Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Drawing the Paranoia

Suspense, anxiety, fear….

While every story is its' own thriller, a roller-coaster of suspense, tension and excitement it is the writers' ability to wield the elements to enhance the connection between the narrative and the audience that defines the nature of the piece. Through closer examination of these elements it is possible to not only further enhance a piece but also further define the audience of a piece.

"Being prepared for almost anything, he was not, by any means, prepared… for nothing" - Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol.


Suspense is an imperative to any piece, it defines the need for an audience to continue through a story. It embodies the questions that need answers. Will the character fall in love with the protagonist? Did they do the right thing by buying that house? Who committed the murder? Will they stop the antagonist? These are only a few of the many questions that are crafted for not only the audience but for the characters in a piece to answer. These are the driving force that keeps a piece moving forward but what is the defined use?

The element of suspense is a feeling of uncertainty and strong anxiety about the outcome(s) for certain actions. Most commonly it is utilized in the build-up right before a grand or dramatic moment to enhance the impact of that moment. In a romance it can mean the silence before the love interest responds to the almighty ILY from the protagonist. In a mystery it can be the interrogation of a suspect, while in a thriller it can be a race to stop something from happening. There is more than one way to utilize suspense in a narrative though.

One of the most powerful uses of suspense is not genre specific but it does require an artful use and a delicate balancing act. Suspense can be established and rather than releasing the tension through excitement, the excitement of the piece only serves to further enhance the suspense. In classic horror and thriller fashion it is known as "Nothing is Scarier." In short this trope means that as the suspense builds it is more powerful if the excitement or release moment comes without an actual release. This same device can be utilized in any genre, it is not horror or thriller specific but these are genres that use it openly. In a diametric example, Romance this could mean the protagonist admits the ILY to the interest but before the interest can respond something intervenes. The audience is left with that suspense while something adds an additional layer to the suspense.

There are roughly three variants of this device that are very common to horror and thrillers. These are the classic, full and has been variants. In the classic horror example suspense is built as the audience anticipates something to jump out from the dark and does. This is almost viewed as cliche now and it utilized in almost every horror and thriller. Abstracting this is simply suspense building up to a release point that is inevitable and often expected. The second full variant of this is often the most powerful of the three variants. The suspense is built as the audience anticipates something bad to happen, a monster to jump out of the dark but something intervenes to prevent release point. The audience still anticipates the attack, the monster but it doesn't come. Abstracting this variant we have suspense building to the point of release but the release point never comes. This is a very powerful element for most mystery, thriller and horror narratives. The final is the has been variant and is now quite common in horror stories. Often this is seen horror movies as a character expecting something in the darkness, another character distracts them and then the 'whatsit' attacks. Abstracting this variant suspense is built to the point of release but something intervenes to delay the release point.

Suspense is the key element in a taught story. It is the basis for many thrillers and horror stories but the elements are not exclusive to a single genre. As a writer draws the suspense of their piece it is possible to turn any story into a suspenseful page turner regardless of genre. What are the suspenseful elements of your piece?

9 comments:

Kathi Oram Peterson said...

Great post, in fact, I linked this to Twitter.

Lyn Midnight said...

I love this analysis. I suppose I've been thinking about this building suspense and interrupting gig. See, because it's the best of them, it's very bad if it's mesed up. Do you know how many moview employ and f*ck it up? Well you probably know the answer's MANY. Ahem.

I suppose I abhor the first type so never use it myself. I don't write a lot of horror stories but when I do want to build suspense I just concentrate on the details to anchor the reader's attention to where it shouldn't be and BAM. (Hope I didn't scare ya there, lol.)

Okay, so you've given me some brain food. Thanks, Phillip! :D

PW.Creighton said...

Thanks Kathi.

Thank you for the insight Lyn. I love when it is used to excellent effect. I also love viewing the abstracted perspective on these elements. They're not just in horror but are just more visible in horror.

Jacqvern said...

Hi Phillip.

So, in summary, it is the element of surprise weaved in the element of suspense. Surprise the audience, breaking the cliches, by either not giving them the expected (as you said above, abstracting) or by giving them the unexpected.

Thank you for the thought-provoking post :)

PW.Creighton said...

Jacqvern, thank you for stopping by. Isn't that the truth for all stories? We want them to keep reading to find out what's next so we tease them, build suspense to keep the pressure on and keep them moving forward. If we slip into the cliche we have to struggle to recover but if we defy cliches then our work will be stronger for it. Great insight.

Michele Shaw said...

Great post! I'm glad you used romance as an example because people often forget suspense and tension happen in various forms in all novels, not just horror and thriller. And as you explained, there are many ways to accomplish this.

Lisa Gail Green said...

Suspense is important to any piece. It's a great way to build tension. But you have to deliver on it also. I never like books that build up to something that never really takes place.

PW.Creighton said...

Michele, I know that's why I love taking the concepts back to their core elements even elements from sculpture and techniques for photography can be applicable to writing. Thank you for you insight!

Lisa, you are very right. No one appreciates the cliched classic approach to suspense but just as well no one likes it when that suspense is never resolved or just doesn't serve a purpose. It's a delicate balancing act. Thank you for stopping by.

Jill Kemerer said...

Awesome post! I agree that every genre utilizes suspense, and most can benefit from using even more. Little cliffhangers at the end of a chapter help readers turn the page. Building suspense (to a small degree since I write contemporary romance) and tension is something I work on, but I love doing it!

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