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.

14 comments

  • Also, another example:

    In, say, a slasher film, the character goes poking around in the dark, drunk, post-sex, and you know it’s a bad idea. Or, they hear a noise and they go investigate. Once again: BAD IDEA. They’re doing something you don’t want them to do.

    — c.

  • Can suspense also come from events you hate happening to a character you love? Your examples are character-centric: stealing the liquor, walking into the woods. If our hero is put into a dire predicament like, say, anything that happens to Indiana Jones or James Bond, we can feel something akin to suspense or tension.

    Think of the fight on the airstrip between Indy and Bald Nazi Badass in “Raiders”. (Yes, period outside the quotation marks in that last sentence, but “Raiders” is a title, not part of the sentence. Deal with it.) Indy is trying his hardest to make good choices in that fight, but events conspire against him. The environment raises the stakes for our hero and the tension rises with them.

    Personal examples of effective suspense along the lines you describe include Clarice Starling’s basement hunt for Buffalo Bill. Terribly claustrophobic and nail-biting.

    In prose, I think of a particular battle scene in “Blood Meridian”. (Again, period outside! Feel the knife, Wendig.) McCarthy writes an entire battle scene in a single, three-page sentence. On paper, it doesn’t sound like it should work. But the lack of punctuation made me read the entire battle in one mental breath. By the end, my brain was exhausted from the long sentence and my nerves jangled from the accumulated impact of the building tension and horror in the battle.

    • @Dave:

      Absolutely. I think, however, suspense is best when it is the result of a character’s choices — even in terms of the Indy fight, we know it’s because he stepped into the ring with this guy. He has to; it’s his choice. Its powerful because we know he has to win this fight to get what he wants, and thus it’s still driven by character choice, still married to the personal stakes on the table.

      — c.

  • It’s worth mentioning Hitchcock’s classic take on suspense vs. surprise: http://everything2.com/title/Bomb+Theory

    Also works for fiction. Take your walking-by-the-woods example. Compare your version to an alternate where, one day, he’s walking by the woods and something vicious and slobbery just jumps out and attacks him. Not as satisfying. You’ve got to inform the reader of the threat (though, of course, that information may be implied and not explicit).

  • I think we’re mostly in agreement. After I wrote my first post, it occurred to me that environment-driven suspense ultimately finds its strength in character. In the best examples, the character makes a decision we (may) hate to put himself in the suspenseful environment, which dovetails into your point. In the worst examples, the writer lets plot overwhelm character. At its core, the best suspense likely still springs from your thesis.

    But I reserve the right to thunder back into this thread later with a devastating counterexample.

    • @Dave:

      Yes! Exactly. Suspense is fed by our feelings about the character and that character’s choices.

      It’s why when books open solely upon action it’s hard for the reader to care — in the midst of the action we need something to grab hold of, some want, some need, some *choice* that connects us and anchors us to the characters. Otherwise, it’s just a mechanical sequence of events. We have no grief, no fear, no sympathy, no tension.

      — c.

  • I adore the concept behind that sentence. I have swallowed whole chapters simply hoping a character’s choice resolves well despite my fears.

    Many of my favorite writers do that so well.

    And, it’s timely, with all this horror flash going on. Though, I must admit that I didn’t fulfil the mandate of the sentence in my tale. I did try to make it personal to the reader, though.

    Thanks,
    K

  • Then in order to open a book with action and suspense, your character needs a strong archetypal hook: the square-jawed pulp professor, the hometown boy turned soldier, the femme fatale (I’m thinking genre action, not dramatic or literary action today). You don’t have time to convince the reader to care about your snowflake hero, so you have to reach down into the narrative muck for a familiar shape. It’s a highwire act, since you need the archetype (i.e. the cliche) in order to drag the reader to the end of the first chapter, but now you’ve shifted the burden from introducing suspense to creating an engaging archetype from Sentence One. You’ve transformed the challenge, not eliminated it.

    • And the problem there, @Dave, is that archetypes can get only so much mileage — archetype, after all, is a poor replacement for character.

      Believe it or not, I think this problem is easily solved by knowing how to build character in a few really potent beats — really, one has to make motivation clear from the get-go and establish a bridge between reader and character.

      — c.

  • Agreed. I meant to include something similar in my last response, but I composed it in multiple sittings and forgot that point. You arguably need an archetype at the start of the story, but the new challenge is to slap on a very interesting coat of paint as soon as possible.

    Building a solid character in a few puissant beats is The Grail and just as easy to find. I suggest that, if you’re in the opening chapter, you still need the archetype of you’re going the suspense route, but quick, strong hammer blows of characterization can quickly improve the cliched form.

  • @Chuck Wait. What?

    “I actually speak to the Hitchcock theory way back when”

    We’re all going to get through life much happier as soon as everyone stops trying to speak TO issues, ideas, or theories.

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