Thoughts on Suspense

5 05 2009

My Dad once told me two stories that both had a large effect on my outlook as it comes to passing on your knowledge. One story involved my godfather, who is a respected magician (my father is also a magician). My godfather was once giving a lecture on performance and got a question about how one deals with heckling. He gave his opinion on exactly how he handles hecklers. I asked my dad about it and he pointed out something very important. My godfather doesn’t usually perform in front of crowds, he’s a trick designer. So he never deals with hecklers.

Don’t give advice on something you don’t know about. It’s tacky.

Suspense is not something I usually write. Sure, there’s suspense in just about any story; that’s about good pacing and wit. But hardcore mystery/suspense isn’t something I’ve had much practice in, so I’m not going to give you tips or lectures or anything.

But I can give my thoughts, and share some interesting things I’ve found.

Suspense, to me, is when you let the audience fill in the blanks themselves. There’s an axiom in writing: show, don’t tell. It’s a good one. That is very important to pacing. But in that same context, suspense can be summed up as: don’t show or tell; imply. There will never be a special effect or movie scene that can come close to anything the human imagination can concoct. All you have to do as a creator is when you do show, when the pay off does come, to not let it be a let down.

Here’s J.J. Abrams talking about this much better than I ever could, in a TED lecture, The Mystery Box.

Suspense, to me, is when the audience is presented with possibilities. Yesterday I was watching an episode of South Park from season 12 in which Wendy challenges Cartman to a fight after school. South Park isn’t the go-to show when one thinks about suspense, but I was actually on the edge of my seat for a bit, because South Park is known for twists and being unpredictable. Reputation is important in suspense. Take M. Night Shaymalan. People consider his movies suspenseful, many of them are, but The Sixth Sense isn’t really that suspenseful because the unpredictability of it comes at the end. The Sixth Sense is what made Unbreakable so suspenseful.

Anyway, in South Park I wasn’t sure how this fight was going to end. The odds were that Wendy would beat up Cartman. But maybe Cartman beat up Wendy. After all, he’s got, like, 100lbs on her. Or maybe Stan would jump in there (they put out the possibility) and fight Cartman. Hell, Stan might fight Wendy. Double hell, aliens might land. I mean, it’s South Park. Who knows?

The point is, because of the story, and in part, because of the reputation, I was presented with multiple, different results, each viable. It was like a Choose Your Own Adventure Book, except I didn’t get to choose, of course. I was in suspense because I didn’t know what was going to happen, and because of that, I had to watch until I found out.

Suspense, to me, is when something in me wants to know what something is for. In my senior year of school, in Advanced Writing Class, we did presentations. Alison McGhee, the instructor, gave us each the option of doing a verbal report on an author or a literary element. Everyone in class (for years, I think) did an author, I did a literary element. I wasn’t trying to be impressive, I just don’t care about most authors, and when I learn about the ones I do like, I’m generally disappointed.

I did my presentation on Chekov’s Gun and the art of introducing things in literature. Chekov’s Gun literally refers to something Chekov said which sums up as if there’s a gun placed on the mantle in Act 1, it had better be fired in Act 3.

More broadly, don’t introduce an item, a character, or even an idea into a story unless you intend to use that later. There has to be a pay off. You can’t leave loose threads hanging around.

It’s not just out of good form, it’s about people’s expectations. They expect you to use that item later. This works to your advantage, because the introduction of that item becomes foreshadowing.

In the future I’ll have to remember to write a post about Harry Potter and the Proper Placement of Chekov’s Guns

So that’s what I do know, at least, and I’m passing it on.

Oh, I almost forgot. The second story my dad told me which affected my outlook.

…I don’t have a second story. I lied. It was just a lame attempt at creating suspense. You can do that too, if you’re lazy.

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2 responses

5 05 2009
awalkabout

Very good advice!

6 05 2009
I Lost T h i r t y P o u n d s in Thirty Days

Hi, cool post. I have been pondering this issue,so thanks for sharing. I will probably be coming back to your blog. Keep up the good work

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