Today, I’m welcoming Michael Combes, a writing coach who has written a fascinating article about the nature of suspense in fiction.
According to Aristotle, suspense is an important building block of literature and most writers include an element of suspense in stories to some degree. But as we look at books and films being released (and not being released) today, we will find that the major difference between a successful novel and an unsuccessful novel is the quality of suspense.
Why do authors fail at suspense? Most of it is their approach to what suspense is. Many people feel that suspense is merely tension within the action, or cliff-hanger moments, or nail-biting moments when the reader doesn’t know what is going to happen next. While this last statement is more-or-less true, we, as authors, really need to examine WHY the reader has the nail biting moments.
Back to Aristotle. He defines suspense as a sense of real danger looming combined with a ray of hope. This could lead to several possible outcomes. The danger hits and there is sorrow; the danger is avoided and there is joy; or there is no hope which leads to despair and necessitating divine intervention to draw the characters out of the danger. This last outcome is mostly used in the morality tales of the Hebrews, Greeks and Romans.
Ok, so what about modern literature? How does suspense work for an audience of today? We must examine a fundamental paradox of suspense: for suspense to work there must be uncertainty or a lack of information. Let’s look at some successful stories and examine this paradox. First, Titanic. This was a widely successful film where audience members flocked to the theatres to see this story unfold. But the audience went into the theatre KNOWING the ship was going to sink. So, why did the audience even want to see the film? There was no suspense. What happens when the uncertainty is removed?
As you look at the modern story, there are very few basic plots. Some people say as few as three major plotlines to as many as 36, depending on whom you read. The idea is that once people identify the plot, they can basically predict the ending regardless of other plot devices. I am sure that each of us has done that in our reading and movie-watching. Don’t believe me? How many James Bond films have you seen? Why so many once you knew the plots were all basically identical?
Once we understand—usually early in the book—that the boy is going to get the girl, the world will be saved, the riddle will be solved and the evil villain will be dispatched, we keep reading. This begs the question, how can tension remain effective with no uncertainty? The answer is simple. It is the anticipation of uncertainty that draws the audiences. Why do we watch so many James Bond flicks? Because it is the anticipation of uncertainty of the how that keeps us watching. Why did we go see Titanic even though we knew the ship was going to sink? Because we wanted the anticipation of wanting to see how the story would unfold with that disaster hanging over the characters.
In Gestalt Psychology, the branch of psychology that deals with the mind’s desire to create order from complex interactions of conflicting stimuli, the human mind remembers uncompleted or interrupted tasks. The human mind is drawn… almost compelled to create an order out of chaos. We, as human beings, need to see the order out of chaos. The higher-quality of chaos, the greater the desire of the order. People-watchers love Gestalt Psychology.
Notice that I said that there is a higher-quality of chaos. Not more chaos. There is a difference. I’ll talk about that in a moment?
By now you are asking the question, what does all this psychological mumbo-jumbo have to do with writing? Think about it. The most successful works are often the most suspenseful. Look back at your favorite books and movies. Chances are, these were books you couldn’t put down and were films that made your butt pucker. These are excellent examples of good suspense.
Remember, audiences don’t just want uncertainty. They want the anticipation of uncertainty. They just don’t want chaos. They want order out of a logical and cohesive chaos. This is what I mean by high-quality chaos. Chaos that makes sense. We call that verisimilitude. You may remember that term from other writing classes.
If your work provides the audience with that anticipation of uncertainty, your readers will read, re-read and recommend your book. It is paramount that the suspense be quality.
Now, we cannot talk about suspense without talking about the Master of Suspense, Alfred Hitchcock. Though a director of films, Hitch’s methods of creating suspense in his works cannot be ignored by writers. One of the primary reasons Hitchcock was so successful in his creation of suspense was he always focused on the audience perspective. He would never watch his scenes being filmed. He always watched the scene through the lens of the camera in order to see precisely what the audience would see. He ensured that what the audience saw and what he envisioned were identical.
He also directed the audience perspective to what he wanted them to see. He would want them to expect something bad was about to happen by angling the camera to see the figure in the doorway of the bathroom in Psycho or focusing on the crows on the power lines in The Birds. The audience anticipated the action because they were drawn to it through the manipulation of the camera.
Another way Hitchcock directed the audience perspective was to lead the audience to feel that they had a superior perspective on events. In Strangers on a Train, the audience anticipated the bad events because they knew Bruno was crazy. In Rope, the viewer’s heart would beat faster every time someone got close to opening the credenza. By creating this superior perspective, Hitchcock could better create the tension and suspense of the film and increase the audience’s anticipation of the suspense.
So, what does this mean for writers? We have to remember our audience… always. We have to constantly think of our reader’s perspective. What will they think in this scene? Where is the anticipation? How can I stretch out that anticipation? How can I influence the audience’s expectations? How can I ensure that they will want to keep reading?
Good writing just doesn’t cut it. How many Earnest Hemingway books have you put down because the story just didn’t do it for you? There has to be good suspense. There has to be a desire to keep reading. We as writers must create that uncertainty and lead the audience down the path of the plot to its ordered ending.