Suspense Defined

William Foster-Harris, in The Basic Formulas ofFiction, says "we do our best to paralyze the reader—freeze him to the book. All quivering helplessness, he waits to see what is going to happen next." Freezing the quivering and helpless reader to the book is what a novelist lives for. To do that, the novelist tries to make his or her readers "worry and wonder" about characters. "Worrying and wondering" is another way of saying the reader is being held in suspense.

Webster's defines suspense this way:

Suspense: n, 1. The state of being undecided or undetermined.

What is it that is undecided or undetermined? It is not the author, certainly. And not the reader, either. What is undecided or undetermined is a story question.

A story question is a device to make the reader curious. Story questions are usually not put in question form. They are rather statements that require further explanation, problems that require resolution, forecasts of crisis, and the like.

Here are a few examples of story openings that raise story questions:

• It was well after midnight when the rector heard a loud banging on the door. (The question: Who might be knocking so late at night, and why?)

• The first thing Harriet said to herself when she met George was, "Father will never, ever approve of this man." (Questions raised: Will George like Harriet? Why won't her father approve? What will happen when George and the father meet? Is Harriet interested in George, or does she just like to needle her father?)

• Linus met his new stepmother for the first time on Christmas Eve. (Question raised: Will they like each other?)

• Henry didn't believe in ghosts. (Question: Will this disbelief be put to the test?)

• When her husband called at four o'clock and said he was bringing the boss to dinner, Lydia was in the middle of doing a valve job on their '56 Buick. (Question: How will she bring the dinner off?)

• His Ma told Jeb not to strap the old Colt on his hip when he went into Tombstone, but Jeb never did listen to nobody. (Question: What dire thing will happen when he brings this gun to town?)

• "Oh!" Jenny exclaimed, "you brought me a gift!" (Question: What's the gift?)

Raising story questions of this type is the simplest and most direct way to create suspense.

Story questions, unless they are powerful, life-and-death questions that are strengthened, reinforced, and elaborated, will not hold the reader long. When they appear in the beginning of a story, they are called hooks because they are intended to "hook" the reader into reading more.

Hooks are often short-range story questions that will be answered in the story quickly, but they could be long-range story questions that will not be answered until nearly the end of the story.

Remember the old western movies where the hero was given until sundown to fulfill a mission? The viewer had to wait until the end of the movie to see whether he would succeed.

A story question, sometimes called a tease, is an attention-grabbing device. It arouses readers' curiosity, getting them interested in the story. But the technique of raising story questions can be mishandled. Macauley and Lanning in Technique in Fiction (1987) warn that "a writer has to discriminate wisely between the attention-getting device that soon becomes fairly irrelevant to the story and the beginning that genuinely gathers the reader into the arms of the story ... an exciting, dramatic beginning is entirely possible, but it must be justified completely by the story that follows." In other words, play fair with your reader. Be sure your story questions raise legitimate questions about the characters and their situation.

Beginning writers will often start a story without raising a story question. What follow are a few examples of the kinds of opening lines often written by beginners:

• Ginger's bedroom had striped wallpaper on the walls and a desk under the window. (Questions raised: none.)

• Ocean City was no place to have fun at night, so Oswald decided to go to bed early and read about how to make a paper airplane. (This is a sort of negative story question; the reader doesn't want to read on because he doesn't want to be bored.)

• The old Ford had a rusted paint job and a horsehair seat that smelled like an old pair of sneakers. (Again, no question being raised—description only.)

• Her teacher had been a witch, and Maggie was glad when summer vacation came. (The problem that arises out of having a teacher who's a witch is about to resolve itself. There's no question raised in the reader's mind about what's going to happen next.)

• The warm sea breeze blew in through the open window, and the moon overhead was a golden globe on the horizon of the Santa Cruz Mountains. (Sounds like a fiction story all right, but it isn't going to hook a reader.)

Such openings often doom a story, even a good one, because editors and readers will not stay with a story long if their interest has not been piqued.

Here's an example from a published novel, where story questions are being raised:

An hour before sunset, on the evening of a day in the beginning of October, 1815, a man travelling afoot entered the little town of D-. The few persons who at this time were at their windows or their doors, regarded this traveller with a sort of distrust.

This is the opening of the second book of Victor Hugo's Les Misérables. The first sentence raises the story question, Who is this man? The second sentence modifies it to make him slightly ominous, which increases the suspense. The reader's curiosity has certainly been piqued.

