that spawned a host of vampire movies that have continued to the present day (a large part of the actor Christopher Lee’s career was devoted to playing the Count). So familiar has the figure of the vampire become, it lends itself to parody and self-parody; it may be that the fascination which the figure still exerts (Why the fascination?) which brought forth all the stories, films, TV shows, and comic books, allowed people to be comfortable with and even feel affection for a creature which, on its own terms and undomesticated, would be too frightening to contemplate. Has this relaxed acceptance of the Vampire diluted and neutralized its capacity to inspire terror, and enabled people to de-fang the object of their fear? Perhaps so. (But, still …)

b) Fear of the permanent loss of something precious (a child, something entrusted to one’s safekeeping, a rare and potent talisman, one’s eyesight, one’s “immortal” soul)
c) Fear of abandonment, abduction, being physically lost (in the woods, in the desert, in the mountains, at sea)
d) Fear of the dark and what might be lurking in it unseen (total eclipses of the sun, blackouts, the thing under the bed)
e) Fear of the Evil Eye and of being cursed (by opening the mummy’s tomb, by the ire of the voodoo priestess, by the Australian aborigine pointing the bone, etc.)
f) Claustrophobia (small closets, long sewer pipes, caves, mines (the underground generally), being trapped or confined (cornered). (In the 19th century, premature burial was a pervasive fear.)
g) Agoraphobia (fear of open spaces and going out among people)
h) Fear of snakes, spiders, and wild beasts (snakes have had a bad rap since long before the Book of Genesis in the Old Testament; and the ancient Greeks had Medusa, whose face with snaky hair turned folks to stone.)
i) Fear of fire and being burned
j) Fear of disfigurement
k) Fear of being exiled and cast out
(from the tribe, the Elect, the family, the homeland, the village, the Faith; into the wilderness, outer darkness, perpetual wandering, the lake of eternal pain)
l) Fear of heights, of falling
m) Fear of losing one’s identity or memory
n) Fear of losing one’s sanity
o) The doppelganger, or double, or “fetch” (Gilgamesh (c. 1300 B.C.); Poe, “William Wilson”; Stevenson, “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde”; Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray; Conrad, “The Secret Sharer”; Charlotte Perkins Gilman, "The Yellow Wallpaper"; Henry James, “The Jolly Corner”)

Evoking any of these fears could be an effective way for an author to create Suspense.



Point of view

A story is told from one or more vantage points of observation; this principle has traditionally been called adoption of a “point of view”. An author’s selection of the point of view from which a story is told is a strategic decision. That choice will determine the structure of the narrative, open certain avenues for characters’ observations and interactions and foreclose others, dictate either a narrow or a panoramic scope in relating action and revealing information, provide or deny characters certain types of knowledge, and—for the author—allow or disallow certain devices for generating Suspense. Choosing the narrative point of view is one of the most important decisions an author makes.

The points of view conventionally available to authors are 1) first-person; 2) second-person; 3) third person limited; 4) third-person omniscient. Let’s take each of these options in turn and see what it provides for creating Suspense, and what it precludes.


Sometimes one (or more) of the characters tells the story—in which case the Narrator of the moment is designated “I” (though of course s/he may have a given name as well, such as V. I. Warshawski or Philip Marlowe). This mode of telling is called ‘first-person point of view’.

ADVANTAGES — Immediacy: it draws the reader in. The “I” who narrates the story may be the protagonist, an associate or friend of the protagonist, another character, or someone “outside” the story proper—someone in a frame narrative, perhaps, who is telling a story within the story, or perhaps a fictional scholar who’s editing a manuscript text of the story, etc. Using the first-person point of view enables authors to create a complex and detailed persona as storyteller who has a full-blown personality with values, tics, biases, perhaps blind spots and personal problems (raising the possibility of authors’ ironic exploitation if the “I” is untrustworthy, dense, insane, or a liar). With a first-person narrative, readers get to know the personality, thoughts, opinions, and habits of the protagonist “from the inside.”

