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Saturday, September 11, 2010

Suspense: False & Real

In works by inexperienced authors suspense tends take one of two forms. The first kind of suspense, the good kind, raises questions like the following:
  1. What will happen to X when Y happens?
  2. How will Character X solve Problem Y?
  3. How will X respond to Y?
  4. and so on.
With the second type of suspense, what I call "False Suspense," the questions raised in the reader tend to fall along the following lines:
  1. Who is X?
  2. What is Y?
  3. Where is this?
  4. What's going on?
  5. What in blazes am I reading, and
  6. Why am I reading it?
Both kinds of suspense create tension in the reader, but in the first case the tension created in desirable. Though eager to arrive at answers to the questions raised, the reader of a narrative that generates true suspense is willing to be teased, knowing that the answers will come in due time, and confident that when they do come they'll be satisfying and worth the wait. And while waiting for answers to genuine suspense questions, readers are provided with enough answers to inhabit the world of the story, to fully appreciate and experience its characters, settings, events, moods and themes.

With false suspense many if not all of the virtues of true suspense are sacrificed. Instead readers are treated to the extremely circumscribed and dubious thrill of wondering, for instance, in what part of the world a scene is taking place, and in what year, and who are the characters involved, what are their names, how old are they, how are they related to each other? Such questions are rotten fruits of the practice of withholding information: denying readers access to basic facts perfectly well known both to the writer and his or her characters.

That practice is hard at work in the opening scene of this novel, in which a woman named Janice watches a man cross a street toward her. From his "stuttering gait" to "the too-short sleeves of his tightly buttoned jacket exposing his bony wrists" to the "inches of vivid red sock above each dusty shoe" the man is carefully and vividly rendered. Though syntactically awkward in places ("she saw relief flood his face when he saw her in the corner"), on the whole the prose is solid, the actions—albeit laced with melodrama—duly observed.

And yet because the scene raises and answers the wrong questions, because its author is bent on false rather than real suspense, it falls flat. Instead of asking, "Who is this strange, raggedy man walking toward the protagonist?" (a false suspense question, since the protagonist knows perfectly well who it is) we should be asking, "Why has this woman not seen her brother for so long? Why does he look like a bum? Why is he shuddering? And what brings them together now, after so many years?" These genuine questions—questions the answers to which may justify the rest of the novel—are undermined by that one question, "Who is he?"—a question with no relevance to the situation at hand: and one no sooner answered than the scene ends, as if it had nothing better to accomplish.

Why do writers generate false suspense? For several reasons. First, because in reading works by other authors they confuse real suspense with a general state of confusion, or because in reading such works, even by celebrated authors, they encounter the same false suspense: i.e. Steven King does it, so why can't I? But a third explanation is the most likely: they lack sufficient confidence in the ability of their material to generate its own, authentic suspense, so they give it a leg up by capriciously withholding something here and there—in this case, the fact that the man crossing the street toward the woman is her brother.

Unfortunately, often this third explanation points to a deeper problem, namely the reason why authors lack confidence in a story's ability to generate authentic suspense: they don't yet know, or aren't sure, where their stories are going, or if they have a story to tell.

In this case I'm willing to give the author the benefit of any doubt. In fact I'm sure that Janice and Luke have had an intriguing past, and are headed for an even more intriguing future. I just wish their creator were as confident as I am.

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