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Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Suspense Block

You've heard of Writer's Block? Well, now there's "Suspense Block." Just kidding. But seriously, it's not always easy to tell the difference between mystery and suspense or how to create that suspense, and since this is something I'm currently trying to learn, I thought there might be other writers struggling with the same thing. So I thought I'd share. Most, if not all, my information has come from Carolyn Wheat's book, "How to Write Killer Fiction."

To begin with, the difference between a mystery novel and a suspense novel. Mysteries are puzzles, generally about who murdered whom, and the protagonist already has the necessary skills to solve that puzzle. Think of Miss Marple or Sherlock Holmes. A mystery's story structures is also based on myth.

Suspense books, on the other hand, has its background in fairy tale; i.e., its protagonist faces tests and learns skills which not only prepare him for the final showdown with the enemy, but also increase his maturity level. In essense, the hero "grows up."

Next, there are several tools we writers can use to create suspense. I will mention three.

First, suspense, unlike mysteries which are meant to challenge the mind, are emotional rollercoaster rides. At the beginning of the story, the protagonist is plunged from her safe world into a frightening, larger-than-herself world. There, she is driven from one extreme problem (test) to another and threatened with the "ultimate" danger.

Second, suspense relies heavily on information given to the reader but not necessarily to the protagonist. Edgar Allen Poe described this element as a bomb hidden beneath a table of men playing cards. The game may be even more boring than we can stand, but because we, the reader, know there's a bomb there, just waiting to go off at any minute, we watch on the edge of our deliciously terrified seats.

And finally, because suspense is an emotional experience, the reader must feel what the protagonist feels; the writer must take great pains to create an exciting, emotional, vicarious experience for the reader. If he doesn't, our rollercoaster will flatten into a merry-go-round. Or worse, a slow train through the zoo.

Like I said, there are more suspense tools, but I won't list them here. I'll simply tell you they're out there, give you a few tools, and let those nuggets work on your mind until you act.

Hmm. Is that a form of mystery or suspense?


Andy Lemmon said...

I've never thought of suspense having its background in fairy-tales, and to be honest, I don't think that explains it well. It's not about the protagonist maturing, its about the reader fearing that the protagonist will fail.

Suspense is achieved when the reader cares about the stakes for the protagonist. The character is brought to a climax and can either fail or win. The more drastic the difference between failure and achievement (for example, if failure means death but achievement means saving the world) the more suspense is created as the reader wonders which one will end up on top.

One tool to create this suspense is to drag out the climax. "Milk the suspense" so to say. Add the emotions so that the reader can feel the stress. Have the situation change so that it looks like one outcome will come out, then its the other, then its back again. Leave the reader writhing in agony because they so desperately want to win, but don't know if they can.

That's just my two cents. It may not be worth much, since its based on my own limited experience, but its what I try to do in my stories.

Ronda Gibb Hinrichsen said...

Andy, thanks for your comments. Yes, you're right about "suspense" equalling what the reader feels/dreads about the protagonists actions. What I meant to say in my blog, however (and it looks like I didn't clarify this), was the "fairy-tale structure" is how the plot of a suspense vs. mystery book is organized. Sorry for the confusion.

Tristi Pinkston said...

This blog is a form of suspense!

And I loved it -- thanks!

Anna Maria Junus said...

I've never read about the differences before.

Thank you.

C. L. Beck said...

Good job of explaining the difference. Mysteries will sometimes have an element of suspense, which is why the two genres can get confused in people's minds.