Most books that purport to give advice to fiction writers will claim that it is wise for writers of short stories to hook their readers as soon as possible, in the first three paragraphs or so, but the novelist, it's often claimed, has more space. Here is yet another bunkum pseudo-rule. Both the short-story writer and the novelist should present a story question as soon as possible, usually in the first or second sentence.

Here are some examples:

• The great fish moved silently through the night water, propelled by short sweeps of its crescent tail. (From Jaws, of course. The story question raised: Who will be the shark's lunch?)

• Someone must have traduced Joseph K., for without having done anything wrong, he was arrested one fine morning. (The Trial. This opening sentence raises all kinds of story questions. Why was he arrested? What will happen to him? Who turned him in and why?)

• It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife. (Pride and Prejudice. This raises the obvious story questions: Who's the single man? And who's going to be the lucky girl?)

• The cold passed reluctantly from the earth, and the retiring fogs revealed an army stretched out on the hills, resting. hs the landscape changed from brown to green, the army awakened, and began to tremble with eagerness at the noise of rumors. (The Red Badge of Courage. The question here: What are the rumors?)

• One sultry evening early in July a young man emerged from the small furnished room he occupied in a large five-storied house in Sennoy Lane, and turned slowly, with an air of indecision, towards the Kalininsky Bridge. (Crime and Punishment. The author, by inserting "air of indecision," into a statement about a young man walking into the street, has raised the story question of what it is that he is indecisive about. It turns out, of course, that what he is indecisive about is committing murder.)

• News item from the Westover (Me.) weekly Enterprise, hu-gust 19, 1966:

RhIN OF STONES REPORTED ... It was reliably reported by several persons that a rain of stones fell from a clear blue sky on Carlin Street in the town of Chamberlain on hu-gust 17th. The stones fell principally on the home of Mrs. Margaret White, damaging the roof extensively and ruining two gutters and a downspout valued at approximately $25. ... (Carrie. This opening raises all kinds of questions about this mysterious happening: What caused it? Why did the stones rain principally on this house? etc.)

• Scarlett O'Hara was not beautiful, but men seldom realized it when caught by her charm as the Tarleton twins were. (From Gone with the Wind, of course. The opening line obviously raises the story question of what are the consequences of the twins' having been charmed? Will they fight over her? hnd so on.)

Therefore, in the beginning of your damn good novel, right from the start, do as the masters do and open with a powerful story question and hook readers so strongly they cannot stop reading. Webster's lists a second definition for suspense:

Suspense: n, 2. The state of being uncertain, as in awaiting a decision, usually characterized by some anxiety or apprehension.

Suspense in the first sense is a form of curiosity. The writer raises story questions the reader is curious about. In the second sense, the writer arouses more than just curiosity by putting the reader in a state of anxiety or apprehension. Suspense that makes the reader anxious or apprehensive is certainly more compelling than mere curiosity.

Now then, how do writers go about creating such a state? Consider the following:

Mary was an inquisitive little toddler of eighteen months. She had bright blond curls, big blue eyes, and dimpled cheeks. She was just learning to walk and her mother was proud that she could stand by herself. She'd stand by the table and reach up and pull napkins and silverware off. She was always trying to find out what was "up there" above her, just out of reach, as if she were trying to find out just how this mysterious world works. And then one day her mother left a pot of water boiling on the stove when she went out of the kitchen for just a minute to answer the phone. Mary looked up and saw the brown and copper handle of the pot sticking out and she began to wonder about it. She crawled over to the stove and stood up, stretching her hand high for the handle ...

In this case the story questions are: (1) Will little Mary reach the handle, pulling the pot off the stove, and will the boiling water scald her? and (2) Will the mother return in time? But the author's intention here is to do more than just raise story questions. Most readers will become anxious reading this, hoping a tragedy will be averted. Anxiety is a stronger response in the reader than curiosity.

To create apprehension and anxiety in the reader, the writer must first create a sympathetic character. A sympathetic character is one most readers will want to see good things happen to.

The next step in producing anxiety in the reader is to plunge the sympathetic character into a situation of menace. The menace does not have to be physical, of course. Consider the following:

Little Prudence and Freddy Todd, hiding behind the barn, had concluded a deal whereby he could look up her skirt for exactly thirty seconds in exchange for two weeks' allowance. Old Aunt Matilda happened by and was a shocked witness to the fulfillment of this diabolical contract.

