Thursday, November 10, 2011

Suspense

Suspense is an emotion and is a critical element in all fiction. Suspense is what keeps readers reading, keeps them turning the pages. In its simplest form, suspense is wanting to know what happens next.

Suspense must always end. It can end happily, say with two lovers getting together, or sadly, as with the death of a character or when two lovers decide to go their separate ways. But it must end, and when it ends the story is really over.

“Dark” suspense is what I’m most interested in as a writer. This kind is based on threat and fear, either of the unknown, or-—sometimes—-of that which is known only too well. Unfortunately, because we are all constantly bombarded with dark suspense in entertainment, as in movies from the current crop all the way to old favorites like Jaws, Alien, and Die Hard, it has become increasingly hard to induce suspense in both movies and writing. If you as a reader are feeling a little jaded, a little like you’ve seen it all before, maybe it’s because you have.

The ante is raised for today’s readers. And for writers. The need for suspense is greater than ever, and it’s harder than ever to achieve. A first step in creating good suspense is recognizing that there are two kinds: quick and slow.

Quick suspense is how a lot of books and movies start out. The opening scene shows a ticking time bomb, or an assassin sighting in his target through a sniper scope, or a brake line being cut. It gives us a splash of blood, or a scream. It provides an in-your-face introduction of a threat. It’s also the least effective of the two.

Slow suspense is slow developing, and fully involves the reader (or viewer) in the process. It grows out of characters that the reader cares about, and it can’t be achieved on page one because no one really knows the character yet. When readers care about characters, you don’t need the threat of a bomb blowing up or a president being killed to create “nail-biting” suspense.

For example, I just don’t care for baseball. For me, it moves too slowly and lacks anything in the way of suspense. However, when my son was playing Little League Baseball I found his games incredibly suspenseful. He was a pitcher and always seemed to get sent in when another pitcher had already loaded the bases. I chewed a lot of fingernails and sat on the edge of a lot of seats when Josh was playing baseball. It’s because I cared about him that I suddenly found baseball suspenseful.

If you can create characters readers care about, those readers will feel suspense no matter what kind of event the character is expecting, whether big or small. In my next post, on November 26, I’ll talk about some of the things that writers do to create these kinds of characters.

20 comments:

Ty Johnston said...

Great post, Charles.

Personally, I wish the slow suspense elements were more in vogue, because I generally prefer that kind of tale, reading them and writing them. The fast-suspense story can be done well, but it feels as if it's been used so much over the last few decades that it's been done to death. But that's just my opinion.

Merisi said...

Very interesting, I am looking forward to hear more about this subject from you!

Charles Gramlich said...

Ty, the slow suspense is what makes novels truly memorable, I believe. I think you're right about the quick suspense. Been over done.

Merisi, thankee. I appreciate you visiting.

Sean Patrick Reardon said...

Great post, which could certainly be expanded to some great conversations and debates. I read a novel, "The Great God Pan" by Athur Machen, based on Stephen King talking about it. This most certainly fell into the catagory of me wanting to know more. Tremendous story and suspenseful as Hell. Still freaks me out. Looking forward to the Nov 26 post, and following this blog.

the walking man said...

Charles Dickens seemed to usually start out within the first ten pages building that fast suspense. A Christmas Carol being a prime example but I just read Hard Times and in that one book he used almost the entire narrative to bring you to the reason you had to keep reading. The concluding chapter was the place where all the suspense for me anyway was. so far of all his books I have read that one was the best.

But then there comes in the question of almost every one of his books were first published in serial form a taste at a time and the end of the serial of the month had to have some sort of cliff hanger that would make his audience pick the magazine up again the next month. So he had to use a variety of "suspense" to be as popular as he was in his day.

BernardL said...

I'm a fan of incorporating a series of suspenseful moments involving cared for characters. Jaws is a great example. The Stand is another. A mixture of both slow building and fast moments of suspense make for the best mixture in novel or movie form. But the key is as you write - caring for the characters.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Since my focus is characters, I'm better at slow suspense.

Charles Gramlich said...

Sean, I appreciate that. a lot of this is from a recent talk I gave on the subject to a reading group.

Mark, I think most works need a combination of the quick and slow, but only the slow is likely to carry a full novel.

Bernardl, my next post will talk more about the characters and how they add to the slow suspense.

Alex, if you're going to be good at one, that's the one to pick.

Chris said...

Suspense is what makes everything better. To continue the baseball theme, the Texas Rangers were one strike away from winning the World Series twice in one game a couple weeks ago, and ultimately it didn't turn out the way they or their fans were hoping it to. And people say that particular game will go down as one of the best ever.

pattinase (abbott) said...

Great observations here, Charles. I only enjoyed watching baseball when my son was watching (or playing) it too. His excitement became mine.

Charles Gramlich said...

Chris, my son taught me a lot about baseball and I did come to appreciate it more after he'd played. I still don't really keep up with it, though.

Patti, exactly so!

Oscar said...

Nice article on suspense, Charles. It reminds me I need more of it.

Charles Gramlich said...

Oscar, glad you enjoyed.

David J. West said...

Now I'm angsty for that next post-thanks Charles.

Charles Gramlich said...

David J., Thankee, man.

laughingwolf said...

combinations of types are good, cuz you don't want to write everything the same way, and become predictable

speaking of suspense: stephen king's new one involves time travel, mostly to do with the assassination of jfk, and king's take on it...

Charles Gramlich said...

Laughingwolf, hum, my last comment to you didn't go through. I said that King may be going to have a reading here in New Orleans for that book. I'll have to try and go.

laughingwolf said...

cool... we all expect a critique, of both book and writer! ;)

Liane Spicer said...

Looking forward to that post, Charles.

Maybe one of the reasons I'm not devouring fiction with the old appetite is that I'm pretty jaded indeed. I've read more nonfiction this year than I usually read in five years.

Charles Gramlich said...

Laughingwolf, I'll try.

Liane, I know what you mean. I'm especially bad that way with TV. So much is predictable.