Article of The Month

Suspense Is More than Surprise

Copyright 2001 by Alicia Rasley

So what's suspense?  It's letting the reader know there's something to worry about.
Once Alfred Hitchcock discussed the difference between surprise and suspense with this example:
Imagine four guys playing poker around a tableclothed table.
Suddenly a bomb under the table explodes and blows them all up.
That's surprise.  The reader/viewer, along with the poker players, is surprised because everything seemed so normal, and then this happened!
Surprise can be good.  For one thing,  the reader is experiencing what the characters are experiencing.  There's no greater knowledge, so the surprise can be effective in showing the reader what the characters are going through.  That's fine, in some situations,
especially in an opening scene where much of the rest of the book would
deal with recovering from the "surprise".


Now think about the same opening: four guys playing poker around a tableclothed table.   But this time the camera zooms in through a little hole in the cloth and shows.... a big timebomb hidden underneath.  There's 4 minutes showing on the clock.  3:59.  3:58....
The players play on obliviously.  Camera zooms out.
One player curses and folds his cards. "I'm tapped out," he says. "Going home."
What do you feel?  Sigh of relief.  Oh, great, now the game will break up and they'll all head home and hurry, you guys!
Then another player shoves a twenty at the one who folded.  "Here, you can owe me.  Let's play another couple rounds."
No! you're screaming inwardly.  Don't!  Just go home! Everyone go home!
Player sits down for another hand.  Your mental clock is reading 2:21.  2:20....
Another player folds and stands up.  "I'm going to get a beer.  Anyone want one?"
Oh,well, at least one will survive!  And then he comes back empty-handed.  "None left." Oh, great, maybe without beer they'll leave!
Another stands up.  "Hey, there's some out there in the fridge in the garage.  I'll go get it.  But--" he looks around at the floor.  "Where'd I put my shoes?"  He bends down to look under the table.
He'll see it.  They'll be safe.
But then his wife yells from the kitchen, "Tom, you jerk, I just tripped on your shoes!"
He straightens up without ever lifting the tablecloth.  Starts away....
Now two things to notice here-- one is that this leads to an actual SCENE.  That is, it's not a quick setup of situation and then disaster, but a scene with interaction, dialogue, rising tension, confrontation, events, action....
You can see you don't want to give this level of full treatment if the "surprise" is that the train is two minutes late.  But you'll get more charge out of a real disaster if you put it at the end of a scene of buildup.
Second, the reader can't help but be drawn into interacting with the
events.  Why?  In this case, it's adroit breaking of the "rule" that the
reader shouldn't know more than the characters.  If the reader knows
about the bomb, the reader can -experience- more than the oblivious
characters do.  That is, the reader actually supplies some of the
experience of the scene... the scene is only meaningful because the
reader gets to experience the juxtaposition of mundanity and dread.
But it would be awkward to do this "camera work," because there's not really a disembodied "camera eye" in prose.  Who, after all, is going to be peering through that hole in the tablecloth at the bomb?
What would be more fun and easier to stage would be to let the reader draw the picture.  For example, maybe the scene before was of the villain in his workshop, attaching a clock to a device, and sticking it into a bowling bag.  He gets to the poker house, and stops outside and sets the clock to 10 minutes.
New scene. Now we go into a poker player's POV.  Poker Player answers the door, sees villain, says, hey, join us! Villain says, no, I've got bowling.  Just
stopped by to show you guys my new truck bed.  It's great.  The guys all
leap up and go outside to look, and Poker Player is admiring the truck bed when he notices that villain isn't out there with them.  They start back into the
house just in time to see villain dropping the tablecloth and hastily
zipping up his bowling bag and saying, got to run.
The reader's going to fill in the blanks here.  You just need to give
-enough- information so that she draws the right conclusions (or the
wrong ones... if you want to be wicked!), and no more than that.
Now of course, this is more than you're going to need in every scene.
But it can enliven individual scenes, and if you have a big secret or a
big disaster, you can use several scenes to build up to it, foreshadow
it, tease the reader.
The fun part is to get the reader so tense that the explosion has double
effect-- it's not just a disaster, it's also a relief, because the
anticipation was killing her anyway!
So think of some aspect of your story that you can draw out this way,
creating suspense by adroit presentation of information.  Remember, the reader can't be in suspense unless she knows there's something going on, something to dread and anticipate.

Alicia Rasley is a 13-year member of Romance Writers of America, a writing teacher, and a RITA-award winning Regency author. She teaches at Painted Rock Writers Colony.

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Go to previous articles:

Scenes on Fire!

 Beginnings, Middles, and Ends: The Purposes

 Character Motivation

 On the Brink: Turbocharge Your Opening

Tightening the Sagging Middle

Sharks in the Water: Old Scams in the New Millennium

The Publishing Journey

Lest Ye Be Judged: Contest Judging for Writers

Setting and Character Interactions

Developing the Dark Moment

The Promise of the Hot Premise

Outline Your Novel in Thirty Minutes

Subtle and Sensual

Plotting Without Fears

Structuring the Story

End Thoughts

Details, Details

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