Creating suspense —

an interesting post on creating suspense, by Lee Child.

“How do you create suspense? I’m asked that question often …. But it’s a bad question. Its very form misleads writers and pushes them onto an unhelpful and overcomplicated track.”

Okay, that’s interesting. So what’s the right question?

According to Child, the right question is “How do you make your reader hungry to read more of your book?

And the answer, he asserts is very simple: “As novelists, we should ask or imply a question at the beginning of the story, and then we should delay the answer.”

And “Page to page, paragraph to paragraph, line to line — even within single sentences — imply a question first, and then answer it second. The reader learns to chase, and the momentum becomes unstoppable. … Someone killed someone else: who? You’ll find out at the end of the book. Something weird is happening: what? You’ll find out at the end of the book. Something has to be stopped: how? You’ll find out at the end of the book.”

And his conclusion? “Trusting such a simple system feels cheap and meretricious while you’re doing it. But it works. It’s all you need. Of course, attractive and sympathetic characters are nice to have; and elaborate and sinister entanglements are satisfying; and impossible-to-escape pits of despair are great. But they’re all luxuries. The basic narrative fuel is always the slow unveiling of the final answer.”

It’s an entertaining column, you should go ahead and click through and read it! Plus, this is, I think, a potentially extraordinarily helpful way to think about creating suspense. I like it! I kind of think maybe I’ll re-read Hambly’s MAGISTRATES OF HELL, which I just finished, with an eye to what’s going on in the book with implied (and explicit) questions and how that works to compell the reader to turn the page.

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6 thoughts on “Creating suspense —”

  1. Note how this interacts with your recent extreme disappointment when the implied payoff wasn’t all there: if you don’t find out the reason those shoes were filled with blood, that’s a problem.

    …and now I’m thinking about how the author can signal to the reader what is and isn’t part of the implied contract. I can think of three possibilities off the top of my head: “This is part of a series-long arc and isn’t going to be revealed in this volume”; “This remains a mystery” (which can totally work, if done right) and possibly “This is world-building detail you just have to accept as part of the buy-in; it’s not something that ever gets explained.”

  2. To me Child’s recipe sounds like a formula for books to be read once. What about the books we reread over and over and still can’t put down? What is pulling us along when we read those?

    I’ve decided it is at least in part the way the question (or whatever) is handled. Part of the enjoyment is watching it all happen all over again.

    But I still can’t figure out what is happening in, say Apollo 13, when I KNOW the end, I remember from when it actually happened, and I’m still at the edge of my seat waiting for the signal that they’re alive. Someone suggests that the movie has gotten us invested in the characters and we’re focused on the astronaut’s son, but I don’t think that’s it.

    Movie, not book, but it feeds into the satisfying reread scenario, IMO.

    The library has gotten MAGISTRATES OF HELL in, and I’m picking it up this afternoon. To the local teenager’s dismay because she wants me to prioritize reading Hodgell. At least the Hambly is only one book.

  3. I think you’re right!

    Several times I’ve finished a book and immediately given it away, because I knew I would never want to reread it again after finding out how everything worked. THE HAMMER by KJ Parker was a book I genuinely enjoyed reading, and certainly felt compelled to finish, but i would never have read it again. Compare that to Lois McMaster Bujold or Patricia McKillip — it’s an entirely different reading experience.

    BLOOD MAIDENS does come before MAGISTRATES — have you read that one? I thought they were both quite good.

  4. I can’t think right now of a book that felt satisfying even though the author pulled a “this remains a mystery” trick in it.

    I can think of books where I couldn’t figure out exactly what happened at the end . . . THE SORCERESS AND THE CYGNET comes forceably to mind . . . but what do you have in mind for this?

  5. I’m trying to remember: I know there have been cases where the narrator more or less addressed the reader and said, this is something I never did figure out — but I can’t remember where I’ve seen it. It wasn’t the main focus of the book, in any case; it was supposed to add realism.

    At least sometimes, the author deliberately leaves it ambiguous whether something was actually supernatural, or actually mundane.

    There are stories in which ambiguity is the _point_, too, although the examples that come to mind are short stories and I expect you’d have a lot more trouble getting away with it in a novel. “The Lady or the Tiger” is the best-known case.

    I also recall a fantasy short — I think it was Lawrence Watt-Evans — which was sparked by seeing too many baroque plots: it starts with the clever pirate Captain dying in a stupid accident while in mid-plan. Then his minions have to scramble around trying to figure out how he was going to get them out of things, and at the end there’s still one leftover detail “But we never did figure out what the damn parrot was for.” On the other hand, I’m pretty sure the author commented that he gets letters from readers who were frustrated at not finding that out, even though the overall plot was all tied up. So it’s not easy.

  6. Oh, and Elaine’s point about reading v. re-reading is well taken. In some cases it’s easy to identify why it’s worth, say, re-reading a mystery — e.g. spending time with the characters. In other cases, it’s not so clear, and books that create tension on re-reading would be especially worth analyzing.

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