I read a good hundred pages of McCammon’s Mister Slaughter today.
And now I want to talk to you about writing suspense.
See, those hundred pages? I devoured them. I devoured them the way a star-eating space angel from beyond humanity’s ken devours delectable nuggets of ruined sanity plucked from our mumbling, murmuring lips by glistening tentacle.
Why did I devour these pages? Because the suspense was delicious. With every page, my knuckles grew whiter. I gnawed more furiously at my lip. The scrotum-tightening prose was so potent, it damn near turned my man parts (my “mantenna”) into woman parts (a “lady socket”).
I won’t ruin those pages, but I’ll just say this: over the course of several chapters, two of our main players (Matthew Corbett and Hudson Greathouse) escort a deranged criminal, Tyranthus Slaughter, from Philadelphia to New York on the Philadelphia Pike. This is pre-Revolutionary War, so it’s all horses and carts and muddy ruts and lonely roads. The titular Mister Slaughter makes these two characters a particularly delectable offer, one they find difficult to refuse given the stakes put on the table in the first chapter of the book. Except, you know it’s a bad choice. It has to be! It’s a bad choice because it’s sold to them by a dirty murderin’ freak named Mister Slaughter. And yet, the way it’s written — it seems like an okay choice. You can believe the characters see it that way. But we as readers are trained to see through this illusion in a way that the characters are not. We’re not certain of the peril, and so it’s not precisely dramatic irony, yet we sense it in our gut.
These two characters make their choice, and for several chapters McCammon plays out the crawl toward the conclusion of this choice. It can’t end well. We know it. We feel it. Something in our marrow tells us that. It’s written in ways that offer us clues both subtle and not-so-subtle.
Teeth gnaw lips.
That’s suspense. That’s tension. A fine wine, drink it down.
Now, let’s switch gears for a second. You know the Hitchcock “Bomb Under The Table” scenario, right? The one he uses to illustrate the mastery of suspense over the cheap trick of surprise? It’s a good lesson, and it goes a little something like this:
“We are now having a very innocent little chat. Let us suppose that there is a bomb underneath this table between us. Nothing happens, and then all of a sudden, “Boom!” There is an explosion. The public is surprised, but prior to this surprise, it has seen an absolutely ordinary scene, of no special consequence. Now, let us take a suspense situation. The bomb is underneath the table and the audience knows it, probably because they have seen the anarchist place it there. The public is aware that the bomb is going to explode at one o’clock and there is a clock in the decor. The public can see that it is a quarter to one. In these conditions this same innocuous conversation becomes fascinating because the public is participating in the scene. The audience is longing to warn the characters on the screen: “You shouldn’t be talking about such trivial matters. There’s a bomb beneath you and it’s about to explode!”
“In the first case we have given the public fifteen seconds of surprise at the moment of the explosion. In the second we have provided them with fifteen minutes of suspense. The conclusion is that whenever possible the public must be informed.”
It’s why Hitchcock is one of the masters, right? (If not the master hisownself.) It’s why dramatic irony works. When the audience knows something that the characters don’t, tension and suspense can ensue. We see the coming disaster, and it freaks us out.
I have my own theory about suspense, and I’m sure I’m not the first dude to say it, and I won’t be the last. But it’s something that today’s reading of Mister Slaughter exemplified.
This is how I prefer to handle suspense.
This is not the only way. It is not the best way.
But it is my favorite.
Here it is:
Suspense is greatest when characters we love make a choice we hate.
Okay, that right there is a powerful thing. It isn’t the domain only of thrillers and horror — though, it’s certainly critical to these, and it’s perhaps best illustrated by when we see a character wantonly go alone into a dark room when we know that’s where the killer loves to hide. No, we see this play out across all manner of story. Think about any time a dramatic or romantic character we care about gets mixed up with the wrong lover (Will Shuster in Glee), or how a comedic character self-escalates his own humiliation (any Ben Stiller character ever). Comedically and romantically, Shakespeare was a master at this, as was Neil Simon.
(Comedy, by the way, is a kissing cousin to horror. Don’t let anyone tell you differently.)
A corollary to this is, the suspense is best when the audience senses the awfulness of the choice, but does not know it. Meaning, we’re not going for pure dramatic irony.
In Mister Slaughter, the characters make a choice we suspect is bad, but we do not know that it is bad. It feels that way. Our bowels go icy not because we know they are lambs being led to (ahem) the slaughter, but because we have, in that ol’ Star Wars-ian chestnut, “a bad feeling about this.”
Okay, so why is this my favorite flavor of suspense?
It’s because it’s a suspense driven by the characters. The “Bomb Under The Table” is external. We see the bomb, and we have our fifteen minutes of sphincter-crushing tension, but it’s not driven by the characters. They are driven to it. The situation affects them, but they have not created this situation. Hence, we are only so personally invested.
But, if the characters are the engineers of their own bad mojo? It tells us something about them, and more primally, it stirs a very common response. It’s a true, phyisological response. You’ve had it in your day-to-day. (I wish I could find the link to the story that confirms this, but fuck it, I’m lazy.) Ever see a friend or loved one fuck up something simple or complex? They dick up a move on a video game or they make a wrong turn even though you told them not to? Weird feelings ensue. For most, it’s hard to just let it lie. You might feel embarrassed for them, or shameful, or even pissed off.
Reason is, the human brain is a stupid cup of pudding, and it’s sometimes incapable of separating Other People from You People. It sees your girlfriend run toward the danger in Halo, and it thinks that you’re the jackass running toward the danger in Halo. Your brain owns other people’s failures, if only for a moment. Wires cross. Signals blur.
Use that in your fiction. What, you don’t think fiction manipulates people? The best fiction manipulates, and it does it invisibly.
A character they love makes a choice they hate, and they feel it in their gut. They feel it like they themselves made it. They feel shame. Embarassment. Fear. Anger. They’ll yell at the screen, or clutch the book tighter. They’ll mouth secret prayers to the character, exhorting them to stay away from the bad choice — a futile effort. (This, by the way, is where you go Moo Hoo Ha Ha!)
It’s even better when the choice is a moral one: sure, it’s scary when they choose the wrong door, but when they make a choice based on greed (as do our two characters, Corbett and Greathouse, in Mister Slaughter)? The scrotum will tense so tight your balls will turn black and fall off onto the carpet. You just got castrated, little calf. *drops the mic, stalks off the stage*
I know. It’s not nice to do that to your readers.
But you’re not here to be nice.
If you were, you’d write about ponies winning awards and eating cupcakes.
And that, I’m afraid, is just not your job.
P.S.: “Tyranthus Slaughter” is a ludicrously bad-ass name for a mass murderer. That is all.