Monday, January 18, 2010

Suspense ...

In the comments to the last post, Jude got me thinking when he quoted Vonnegut's Rule #8 on writing:

Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To hell with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.

I poked around the internets a bit to see what other writers have to say about suspense, and I found this quote from John Gardner, a famous writing teacher:

All true suspense, we have said, is a dramatic representation of the anguish of moral choice.

I've always tended to think of suspense in the bomb-under-the-table sense. In other words, a function of action. There is a bomb; there is a timer. It will explode unless it is defused. But according to Gardner, suspense isn't action based at all--it is moral. Our suspense comes from watching a character make a hard choice, believing in that choice, and living with the consequences.

I see Gardner's point, because let's be honest, in the bomb-under-the-table scenario, is there really any suspense? I mean, we KNOW it's not going to go off or it would kill the main character. Is there really any question in a serial killer book that the former alcoholic cop with a heart of gold is going to catch the bad guy? Isn't it really just about process?

In the books I'm working on now, the real suspense (the moral suspense) doesn't truly come into play until later in the three-book series. My main character has to make a decision that will change the rest of his life one way or the other. Early in the first novel—in fact, in the scene I wrote about yesterday—another main character suspects this will happen, and she says, "You might have a terrible choice to make. You need to be prepared."

From this point, the books are chiefly concerned with outlining and exploring that "terrible choice." It's the point of the whole series.

Will this work as suspense? I don't know. I do know that I'm not completely settled with the choice the character eventually makes because it will close other doors; he will gain a great deal, but he will also lose a great deal. But this is also a book about growing up, and that's what growing up involves: making choices that simultaneously expand and limit our options. It's often painful. I will never be a tropical ecologist, and that still breaks my heart just a little bit.

So, I'm curious, how do you define suspense? Do your characters defuse bombs or make terrible choices? What's the difference?


Erica Orloff said...

Make me care about a character and I'm with Gardner. Basically, I hear you on the bomb thing, but I think you oversimplify when you state that. Because yes, we generally assume the hero lives to save the day and go on to save another day (particularly in SERIES, LOL!). But what will the hero suffer? What will he lose? Will he save the day but bury his wife? Will he save the day but always have an aura of sadness? What will be lost by saving the day? Even in my middle-grade, he saves the day but learns that mankind is largely ignorant of Shadowkeepers because they would rather fear small-minded things. That knowledge, while power, is also burden.

LurkerMonkey said...


"What will be lost by saving the day?" If you buy Gardner's interpretation of suspense, then it's only suspenseful if the character KNOWS in advance what he'll lose by defusing the bomb and must choose. Simply defusing a bomb and finding out afterward that his wife just got killed isn't suspenseful. It's just tragic.

Hitchcock was the guy who first articulated the Bomb Under the Table theory. According to him, a sudden bomb explosion is worth only 5 seconds of surprise. But if the audience knows the bomb is there, you get 15 minutes of suspense.

Of course, that's a slightly different formulation, because it involves the narrator's POV and visual film-making. BUT how often, at the end of a movie or book, do you head into the climax saying, "Of course it's not going to go off. You know he's gonna live." I do it all the time.

It might be an oversimplification, but if you took the bomb scenario and added a moral dilemma to the character's choices, it might make it that much better. To some degree, I think that's why those awful Saw movies work so well. At least in the beginning, there was more than torture porn going on -- the victims had real decisions to make.

Erica Orloff said...

I hear you . . . by the same token in the empathy of a reader, we do know--even if the hero doesn't, per se--what will be lost. Like watching coming of age films or reading books of that sort. Those moments of innocence are necessarily going to be tempered by the bittersweet because that's what growing up does to a person. Nearly every soldier movie--Platoon--for example . . . takes the recruit and you KNOW he's going to be nearly destroyed by war. It's what war is and there's suspense in how the change will occur not IF a change will.

But I hear you on the moral choice--and tend to agree there's a special pang or suspense to that. Oddly enough, I can remember a couple of films and books in which they've been about love affairs (English Patient, The End of the Affair)--not inherently suspenseful--but the anguish of the moral dilemmas felt truly nail-biting to me.

Here's a quote I dug up from Graham Greene, who wrote The End of the Affair. He had bipolar:

"I possess a character profoundly antagonistic to ordinary domestic life . . . . unfortunately, the disease is also one's material."

That novel is excrutiatingly suspenseful in that sense. Will she leave her husband? Won't she? All of which revolved around morality.

E. Flanigan said...

When you teach motor movements to kids, for instance an autistic child learning to string beads, you have to first complete the action with hand-over-hand guidance so they feel what the action feels like. After that, when they watch you string beads, brain imaging shows that they can watch you do it and actually experience it with you. In other words, the same brain areas light up, even if they're only experiencing it vicariously.

When I read a novel with a bomb that might explode, the conventions of the form tell me the protagonist will probably live. And yet I experience vicarious suspense as they try to diffuse it, because THEY don't know they will live.

In some stories, we want to know the good guys will win, we want to know we can trust the conventions of the form because we like to feel suspense and still know that everything will be OK. Just like riding a rollercoaster. Your adrenaline doesn't differentiate between real danger and perceived danger.

When I leave the house in the morning, I don't know if I will live through the day. That's suspense! I want the stories I read to make sense. I want some order out of the chaos of the world. And if that means the good guy with the heart of gold wins, I can live with that.

Jude Hardin said...

I like the Gardner quote, and I think it applies to the larger picture in many cases.

But how do we generate suspense on a page-by-page basis?

We have to make readers worry about what's going to happen next, and the only way to make them worry is to create a character or a set of characters they care about.

Every story (that works) is inherently a suspense story. If the reader doesn't care about what happens next, there's no incentive to turn the page.

LurkerMonkey said...


Hmm. Well, I see your point. It's a "safety in fiction" kind of thing. You know the hero will survive, but there's still a thrill in seeing it happen. That's kind of meant when I said, at that point, it's just about process. And I agree -- I love to watch a good process as much as the next guy, even though the ending is never in doubt.

I suppose, though, to carry Gardener's theme forward, think about the kind of suspense created in a situation like Sophie's Choice. It's awful because it involves a moral precipice. The answer isn't preordained because there IS no answer. In this way, it mimics the suspense of life better and provides greater fodder for thought.

Is one kind of suspense "higher" than the other? Not to my knowledge ...

LurkerMonkey said...


"Every story (that works) is inherently a suspense story. If the reader doesn't care about what happens next, there's no incentive to turn the page."

I agree, but doesn't that totally contradict the Vonnegut quote?

Jude Hardin said...

The Vonnegut quote was about withholding information in an attempt to create suspense. That only works to frustrate the reader, IMO. The reader should know all the relevant info that the characters know.

Sometimes (as is the case with Scott Sigler's Infected, which I'm reading now), the reader even knows more than the characters, and that can create suspense as well.

Erica Orloff said...

Sophie's Choice was so . . . I couldn't sleep for weeks after it.


LurkerMonkey said...


Yeah, that movie haunted me. Talk about suspense!

LurkerMonkey said...


I see what you mean ... But obviously Vonnegut didn't even follow his own rules -- and he ended up saying that most great writers broke them regularly. The point, I guess, of my original post on how much to tell wasn't about suspense but about backstory. Obviously, there's no reason to tell EVERYTHING a character knows, because the vast majority is extraneous to the scene (and sometimes the whole book). So that's why my final conclusion was to include only that which is minimally necessary. As you said, relevant.

Suspense was an interesting tangent (hence the new post).

Jude Hardin said...

In your previous post, you likened withholding information to a striptease, which made me think you were talking about suspense. I would agree that most backstory should be, forever.