How I Define Suspense
Short one today, folks.
I am forever obsessed with the notion of hooking a reader, or, in terms of making movies, keeping the interest of the audience. (By the way, “hooking a reader” is entirely different from “reading a hooker.”) I become increasingly convinced that especially in terms of reading a novel, the reader is itching for a reason to put the book down. This also works in reverse, though: the reader is hungry for a reason to keep on reading. (This is how I’d best describe my reading habits, for better or for worse.)
The myriad axes of “reader interest” are too many to list here in a single post, but for me one of the big ones is suspense, alternately defined as tension.
The question the becomes: how do you create tension? How to engineer suspense?
I’m sticking with the definition I’ve put down in the past:
Suspense is born when a character you love does something you hate.
It isn’t enough to merely put a character in mortal danger — the true tension lies in the character’s choices and responses to that danger.
By the way, this isn’t true only of suspense or thriller novels — I think this is true of any kind of story. I don’t consider suspense the domain of any one genre. Every story needs conflict, terror, horror, suspense, tension. All in a different balance and to a different degree, yes, but present just the same.
Suspense doesn’t require the stakes to be balls-out on the table, though. Sometimes that’s critical, yes — for example, Booboo breaks into his parents’ liquor cabinet to get a bottle of Smirnoff’s for his girlfriend, Betty, despite his abusive father’s warning to never go messing around with “the old man’s stuff.” The stakes are clear — Booboo wants the bottle, but we know that when he makes that choice he is putting himself at odds with his abusive father. We have a strong indication of what could happen.
However, suspense needn’t have such clear stakes — the stakes can be suitably muddy if orchestrated properly. For example, Booboo is walking to Grandmother’s House, and he passes by a spooky old forest, and day in and day out he passes the forest by, but on this day, the day of the story, he decides to hop skip and jump into the eerie old tract of woods. The stakes are muddy — we do not know what will happen to him, but if the writer does his job, we damn sure know that the woods are bad news. Or, if you’re a fan of wanton capitalization, Bad News. The writer can further ratchet up the tension by piling atop the scale further indiscretions, ones that contribute to the feeling that Booboo has made an awful choice: his grandmother is expecting him, he’s supposed to bring her insulin, it’s her birthday, he believes he “won’t be gone long,” etc. These all add a mix of “expected stakes” and “unknown stakes” to the pile.
And the result is a feeling of tension and dread on the part of the reader.
And this is a fascinating thing, because I believe this is why readers read. They want to be held transfixed in fear. It is the writer’s job, perhaps, to invoke negative emotions (even above positive ones): fear, anger and sadness are all big weapons in the writer’s arsenal. That tells you right there that the best writers are often the most fucked up ones, too.
Anyway. You tell me. This make sense? This a bucket of buffalo falafel?
What scenes of suspense in books and film have really done a number on you?
Share with the class, cats and kittens.