A FEW REFLECTIONS ABOUT SUSPENSE

A few days ago I received an e-mail from one of EQMM’s Passport to Crime translators, Josh Pachter. It contained a detailed synopsis of a story he proposed translating for us, but in the few lines of the e-mail preceding the synopsis, he commented that the story had “a twist ending I did not see coming.” As soon as I saw those words, I wrote back to Josh saying to go ahead, but that I would not be reading his synopsis. I didn’t want my pleasure spoiled. I wanted to be surprised too. In such cases, it is not, I think, the surprise itself that gives a reader pleasure so much as the suspense leading up to the surprise—like a present that has yet to be opened. And the more one comes to expect the unexpected from a writer, the more pleasure one will find, it seems to me, in all the ground-laying that leads up to those spectacular twists. (Conversely, of course, a writer with a reputation for such skillful sleight of hand can lose a following quickly if after holding readers on the edges of their seats for many pages, he or she fails to deliver an arresting turn of events.)

Suspense does not necessarily go hand in hand with the expectation of being surprised, however; it doesn’t even always depend upon not knowing what is likely to happen. Sometimes it is precisely the fact that the reader knows what may be about to happen while the characters do not that creates a story’s tension. Think of Alfred Hitchcock’s famous example of a bomb set under a table at which people are playing cards. The way to create suspense, he said, is to show the bomb and show the oblivious people, draw out that moment. “There is no terror in the bang,” he said, “only in the anticipation of it.”

I’m the sort of reader who really doesn’t like to know how a story turns out before I begin it; I even mute the previews of movies and TV shows, thinking they give away too much. But there are a lot of readers—I’m sure everyone knows someone like this—who skip to the end of a story or book before going back to read it through. I used to think of foreknowledge of the ending as fatal to enjoyment of stories billed as Suspense, but the more I’ve reflected on this, the more I see it isn’t necessarily so, even in my own case. How many times can someone watch the movie Psycho and still be on edge when Marion (Janet Leigh) walks into the bathroom to take her shower? Judging by the number of times that movie—and that scene in particular—get re-watched, I think you’d have to say a lot.

Why is it that even once we know what happens in that shower, or know whether Hitchcock’s bomb goes off, we can go back and re-experience the suspense of the previously unknown outcome? I think part of the answer may be that even though the mind jumps ahead to what’s already known, when we’re in the hands of a skilled writer or director, our emotions don’t. To respond emotionally when we see (or are made to envision) something devastating likely to happen to a sympathetic character is surely natural—it’s just instinctive. And it’s the suspense writer’s (or director’s) job to create a moment so real that we respond despite ourselves. In the shower scene in Psycho, Hitchcock achieves that partly with sensory detail. When Janet Leigh goes into the bathroom we hear as well as see the toilet flush, the water draining, the sound of the paper wrapper being torn off the soap, the spray of the shower water. By the time she turns her face up to the water, you can almost feel it.

In suspense fiction there’s an implicit contract most readers depend on the writer upholding: that at least some of the sympathetic characters will come out of their ordeal all right. (And is that so different from the reassurance some readers seek by turning to the final pages of a story first?) The fact that readers care about the fate of at least some of a story’s characters makes the building of suspense possible in the first place. Writers of suspense would have a hard job if readers approached their work with such trepidation that they were predisposed to maintain a self-protective emotional distance from all characters. It seems to me, therefore, that maintaining a high level of suspense often involves striking a delicate balance between what the reader can depend upon and what the reader cannot.

My refusal to read the synopsis Josh Pachter sent me last week may appear a dereliction of duty—after all, there is a chance I won’t like the story. And in fact, I generally require synopses of stories that are to be translated—and read them. But once in a while it’s necessary, I think, for those of us at the editorial end of this business to experience, simply as readers, the pleasure we’re trying to provide for our audience.—Janet Hutchings

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5 Responses to A FEW REFLECTIONS ABOUT SUSPENSE

  1. Art Taylor says:

    Great points, Janet! I agree. I like to be immersed in the experience—though I think it’s rewarding too to reread afterwards with an eye toward craft: how was the suspense created, for example, or in a clues-driven story, what did the author include (often in plain sight) that I didn’t see the first time? (Teaching the Murder of Roger Ackroyd to my classes, there are always two great moments: the one where they discuss their feelings about the trick and then the follow-up discussion where we go through and look at all the passages where it seems (in retrospect) that Christie is dangerously close to tipping her hand.

    Thanks again for the post!
    Art

  2. Josh Pachter says:

    A fascinating post, Janet! Thanks for the shout out — and of course I hope you *will* like the story!

  3. Thanks, Art and Josh. I’d love to be in your class on The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, Art!

  4. Jon L. Breen says:

    I remember being surprised when I first found out that editors of mystery novels wanted to have the murderer’s identity revealed in the synopsis of a book proposal. It seemed to me they were spoiling their own enjoyment of the story, but that was obviously not their main concern.

    • That would be a tough call for me, Jon. When I worked in book publishing I rarely bought from a proposal—it was usually a complete manuscript, so the question didn’t arise. But I think I too would want a complete synopsis, including the ending, if I were buying a book from a proposal.

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