How do you Keep an Author in Suspense?

I am an avid follower of the Bulwer-Lytton contest for a truly terrible opening sentence for a book–entries are now open for 2016, if you are so inclined.  At the very least, you should click through to the 2015 winners and scroll down to Fantasy and Historical fiction if you’d like a good chuckle.  One of the finalists a few years back featured the typical dying victim of a violent crime, bleeding out on the floor from terrible injures, gasping as the detective leans over him. . . and revealing with his dying breaths exactly who the killer is, why they did it, and where to go to find them.  Thus destroying any hope of suspense.

Although studies suggest many people actually spoilers and enjoy a work more when they know how it ends, that is rather a different thing from a story having a complete lack of suspense.  In fact, I suspect that knowing the ending before knowing the middle creates a completely different type of suspense. It generates the tension between knowing how it ends, and *not* knowing how it got there.

One of my favorite books, The Sparrow, by Mary Doria Russell, in effect is told backward and forward at the same time.  You know, at the start of the book, that the alien encounter for which the characters are so eagerly preparing ends badly–you know who survives to return to Earth, and in what condition he arrives.  At the same time, you get to follow along with the excitement of planning the voyage, building the team, discovering the aliens and learning their culture.  So the question is, what goes wrong in storyline A, the voyage, that results in storyline B, the aftermath.  By holding the image of the protagonist at his most optimistic, alongside the image of him at his most abject, the reader becomes desperate to reconcile the one with the other, and the ending of the book is actually the hinge point between the two narratives.

The fact of the matter is, most people don’t actually like to be surprised.  Surprises are often disruptive, like adventures to hobbits, they are an intrusion into an otherwise orderly and enjoyable life.  We might not mind being surprised by the details of an event–but honestly, we’d like to make sure we’re dressed for it, and have brought the right number of pocket handkerchiefs.    We’d rather the spouse says they are taking us out for supper, even if we don’t know where, than that they suddenly show up at the office, leaving us suspicious of motivation and looking for the hidden camera.

You see, suspense is at its best when you have an idea what to expect.  A surprise–someone leaping out of a closet to shout “Boo!” for example–totally lacks suspense.  So we are startled, and you can watch dozens of jump-scare videos on YouTube of this exact reaction.  Shortly after that, annoyance usually follows.  But people watch videos of jump-scares for the same reason we enjoy spooky movies or suspense novels.  You go into the experience knowing what will happen, but not when or how.  That knowledge builds a pleasant sensation of tension, which will then be cathartically released when the probabilities collapse and you reach a well-deserved ending.  David Farland refers to this as the Stress Induction/Reduction theory of entertainment.

Of course, individual readers have different thresholds for the build-up of tension, below which, it’s not interesting, and beyond which it becomes intolerable.  Some people love high-tension narratives, others prefer less. Some people re-read the same books repeatedly, in spite of knowing not only the ending, but also precisely how it all happens.  And different genres have different expectations of suspense.  In a mystery, the reader wants to keep guessing who the killer is, right up until the moment the protagonist figures it out, then think “Of course it had to be!”  In a romance, the reader wants to feel the tension grow between the hero and heroine throughout the narrative, but most readers also want to know this tension will resolve into a happily ever after.

I have been brooding on suspense because I am currently waiting to hear back from three different directions about three different book projects.  This is not a form of suspense I enjoy.  I would rather have the spoilers up front:  this book will be accepted, but at a lower advance than you’d like; this book will need another round of revisions; this book will succeed beyond your wildest dreams.  Then I could settle back in my chair, with my popcorn, and watch the sequence unfold until that ending arrives.

This is the trouble with suspense in real life.  I don’t know what genre it will be.  Is this passage of my life a romance, with a happy ending implied up-front?  Or is this a horror story, where my feelings of foreboding will pay off in disaster?  If the next few months are to be a fantasy narrative, will they be of the whimsical variety, the stressful but ultimately triumphant, or the grimdark?  Alas for me, only time will tell.

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About E. C. Ambrose

I spend as much time in my office as I possibly can--thinking up terrible things to do to people who don't exist.
This entry was posted in essays, fiction, writing and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to How do you Keep an Author in Suspense?

  1. TermiteWriter says:

    I’m wondering if you’ve read my review of The Sparrow. You might find it interesting and the three comments as well. Maybe it will encourage you to tackle v.2 of The Termite Queen, which I think I don’t believe you ever read. http://termitewriter.blogspot.com/2012/10/review-and-analysis-sparrow-by-mary.html
    And good luck with your current publishing efforts!

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