In a Jam: How Suspense Keeps the Novel on Edge
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
(Click to enlarge)
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.
As much as they might enjoy suspense, critics tend to be a bit suspicious of it, perhaps because it seems to stimulate emotion rather than intellect: It makes readers care rather than think.
Genre writing leans more heavily on suspense than do other forms of fiction. If your protagonist is in immediate danger of being shot, arrested, chased, bewitched or devoured, it’s not out of the question to delay the outcome a bit to build tension. The term novel of suspense once again has a certain currency, but not in the narrow sense in which Chandler used it. Now, it’s a blanket term to relieve everybody of the need to label a book a mystery, thriller, supernatural or spy story, when it might be a little of each. Whenever we classify original work, we’re dealing with approximate boundaries and the judging of predominances rather than recognizing sure signs. The need to classify is commercial rather than literary, the book industry’s attempt to give customers some idea of what they’re buying without spoiling the surprises.
It’s true that the dire predictions that prose fiction is dying, something we’ve been hearing for at least a generation, have come to seem less implausible lately, as more and more eyeballs are drawn away from print to electronic screens, and as economic distress reminds our society that people need food, clothing and shelter but don’t actually need to buy novels. But so far, the novel endures, and judging from the titles on the best-seller lists each week, suspense seems to be contributing significantly to its survival. Maybe the pleasant agitation of being held for a day or two in a state of sustained anxiety about the fate of a worthy character, waiting to be relieved by the ending, is too psychologically rewarding an entertainment to disappear from the world just yet. We’ll have to wait and see.
Thomas Perry is the author of 16 novels, including Fidelity, just published by Harcourt.
More from Weekly Literary Supplement 2008:
Not Dead Yet: The Novel as Lifeline By JOE DONNELLY
The Escape Artist: John Banville on Georges Simenon By John Banville
Salman Rushdie: An excerpt from The Enchantress of Florence By SALMAN RUSHDIE
Renewing the Faith: McSweeney's Goes Back to Basics, Makes Publishing Fun By MARC WEINGARTEN
The Brief, Wondrous Tournament of Books By NATHAN IHARA
Get the Theater Newsletter
Get a rundown of upcoming theater events and ticket deals in Los Angeles.