Suspense: The Exotic Dance of the Literary World

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So there I was, minding my own business when I looked above the sink and saw spiderweb wherein hung a broken pencil nib where the spider should be.

Thought 1: “Neat! I gotta get a picture of this.”

Thought 2: “That would be a killer graphic for an article on suspense.”

Thought 3: “Stupid brain! Now, we gotta think of something witty to say about suspense.”

Having long been a comedy writer, my focus has primarily been on surprise, not elaborate build-up.

“Why’d the chicken cross the road? Oh, some fowl reason. Budup-bup.”

Not much suspense in the setup – punchline format, right?

It’s almost more a kin to the “Who-done-it” style mysteries of Raymond Chandler or Earl Stanley Gardner. They write Phillip Marlowe and Perry Mason into few dreadful scrapes and string us along for a few chapters, but the novel will invariably end with a big, abrupt reveal.

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Just like a punchline. Each book is like a twenty – thirty thousand word joke leading up to, as it were, a killer punchline (yes, yes. I know. Puns are to humor what soy is to meat. I can’t help it. It’s a sickness).

Then, it occurred to me while listening to a better writer than I am talk about the works of Alfred Hitchcock, “Oh, I get it! Suspense is the stripper, and surprise is the flasher.”

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No, really.

The striptease artist is all about finesse. It’s elegant, it’s slow, and the emphasis is on keeping the audiences’ interest by not revealing everything at once.

By contrast, the flasher is sneaky and sudden. At the end of his or her performance, he or she is just as naked as was the stripper, but the audience receives no build-up from the flasher. They must suspect nothing in order for his scheme to work. The reaction he’s going for is 100% based on astonishing the audience with an abrupt, hit-and-run surprise.

Both these tactics have their uses and were employed famously by a no-chinned, throaty-voiced force of nature named Alfred Hitchcock.

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Go on. Picture this man that modern movie makers esteem a world class suspend-er strutting his saucy stuff as the stripper at your next bachelor party.

Take your time. I’ll wait.

Anyway, it’s said of Hitchcock that he treated each scene as though there were a ticking time bomb in it. If the characters are allowed to calmly play out the scene, and a bomb goes off without warning, you have mere moments of shock on the heels of several minutes of  potential boredom. If you show the audience the ticking time bomb at the start of the scene, you get the shock of the exploding bomb at the end, and those preceding minutes turn from boredom to suspense.

Possibly unpopular opinion time:

I think suspense and surprise are comparably valid methods, and Hitchcock overused suspense in his films.

A lot.

And some of his movies could have been far better if he’d used so much as a teaspoon more surprise and a cup less suspense.

One such movie is a James Steward / Kim Novak Picture called VIRTIGO in which *spoiler alert* Hitchcock tells you, the audience, the beautiful blond is guilty. Then, he lets you look at your watch and impatiently stamp your foot while you wait for the hero to catch up. Had he let the audience figure out the clues along side the hero, the ending would be more satisfying, and the audience would have felt a lot more conflicted in their feelings toward the protagonist. They’d go from, “Dear Gad, why is he putting that girl through all that? This guy’s nuts,” to, “Serves you right, you cold-hearted bitch, for getting involved in that other girl’s murder.” PSYCHO, one of the few Hitchcock films I’d watch on purpose these days, is both hugely dependent on surprise AND a film that lingers in your head for a while when the movie ends due to the unsettling nature of the big reveal.

The Kind-of-sort-of moral of the story:

Leaning too heavily on suspense or surprise could lead stale writing. On the other hand, it could lead to predictable branding and establishing a formula for cranking out more books in your series. An eager public awaits both the stripper and the writer of the  courtroom drama, even though they know what happens in the end. So… try both until you hit your stride, I guess, or avoid both, and choose another genre in which to write your masterpieces?

One of my least favorite Hitchcock films is NORTH BY NORTHWEST.

I hate this film. Hate it. Purple passion, migraine inducing hate. Because it strings you along for 40 or 50 tremendous scenes of suspense. At the end, it’s as though Hitchcock got bored or stuck or something, because one second, the protagonists are straining to reach one another one slip-of-the-hand away from free-fall off Mount Rushmore’s iconic cliff face. The very next second, they’re in bed on their honeymoon, and all is right with the world.

Nice segue, Mr. Hitchcock. 3 or so million angry movie goers could sue your dead ass for whiplash and win!

Never the less, if that wicked, old man was allowed to end at such time as he ran out of interesting things to say, I shall keep to that theme set forth by him, and end my ravings here (for now).

Peace, ya’ll. Thanks for reading. Go forth, and write books worth burning! 

 

 

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