By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Carol Cheh
By Keegan Hamilton
By Bill Raden
Suspense isn’t a pleasant sensation. We go to great lengths to manage our lives in ways that will keep us from having to go through periods of uncertainty — particularly when it’s prolonged, and when the stakes are high. But in reading fiction, especially a novel, we crave this sensation of increasing tension, and the higher the stakes, the better. We love the experience of sitting somewhere in perfect safety with a book while some character serves as our surrogate in facing a world full of danger. What we’re enjoying is growing excitement, followed by a tantalizingly delayed cathartic ending. It’s a quality of all good fiction, and it’s why the reader keeps turning the pages.
Illustration by Ronald Kurniawan
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Great suspense writing doesn’t have to include a guy with a gun. When the males in Austen’s Pride and Prejudice are off to London trying to track down 16-year-old Lydia Bennet, who has eloped with the evil Wickham, the Bennet women are reduced to waiting at home for reports to arrive by mail. By now, they’re aware that what Wickham intends for Lydia doesn’t include a wedding. If she’s not rescued quickly, she’ll be lost to the family forever, undoubtedly to suffer degradation, abandonment and a lonely death. Austen’s description of powerless waiting and worry, interrupted only by news of leads followed to dead ends, could serve as a model of suspense writing — properly proportioned, plausible and urgent. When we learn that Lydia has been found, we want to cheer.
In Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom!, what we’re forced to wait for is knowledge of the past. When we watch college students Quentin and Shreve tell and retell the story of early Mississippi landowner Thomas Sutpen and his descendants, we anxiously follow each successive version until they — and we — finally know that they’ve got the story right. The history that is essentially the origin myth of Quentin’s part of the world has been reassembled, cleared of its lies, and the blanks filled in by intuition and understanding of human nature. The reward for tolerating suspense is truth.
Fiction entirely devoid of suspense, if not impossible, would certainly be unbearable. The reader must be drawn into the narrative at least enough to wonder who these characters are, what they’re about to do to each other, and how their story will end. He knows he must keep reading long enough to find out.
For the writer, withholding information isn’t the hard part. What’s difficult is constructing a narrative that will make the reader believe the resolution will be worth the wait, then keeping the implied promise. One reason the novel continues to be a widespread addiction more than 400 years after its invention is that it is the form that most closely reproduces the way we learn things in life. The novel is long enough to allow for the gradual accretion of physical details, impressions, theories and bits of evidence that begin to form coherent patterns and become knowledge. Along the way, a good suspense writer feeds the reader tidbits that keep him anxious to know what happens next. He hints that there are still secrets yet to be revealed.
When the game is played well, the revelations are timed to fall precisely when the reader is almost sure he knows enough to predict the rest of the story — and prove to him that he doesn’t. The reader can always choose to close the book, but when suspense is pitched high enough, that option doesn’t occur to him. He’s drawn forward, deeper into the story, to find the answers. The longer the writer is able to maintain the suspense, the greater the anticipation the reader will feel, and the greater the pleasure at the moment when it all leads to a satisfying resolution for the characters.
Building the mechanism of suspense is a complicated enterprise. It requires the creation of at least one character we believe and care about, the construction of a predicament for him, which gives us a valid reason for worry and leaves the outcome in doubt for a period of time, and an invisible hand that keeps adding reasons to feel greater anxiety and concern. As always, a satisfying read rests with the writer’s ability to make the fictional people and their world seem both real and important, and his ability to induce strong feelings in the reader. The writers who are best at this are those who are best at everything else — understanding people, observing details accurately but using only the ones that are signifiers, producing dialogue that sounds like real human speech but doesn’t contain the awkwardness, repetition and hesitation of recorded speech.
Raymond Chandler, in a 1949 letter to a friend, gamely tried to construct a classification system for various crime fiction, and he included a category he called Novel of Suspense: “In this story someone is always in a jam and the story is told from that person’s point of view.” In all of literature, someone is “in a jam,” from Gilgamesh to the hero of tomorrow’s best-seller. But it’s still a useful comment, because Chandler was a working writer, making a practical observation about how to achieve a desired effect. And he’s right. Suspense is heightened when we follow a story from the threatened character’s point of view, learning each step of his adventure as he learns it, and feeling as though his fate were ours too.