In this case, the menace is not physical, but is menace nevertheless. Social disapproval is often a greater consequence than physical menace. Think of this second type of menace as the reader's reasonable expectation that bad things are going to happen to a sympathetic character.

This applies not only in the opening. Throughout the story, the reader should be worrying about bad things that might happen to sympathetic characters.

• In The Red Badge of Courage, the bad thing is Henry's loss of courage and possible death.

• In Jaws, the bad thing is the great white shark that is eating sympathetic characters, and ruining Brody's life.

• In Carrie, the bad thing is what the awful boys at school have in mind for Carrie, and the even worse bad things that will happen to every sympathetic character in the town if they get her mad.

• In Pride and Prejudice, the bad thing is Elizabeth and Darcy not falling in love and marrying. (Even though they don't seem to get along, the reader knows they're meant for each other.)

• In Crime and Punishment, the bad thing is not Raskolni-kov's contemplation of murder, but rather the dire consequences of that act.

• In Gone with the Wind, the bad thing is the coming of the Yankees.

How hard is it for a writer to set things up so that the dynamics of suspense—sympathetic character facing menace—are working? Not hard at all.

Say you work in an office and notice that everyone there seems to get ground down by the daily routine, and that as the years go by they get duller and duller, becoming zombielike drudges. You think that would be a wonderful thing to write about. You start your story. Every character in the story is getting ground down by the system, but there seems to be something wrong. No suspense. The menace is not there—not enough to induce a state of apprehension and anxiety in a reader. Okay, you ask yourself, who might be menaced? Certainly not one of the zombies. No, it would have to be a new employee. Someone who refuses to be ground down. Someone who will fight back.

You would also try to come up with what the menace might be. A boss in the office can't menace anyone easily, so you're stuck. You think, what if I changed the situation? What if it wasn't an office but a mental hospital, and the head nurse was determined to grind down a patient? You'd have a very suspenseful situation. In fact, it worked out quite well for Ken Kesey in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. It works because Big Nurse has the power to menace.

Say you have another idea for a story. There's a rich lady and her servant. She treats him like dirt. He takes her guff because he needs the job. You want to make some kind of statement about rich people's mistreatment of the poor, but where's the suspense? The menace? How about you put these characters on her yacht in the middle of the Mediterranean and it sinks. The rich lady and her servant make it to a deserted desert island. Now you've got a situation of menace; they must survive. No good? You didn't want to write a survival story?

How about the servant gets so fed up he decides to put on a disguise and meet the woman as an equal, and they fall in love? The menace? He might be found out and their love destroyed. Don't like that one either?

How about the servant finds out someone is trying to kill the rich lady and he does nothing but skulk around and get pictures of the conspirators? He may be menaced by the police—too late, he discovers they are planning to pin the crime on him.

Okay, you don't like crime stories. Fine. You want to tell quiet stories of "real people." You can still find menace. Jim Bob wants to marry Billy Jo. He proposes, she accepts. Your idea here is you want to show how people often get married because it's the thing to do, even when their partner isn't quite right for them. You create this small town in the Ozarks where girls get married at sixteen. You might have a great point to make, and there might be dire consequences down the road for Billy Jo, but they are too far off, too remote in time to create much suspense. The menace here is not immediate. To make it immediate, all you have to do is show that the marriage means Billy Jo will come to harm now. The harm does not have to be physical; it might simply mean her future is more uncertain. Say Billy Jo has a chance to study opera in Chicago. The marriage means she loses that opportunity. Now the prospect of the marriage has menace in it (loss of opportunity); consequently, the situation is more suspenseful.

Dean Koontz in How to Write Best-Selling Fiction (1981) said that "ninety-nine out of one hundred new writers make the same mistake in the opening pages of their books and it is one of the worst errors they could possibly commit: They do not begin their novels by plunging their hero or heroine into terrible trouble."

Menacing your character puts him or her in terrible trouble. If your character is sympathetic and menaced, you have created a state of anxiety and apprehension in the reader. Then the thing to do is light the fuse.

Was this article helpful?

+1 0


  • frank
    How to wite suspense fiction?
    8 years ago
  • Olga
    How to write fiction suspense?
    8 years ago

Post a comment