As a bonus in adopting the first-person point of view, authors can use the persona of the protagonist as a proxy to register their own opinions, judgments, political commentary, or social criticisms. Since readers tend to identify with the “I” narrator, they may find themselves “sharing”, or giving credence to, the protagonist’s views. When using the third person-limited point of view, or the third-person-omniscient, authors can put their opinions and commentary into the mouths of particular characters as well; but in “first-person” narrative there is an intimate immediacy in doing so.

LIMITATIONS — The author, committed to the point of view of “I,” who is narrating the story, is not free to range through time and space at will, or get into other people’s heads. Only what “I” sees, hears, is present at, or learns can be known to “I”. And, since “I” is the one telling the reader about it, that’s all the reader knows.

Now, what implications does all this have for generating Suspense?

Protagonist as first-person narrator

If the protagonist is the first-person narrator, s/he is telling the audience about events after they have happened and the mystery is solved. Thus, since readers know, as a base-line, that the first-person narrator survives to tell the tale (i.e., that all dangers will have been circumvented), they don’t have to endure the Suspense of dreading the protagonist’s demise. [They still experience the suspenseful anticipation of learning how s/he survived the dangers, and they experience the immediate Suspense of watching the escapes. And of course there is the Suspense of watching the unfolding of events, the coming of crises, and the perils faced by other characters.]

This point of view enables the author easily to withhold information from the reader. 1) Since everything is seen from “I’s” perspective, what “I” doesn’t know, the reader doesn’t know. 2) As first-person storyteller, the protagonist reveals only what s/he wants to be revealed while the story progresses (i.e., the narrator can choose to keep readers in the dark as to events and thought processes, or, conversely, can share with readers as the story unfolds). Bottom line: the protagonist, “looking back” to tell the story, knows EVERYTHING that happened up to the time of the telling; and, as narrator (and “purported author” of the story), can withhold whatever information from readers that s/he wishes.

The first-person point of view is a powerful way of telling a story and engendering Suspense. It’s been very popular with mystery writers, particularly those whose protagonists are private investigators or amateur sleuths.

Unreliable first-person narrator

A rarely encountered subclass of the first-person narrative is the story told from the point of view of an unreliable narrator. There are various reasons why the narrator might be unreliable: s/he might be hiding a personal secret, might be a compulsive liar, might be self-deluded, might be the guilty party, might be mentally deranged. If readers recognize that there’s something “fishy” about the narrator, then a skeptical guessing game will begin in earnest as to what is, and what is not, to be believed; if they don’t recognize the fishiness, they’ll be in for frustrating ambiguity or a major surprise.

Frame narrative

Stories may be told as stories-within-stories, typically as a frame narrative containing one or more inset narratives. In the first-person frame narrative, the author creates a persona who tells a fictional audience a story in which s/he is a participating character, or an eye-witness to the events recounted. This is a standard narrative device used since ancient times in many cultures.

In English literature, Chaucer used it in writing The Canterbury Tales where, as author, he created a character representing himself on the pilgrimage to Canterbury. Chaucer (poet) created Chaucer (pilgrim) to introduce the other pilgrims who told stories in their own right. Chaucer (pilgrim) referred to himself as ‘I’. But Chaucer (poet) is not Chaucer (pilgrim). In Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad created a character named Marlow who tells a group of listeners the story of his trip to the heart of the Belgian Congo in search of the mysterious Kurtz. The character named Marlow who narrates the inset story as a participant is to be distinguished from the character Marlow in the frame narrative who recounts the story-within-a-story. Both, in their respective narratives, refer to themselves as ‘I’. And of course neither of them is Conrad.

(Theoretically, there’s no limit to the number of frames and stories that can occur in a single work: the work can assume a structure like that of a Russian doll containing ever smaller versions, one nesting within the other. In practical terms, however, such a structure could become burdensome to both author and reader, the device ultimately calling attention to itself to the detriment of the piece as a whole.). To reach closure (and logical coherence) in writing a narrative with multiple frames and inset stories, the author must come out again sequentially in reverse order through the various frames to the starting place.

