Monday, April 25, 2011

Suspense. Where does it start?

We often withhold information to create suspense. But at what point do you start withholding?

I think if you start the withholding too soon you could just confuse the reader. How do you decide where to start withholding?

For example, let's say there's a phone call to the character.  She picks up the phone and says, "Hello?"

So the info in the phone call is the secret that you don't want revealed yet.  Would you stop right there, maybe end the scene there? Or would you have her listen (just "she listened and then hung up"-- no info) and then end. Or?

I'm wondering if the caller should be revealed and only the content withheld?

How do you decide where "suspense" begins?



mooderino said...

Suspense isn't created by withholding information, it's created by giving it. There's a bomb on the bus, there's a killer in the house, somebody's going to be fired. It's a common mistake to think the reader not knowing something will make them want to know, but it usually comes across as coy and frustrating. It creates mystery and the reveal leads to surprise, but not suspense.

Sometimes the character doesn't know what the reader does, but if the reader doesn't know something then you're not dealing with suspense. If the character is approaching a door and all the reader knows (because the writer keeps telling you) is that the character feels an overwhelming sense of something horrible behind that door... that's just a cheap facsimile of suspense.

Moody Writing

Erastes said...

Both of you are right - it all depends on the kind of suspense that a book/film is attempting to create.

it's true that "there's a bomb on thebus" is one kind of information given suspense situation, but then--walking through a dark street to meet someone who's sent you a mysterious message is too. as is illustrated in the film "the bad and the beautiful" Jonathan Shield was given a B movie to produce "Catpeople" i think it was called and they soon realised that not to show the cat people was far more scary--similarly Jaw was far more frightening when all you saw was a girl being nibbled than when you saw the actual shark.

In this scenario above, with the phone call--I'd have her reacting to what's being said: and have her obviously unsettled or terrified or whatever the plot demands rather than her revealing anything. as for the POV -you'd need to drop back to a more omniescient viewpoint, rather than her own deep pov, or first, because then it would be tricky to withold a phone call.

I find first easier to use for mystery situations, because it's easier for a single person to mistake what they hear and see.

green_knight said...

I'll make an exception for the Sherlock Holmes type of story, where the brilliant detective withholds knowledge so they can unveil it to the audience/readers at the same time. Such stories often contain moments of 'detective asks questions/receives envelope' that aren't shared with the reader.

Anything else, I expect the writer to tell me the information the character has. If identifying the murderer depends on something they had known and I hadn't, so there was no way for me *to* solve the riddle, I feel betrayed. Hide it in plain sight, obfuscate it, draw my eye to something else: as long as I can see what I missed on rereading, I'm happy.

If the character _doesn't_ know what is happening, that's something else. Character walks down dark alley, anything can happen, fine. Character knows one person on the yacht in the middle of the ocean is the murderer, fine. But as soon as they get important information, it needs to be shared with the reader, or the illusion of sharing a character's journey shatters: when the writer's manipulation become obvious, I stop the immersion in the story.

ClothDragon said...

I really dislike it when the POV character knows something the reader does not. It makes the story less about the characters and more about the relationship between the reader and writer.

mooderino said...

I would suggest reading the introduction to this article:

to get a clearer idea of the difference between nystery and suspense.

Alicia, if you really want to create suspense with the phone call you should make it what the phone call is about. The content of the phone call should create the suspense.

Moody Writing

Clare K. R. Miller said...

I agree with ClothDragon and mooderino. I much prefer the kind of suspense--or at least dramatic irony, I don't really write or read suspense--in which the reader knows more than the character. (As long as it's not so much more that you feel like the character is being an idiot.)

1000th.monkey said...

Erastes mentioned the movie Jaws. Interestingly, they didn't show the shark 'cause they couldn't get the mechanics to work properly, so the suspense was created intentionally with music/soundtrack.

So suspense can be created in many ways, not just by giving/withholding information.

Personally, I like it when the mood/atmosphere of the writing creates that feeling of suspense/dread.

Edittorrent said...

I too tend to dislike it when a POV character knows something (like who is on the phone) but doesn't share.

Moody, I'd never actually do that phone scenario. I came across it in a suspense novel I was reading, and felt sort of cheated, and then thought, well, this is a big time suspense novelist, so maybe it's okay-- I wouldn't do it myself, trust me on that. But I'm not a successful suspense novelist, so what do I know? Thought I'd ask you guys.

I can see that-- let the mood of the scene create the suspense, not tricks like withholding simple info.