What’s So Mysterious About Suspense?

Way, way back in the day, when I was coming up as a young writer, there was a good deal of serious chatter about why plot and characterization were the horseless carriage and icebox of literature (they were done, finished, just like tonality and melody in classical music). Characters in novels weren’t really anything like actual people, just a handful of quirks and ticks and more-or-less convincing dialogue on the page. And plot? Plot resembled the trivial, methodical work of chewing gum. Serious writers had better things to do.

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I nodded my head to those arguments, especially the ones against plot. Growing up I’d read a lot of plot-driven adventure novels, and as my ambitions as a writer grew those early pleasures seemed like child’s play. And yet. Many of the sensitively written, highly praised, plot-starved books I read then felt, well, wanting. Something in me needed, if not more plot per se, than at least more suspense, even if I knew it wasn’t supposed to be good for me—like cheese.

What a pleasure, then, to discover in the early 1990s the craft essay “The Magic Show,” by Tim O’Brien (from the anthology Writers on Writing). “Unlike animals, we conceive of tomorrow,” O’Brien writes. “And tomorrow fascinates us. Tomorrow matters—perhaps too much—and we spend a great portion of our lives adjusting the present in hope of shaping the future. In any case, we are driven to care, and to be curious about questions of fate and destiny: we can’t help it, we’re human.”

Every morning when we wake up we’re already plotting out the day ahead. And very often the schedule we hope to follow doesn’t quite work out that way, we have to be ready to make adjustments to the world’s unpredictability. And these are baby-step adjustments we must learn in order to adapt to the larger unfolding course of our lives. So we know how to plot a narrative, and we understand its potential fragility as well.

O’Brien continues; “On one level, then, I am arguing in defense of old-fashioned plot—or in defense of plot in general—which is so often discredited as a sop to some unsophisticated and base human instinct. But I see nothing base in the question ‘What will happen next?’ I’m suggesting that plot is grounded in a high—even noble—human craving to know, a craving to push into the mystery of tomorrow.”

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But plot isn’t simply a “and then and then and then.” Mere event in fiction can be as enervating as nothing happening at all. That craving to know must be messed with. And that brings me to the subject of suspense.

The author Lee Child, in his essay “A Simple Way to Create Suspense,” argues that it comes down to one question, and one answer. The question is, “How do you make your family hungry?” The correct answer, he says, is this: “You make them wait four hours for dinner.”

Dinner, of course, is a plot payoff. “As novelists, we should ask or imply a question at the beginning of the story, and then we should delay the answer . . . readers are human, and humans seem programmed to wait for answers they witness being asked.”

Near the beginning of Elena Ferrante’s novel My Brilliant Friend, we get this sentence:

“My friendship with Lila began the day we decided to go up the dark steps that led, step by step, flight after flight, to the door of Don Achille’s apartment.”

Needless to say, it takes quite some time for those two young girls to make it up those stairs. In the meantime, we get the details of the budding but not yet settled friendship of Lenù and Lila, all the neighborhood rumors about Don Achille and his family, the power relations between the local families, and so on and so on, sub-plot upon sub-plot, and only fourteen chapters later do the two girls finally reach that landing and knock on the door. Of course, the encounter is not quite what they, or the reader, expected, and so the scene combines both resolution and surprise (and moves the larger plot forward, too): a masterly touch in a magnificent novel.

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Aside from literature, we all know how this tactic of delay works in daily life. When your friend leans in and says in a kind of teasing whisper, “You won’t believe what Jackie did last night,” you’re already hooked. You don’t know what Jackie did yet, and you’ll be damned if you let your friend walk away without delivering the gossipy punch line.

These small moments of sparking interest are easily embedded in fiction, too. Lee Child continues, “The principle works in a micro sense, as well as in a macro one. Page to page, paragraph to paragraph, line to line — even within single sentences — imply a question first, and then answer it second. The reader learns to chase, and the momentum becomes unstoppable.”

A good example here would be the story “The Man Who Sold Braces,” by Yoko Ogawa (from her collection Revenge). The first sentence teases with “Everything my uncle touched seemed to fall apart in the end.” The beginning of the second paragraph complicates our knowledge with “He was the sort of man who changed professions like other men change their socks.” And two paragraphs later, we read, “I got a call from the police telling me my uncle had died and I should come to claim the body.” By now, we’re in deep.

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This partial knowing seems to me to be an essential aspect of characterization as well. As readers, we glean what we can from a character’s behavior, knowing that, as in life, such details can’t possibly be the whole picture. And in fiction, giving access to a character’s inner life is a way of doling out the long tease of interior revelation. And if an author is doing his or her job well, those revelations will always remain partial, allowing a character her necessary mystery (as is true with all the people in our lives).

We are used to this suspension of knowing, each of our days being a halfway house toward a conclusion that never quite arrives. That’s why the wrapped-up endings of some novels and movies feel so unsatisfying—they’re a form of wish fulfillment whose comfort is false. With suspense, we’ll always be in the middle of who-knows-what.

Anthony Doerr, in his craft essay with a hefty mouthful of a title, “On Suspense, Shower Murders, the Sword of Damocles, and Shooting People on the Beach” (from A Kite in the Wind), notes that “Suspense is literally the temporary cessation of something. As in, you’re suspended from school; your sentence is suspended; you’re suspended in a solution; you’re suspended in midair. Its origin comes from the Latin suspendere, and inside of suspendere is pendere, which means to hang.”

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Yet withholding information for the sake of suspense doesn’t mean withholding everything. A reader can’t worry if there’s no information to set off that worry. Providing information can be crucial. Alfred Hitchcock, known by the unofficial title Master of Suspense, offers an inside look at the delicate balance of providing and withholding.

Notice that Hitchcock provides the important, give-away detail that there’s a bomb about to go off under the card table. But that information fuels the tension of the scene, because what isn’t known is whether anyone will notice the bomb before it explodes, and if not, who will get hurt. And again, like that long-delayed dinner Lee Child speaks of, the waiting can become unbearable.

There are, of course, exceptions to everything when it comes to writing, and no path should go unexplored just because someone with a voice of authority says you shouldn’t go there. One of my favorite novels, The Book of Ebenezer Le Page, by the British writer G.B. Edwards, violates seemingly essential principles of when and what to reveal.

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The novel is narrated by an 80-year-old man who has lived all his life on Gurnsey, one of the Channel Islands located between England and France. Ebenezer is looking back on his long life, recalling friends and family, settling scores, confronting his mistakes. Very near the beginning of the book, though, he gives away much of what will later happen in his life: this friend will die, this relationship will never come to pass, etc. No no no! I remember thinking when I read this passage in the novel, don’t give so much away, so soon!

And yet, because Ebenezer’s narrative voice is so involving, and the people he describes so complex and engaging, I found myself reading on, still in a state of tension, because I cared for these characters enough that I hoped against all hope that Ebenezer’s early revelations wouldn’t come true. In this case, too much information, combined with masterful characterization, kept me turning those pages.

Suspense is shaped in infinite patterns, and a close look at one’s daily life will reveal just how intimate we are with its sometimes ambiguous and confounding nature. When we read, hungrily, a novel or a short story that captures the sweet teasing tension of not quite knowing, what unfolds for the characters may very well be unfolding for our own hidden dramas as well.

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