First-person narrator a companion/observer of the detective protagonist

A good example of the companion/observer is Dr. Watson, the first-person narrator in most of the Sherlock Holmes stories. As a reliable narrator, and a character distinguished by his honesty, intelligence, courage, loyalty, and occasional humor he merits the reader’s trust. But, by not being as good at deductive reasoning as Holmes is, he must always be enlightened at the conclusion of the mystery. His need to know (which matches the readers’) provides a foil to highlight the detective’s brilliance. (“Dear me, Holmes, I confess I’m baffled. However did you figure that out?” And Holmes always obliges by telling him. That Holmes doesn’t let Watson know his thinking while solving the problem is Doyle’s way of maintaining his readers in a state of anticipation and Suspense.)

First-person narration through diary entries and exchange of letters

Stories have been told through sequences of diary or journal entries, through a series of personal letters sent and received, and through extended monologues. All of these would, as a baseline, employ first-person point of view although any of these forms might contain anecdotal material (as reports or gossip) in the third-person point of view ("I remember Charlie's first date with Marilyn. They went to Barney's for fish-and-chips, and then they caught the ferry . . ."). Such anecdotes, constituting stories-within-a-story, cause the diaries, letters, or monologues that contain them to serve virtually as frames for the embedded narratives while they are being recounted. But on the macro level, the diaries, letters, or monologues have their own first-person stories to tell.


Rarely, a rather disembodied, nameless narrator addresses the reader as “you”; this is called ‘second-person narrative’. In prose fiction it’s rarely encountered; it tends to work best in short passages, for it’s difficult to sustain. It’s a form not conducive to generating Suspense.

ADVANTAGES — immediacy: it draws readers in by addressing them directly as “you” and making them undergo the actions and events; the reader becomes a character in the story (and the protagonist).

LIMITATIONS — the author is not free to range through time and space without taking “you” (the reader) along as baggage. Since “you” must always be talked at, the name you is constantly repeated (unless the directive imperative mood is adopted, in which case the ‘you’ is omitted). This point of view quickly becomes tedious unless very skillfully handled. For long works, it should be avoided.


Third-person (Limited)

“Third-person / Limited” is a type of “third-person point of view” in which a single character (called by name, or ‘he’ or ‘she’ by the nameless Narrator) is followed through the story as a central observer, and everything is seen through his or her eyes; the reader is thus limited to seeing and knowing only what this central observer sees and knows.

A variation of this mode allows the author to choose at will different characters to serve as the central observer now and again as the story progresses; in this type of narration, with its shifting central observer, the point of view, with its attendant limitations, is restricted to only one character at a time. Each character may see and know different things from the others; the reader will see and know what each of them sees and knows. It follows that the reader may develop a complex composite understanding of events, etc. that surpasses the knowledge of the main central observer, or protagonist. This state of affairs gives the author opportunities for building Suspense of various kinds, and for injecting irony and humor into the story.

ADVANTAGES — the author can get into the central observer’s head, can describe or otherwise delineate the character’s feelings and opinions. In order to generate Suspense, information can easily be withheld from the central observer and thus from the reader as well (as in first-person narrative). Though the reader can still be made to identify with the protagonist, there is a slight distancing (the reader is more a spectator here than in the first-person mode of narration, where identification with the “I” character makes the reader a “character”, or “participant”, in the story). If authors so desire, the possibility of seeing things from the point of view of various central observers could allow the author to sequentially dramatize the same single event from multiple points of view.

LIMITATIONS — the author is committed to the point of view of whichever character is the central observer at any given moment; thus no information can be provided the reader beyond what that character knows through direct experience or hearsay. When a single character is taken as the central observer (the protagonist, or a sidekick such as Dr. Watson) and rigorously followed throughout the story, the nameless Narrator does not have the possibility of ranging through time and space to depict various theaters of action or reveal other characters’ thoughts. However, when multiple characters take their turns at being the central observer, the nameless Narrator has more freedom to range over time and place, and the enjoys some of the flexibility possessed by the Omniscient Narrator (see below). A typical technique is to use Omniscient for general overviews or summaries and for bridges between scenes, and then to use Third-person / Limited (choosing a particular character as central observer) for specific scenes. It might be the same character for each scene throughout, or different characters for different scenes. This combination technique provides the author more flexibility, a chance to avoid the limitations of the pure form of Third person / Limited [one central observer], and, when different characters take turns at being the central observer, expanded opportunities for developing characterization.

