Friday, February 15, 2013

The Importance of Suspense

by Jean Henry Mead

Centuries ago storytelling could be a dangerous pastime. Tales were told around a fire and, if the storyteller droned on and bored his listeners, they either fell asleep or they killed him, according to Sol Stein in his book, Stein on Writing. Fortunately for modern writers, the worst thing that can happen is that the reader will put your book aside and never pick it up again. So, if your goal is to have your work read, don’t write the boring stuff that readers tend to skip over. That’s usually descriptive passages that should be shoveled in lightly and gradually, not all in one lump. Or it can be tedious dialogue that has nothing to do with the plot’s race to the finish line. Editors call it padding and ask that writers delete it, or worse yet, they reject the manuscript and return it.

Suspense is the most important element in plotting. Keep your reader reading and unable to put the book down. How many times have you read until two or three in the morning because you couldn’t possibly go to sleep without first learning the plot’s resolution? And then couldn’t fall asleep because the book was so good that it continually replayed in your mind?

No matter how unique your style or intriguing your characters, if you don’t pique your reader’s curiosity and keep her hooked until the end of the story, you might as well be the campfire storyteller with a club over your head. Keep your reader in suspense with occasional rest periods so that he can catch his breath while you spoon in a little description and backstory. While writing, always keep your eye on the finish line and make the race to the book’s conclusion as suspenseful as possible.

The greatest compliment a writer can receive is for someone to say, “I couldn’t put the book down.” How many times have you said that, yourself? And what was it about that book that kept you reading? Nine times out of ten, you’ll say it was suspense and your own curiosity that kept you reading to learn what was going to happen next. Suspense, according to Stein, is the strong glue between reader and writer. And, of course, caring about the characters and wanting them to resolve their problems.

The word suspense comes from the Latin word “to hang.” So consider yourself an executioner who takes your reader to the edge of a cliff. Once there you hang your protagonist by his fingertips. It’s not your job to feel sorry for the cliff hanger or to immediately rescue him. Leave him hanging until his fingers are slipping and he’s about to fall into a deep, dark canyon. Suspense builds as the reader anxiously waits for someone to rescue the hero, but it’s not happening yet; or the villain is stomping on the hero’s fingers and the reader wants him to stop. That’s an exaggerated example of suspense, but one that a writer can use it to his advantage.

There are various forms of suspense: potential or immediate danger to your protagonist, unwanted confrontations, a fear of what’s about to happen, and a crisis that needs to be met head on. A writer's job is to set up a situation or problem that needs a resolution, but without an immediate answer. A detective is a novel killer if he picks up a clue in chapter two and says, “Ah ha, I know who this button belongs to, I’ll contact the police and have her arrested for the murder.” Unless, of course, you’re writing a short story or very short novella. Stretch out the suspense until your reader forsakes all else to finish your book.

2 comments:

Jackie King said...

Excellent post, Jean. Enjoyed reading it.

Jean Henry Mead said...

Thank you, Jackie. I'm currently finishing a Wyoming historical suspense novel, No Escape: The Sweetwater Tragedy. :)