Tuesday, September 28, 2010

What creates suspense?

Years ago, a film-maker friend of mine told me he wanted to try something radically different with his next project: he wanted to shoot a story that had absolutely no conflict.

He told me he didn't want to have a boy-meets-girl-then-loses-girl-love-story or a man-robs-bank-to-provide-for-his-family morality play or anything else that showed person A coming up against person B or obstacle C or life-changing circumstance D.

I thought about it for a bit, concluding that it definitely would have been unique among popular films at the time, but also would have been maddeningly boring. It might have made a somewhat interesting, avant garde music video done the right way, but it most assuredly wouldn't be a story. Conflict, and by association, suspense, is the very core of a good story. Without it, there is nothing to read, view or listen to that has any real narrative value.

And, it doesn't really matter whether your medium is film, music or literature, holding the audience in your hand and doling out to them enough to keep them glued to your tale, but not so much that they're walking away, is the true test of a good bit of storytelling…and my definition of suspense.

You can write in a horror or suspense genre or you can be entrenched in serious drama, but if you're doing it right, there will always be some level of suspension. Your words are the bridge from the beginning of the story to the other side of a great chasm. How you use them keeps the bridge from falling and the reader held aloft, far above the churning waters, but close enough to feel the spray when its white waters crash on the rocks. The danger of falling needs to always be present, even if it's not a dangerous kind of story -- even if it's only a story about two lovers who are twenty years apart in age.

There, that's suspense. It might not be huge, or life-threatening, but everyone in the room can put up their hand and say that they could foresee some difficulty in that: a man in his twenties, a woman in her forties, the two of them still mad with passion for each other. Roll cameras. And. Action!

I look at suspense in fiction and I say it's well-done if it meets two criteria.

First, has the author created an expectation that something is very wrong?

And, if not very wrong, then maybe it is currently sitting at "not quite right" and he is presently building-building-building with each major "moment" in the story to that spot of being very wrong. If so, tighten the straps and release the button on the drip bag next to your gurney. Things will get pulled out of proportion. And they should.

Good authors do "wrong" very well and the tricks employed come across as natural, so, basically, not as tricks at all. The concept of "building" is also key here. You want to see something amiss right out of the gate, but you also want room to grow the feelings of unease in the opening forty pages of a story. It should rise like the crescendo of a classical piece of music, and, contrary to what some may say, it should build at a predictable rate.

A solid current example of this in pop fiction is the readily available excerpt from Stephen King's new story collection, Full Dark, No Stars. The story is "A Good Marriage" and the snippet is here.

Now, I won't ruin it for you if you haven't read it. Go ahead, if you're curious. I'll wait. There. Neat, huh? Obviously I don't know where this story is going. And I don't want to. But what he's done is a very solid, very suspenseful piece. King is obviously very good at this. I don't need to remind any of you that he's one of the reigning masters, but I don't know if this story will wind up being good in the end. Who knows, right? Not until the final sentence. But at this moment, it illustrates my point very nicely. No one is clinging to the edge of a cliff in a thunderstorm. No one is holding a knife to my throat and threatening to cut. But I'm suspended, nonetheless. I want to keep reading and find out what the bloody hell this wife has found in the garage she shares with her husband.

Second, does the author create a world where we, the readers, do the opposite of "suspending our disbelief?"

The reader needs to believe that what is happening could happen, may have happened, will happen, or, in fact, happens every single day in the world that he calls home. This is done through impeccable research and staying true to what most reasonable people would believe they would do in a similar situation, given the same facts. Even if it's science fiction or dark horror with strange things making scheduled visits in the dark of the night (read my free short novel, Shed, for more of this kind of weirdness), the world should be recognizable, either by its physical make-up or by its characters.

The above example by King gives a good dose of what I mean here, too. Anyone who's ever been, married--even for five minutes--will "get" what King is saying about these two people, their habits, their foibles, there angst and their love. Colliding and sparking and retreating over the course of time, these two people are married. Plain. Simple. Married. And the "realness" of it shows in every sentence. With a set up like this, how can we not believe whatever is about to come next, even if it is at once off the wall and, well, unbelievable?

So my bottom line for feeling appropriately suspended while I read a book (in any genre, not just the suspense genre) or while I watch a tv show, a flick or the top of the pizza box are these two ideas: Is something itching that spot behind my eyes, making me think twice about whether this should be happening? And. Do I truly believe I'm reading or seeing something in the real world as I've come to know it?

Could this really be happening?

And, if it could, then I will immediately be freaked out when the bed moves under me, even if it's only an inch.


  1. Reading this, a show on National Geographic channel called ‘Sunrise earth’ came to mind. This is a 60 minute show where a single camera (and audio) is set up at some location in the world in the minutes before sunrise. There is no audio narration—only an occasional scroll, noting the setting, etc. I watched this show mesmerized by a shot of the Yanteze (sp) river in China and the fisherman who paddled out and used birds to dive for fish. Is there any conflict here? Another showed a steamy vent in Iceland. How can we watch for hours, fascinated by a swollen river in a flood? If we wrote about the swollen river without speaking of the pickup just swept away and its passengers, would it be boring prose?

  2. Oh yeah, Mark, no doubt about it. There are plenty of things (natural and unnatural) in the world around us that may mesmerize the senses, provide a feeling of awe or even astound us to a degree that we begin to think about questions of mortality and whether there is such a thing as God.

    My remarks above really only relate to storytelling of the human variety. The Yangtze River is beautiful ( I used to write copy for travel mags and movies so I've seen my share of majestic footage and photos of it ) but there's no narrative there. There is no struggle. No suspense. Just raw beauty.

    In turn, your comments remind me of one of my favourite films: The Mosquito Coast. In this wonderful movie, the beautiful scenery of Central America is captured by director Peter Weir in some pretty remarkable footage. The score is impeccable, too. You're sitting there, looking at this gorgeous jungle and, bang! Here are the people. Here is the conflict. Without Harrison Ford's obsession, you have little driving force. And, later, without the bandits trying to commandeer Ford's magnificent ice machine, it would just be pretty moving pictures. At least to me.

    Thanks for your comment, Mark. It's always great to have discussion and differing points of view!

  3. Great post. I'm always looking for writing pointers.

  4. Not sure how your comment slipped by me, Midnyte. I thank you for dropping by and am humbled that you think I can provide pointers to anything except an Arby's. :-)

  5. Very nice post! I love suspense and I think most people do because uncertainty, fear and conflict are part of our everyday lives.

    I completely agree with your point on the author's ability to reflect the world we live in. I've watched many films and read many books where this key element simply didn't hold. Result? I wasn't suspended.

    As a writer, the hard part becomes being able to transmit this feeling to the readers. It's an art that needs to be perfected. We all have it in us to tell stories because that's what our lives are: stories. Using written words to fill in the gaps of the sounds and the facial expression we use in communication, however, is a whole other game.

    Great blog! Very useful

  6. Carolina! (writnblock) So glad you stopped by and I'm very appreciative of your comments. You sound like you have a very keen understanding of how to keep the bridge above the water, as it were. Your points are made eloquently and I thank you for sharing your thoughts! j. //


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