Some stories are more effectively told with first-person point of view, some with third-person / limited, some with third-person / omniscient, and conceivably even some with second-person.

Third-person / Omniscient Narrator

Sometimes the story is told by a nameless Narrator who sees all, knows all; who can range over time and space, and get into any character’s head: this is “omniscient narration”. It usually employs ‘third-person point of view’, in which characters are referred to by name, or by ‘he’, ‘she’, and ‘they’. In a sense, an Omniscient Narrator is outside the story, looking “in”, seeing it all—not a character in any conventional sense of the term.

ADVANTAGES — authors have great flexibility; they see all, know all from the disembodied Omniscient Narrator’s point of view, can depict simultaneous actions in different locations, for time and space present no boundaries. The author chooses how “external” or how “internal” the narrative is to be at any particular time. The author can get into any character’s head to reveal their thoughts and feelings (while still selecting and choosing what the reader is to know, and what information is to be withheld). Readers get to share in this all-encompassing view, and, through various identifications, find it easy to become vicarious participants in the story.

LIMITATIONS — There are some dangers the author should guard against. If not well handled, the omniscient point of view can lack immediacy, can fail to engage readers and draw them in, holding them off at arm’s length, so to speak. There might also be a tendency to ramble, or get wordy, or drift into long discursive passages, to forfeit ECONOMY and TACT. Such a wealth of available information to choose from can cause the author to lose sight of priorities and bury the important in the trivial. There is also a danger of telling too much, and not showing enough through dramatization; explaining too much, drawing conclusions for readers rather than letting them draw their own.


First-person narrative: “I climbed the stairs and saw Sheila standing near the window. She seemed to be crying. Before she saw me, I turned and went down again so as not to embarrass her.”

Second-person narrative—discursive: “You climb the stairs and see Sheila standing near the window. She seems to be crying. Before she sees you, you turn and go down again so as not to embarrass her.” (NOTE that verbs are in the present tense.)
Or, second-person can be couched as a directive:
“Climb the stairs. See Sheila standing near the window. She seems to be crying. Turn and go down again so as not to embarrass her.”

Third-person narrative (limited): “He climbed the stairs and saw Sheila standing near the window. She seemed to him to be crying. So as not to embarrass her, he turned and went down again before she saw him.”

Third-person narrative (omniscient): “He climbed the stairs and saw Sheila standing near the window. She seemed to him to be crying, though in fact she wasn’t. So as not to embarrass her, he turned and went down again before she saw him. He needn’t have worried; Sheila was preoccupied with watching Charles and Henrietta playing croquet on the lawn. ‘Bloody bitch,’ she thought.”

Note that second-person narrative is told in the present-tense of the verb, or else in the imperative mood. First- and third-person narratives may be told in either the present or past tense. The past tense has been used in the examples above. Compare those with these present-tense versions: “I climb the stairs and see Sheila standing near the window. She seems to be crying. Before she sees me, I turn and go down again...” and “He climbs the stairs and sees Sheila standing near the window. She seems to him to be crying, though in fact she isn’t....”

Present-tense confers a kind of immediacy to the narration, pulling the reader in; it can be overdone—and if that occurs, the mode becomes heavy-handed and tedious. Past tense slightly distances the narration (tending to put the reader more into the role of a spectator than a participant); but if the narrative is sufficiently compelling and well-told, the reader is drawn in nonetheless. Past-tense is the traditional, usual, and “natural” way that we recount stories: “The last man on Earth sat alone in a room. There was a knock on the door...”.

Which mode of narration authors adopt for telling the story, which point of view(s) they choose to tell it from, which tense they choose to put the verbs into—all of these are crucial strategic decisions which must be made. For particular aims, and for particular narratives, there might be a best way to do it. If so, the author’s job is to find that best way.

Each of these modes of narration has advantages and limitations, both inherently, and with regard to creating Suspense for the reader.

Copyright © Robert D. Sutherland, 2009

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