Thursday, August 26, 2010

What is Suspense?

"Hitch...The Superman of Suspense who
paved the way for jerks like me!! Jeeze, what's he gonna do with that rope?"

A promising youg MFA in Writing graduate student asked me if I would answer a few questions for him regarding his academic thesis, which stems around the topic of "suspense." I guess it shouldn't surprise most of you thriller, mystery and noir fans, that not a whole lot of information can be found on the subject in the stuffy, closed-in world of academia.

So here goes.

1. Is there really such a thing as "literary suspense?"

I'm not entirely sure what "literary suspense" means. Other than it means the precise key ingredient variety of suspense that's found in genre fiction, be it mystery, thriller, romantic-suspense, etc., that can also stand up there with the high-brow, quote "literary" unquote, fiction.

From a personal POV, my first big novel, As Catch Can, was bought by Delacorte Press back in 1999 and was considered a "literary thriller." What this means is that I wrote what was then called a "Hitchcockian thriller" that contained both the necessary stuff to satisfy both the readers of genre fiction and literary fiction. In other words, the novel contained lots of conflict, drama, suspense, sex, violence, humor, lies, deceits and deceptions, and all those other things that make a thriller an exciting, can't put it down, read. Chapters were short, and sentences tight and taught, the dialogue as crisp, tough and in some cases, as cryptic as a Hemingway short story. But it also contained vivid imagery (I did my own MFA thesis on "imagery""), the occasional but not over-abused use of metaphor, and an emotional subplot of a man who is up against it all while having recently lost his wife to cancer. Delacorte promoted the books as a literary thriller reminiscent of Hitchcock's "North By Northwest" perhaps to open up the market to both literary fans and genre fans who might be willing to try out a new novel by an MFA grad who was also a rather serious minded freelance journalist. Author Alert: look for the re-publication of As Catch Can from StoneGate Ink in just a few weeks!!!!

Even my newest bestseller, The Remains, contains all the essential elements of a hard-boiled thriller, while quickly becoming popular with the more literary crowd. Once again, it's also been compared with Hitch's work. It's got pile-driving plotting, short chapters and plenty of action. But the story revolves around a painter and painting as an art. It's also told from the point of view of a female art teacher. Hardly the stuff of tough guy thriller fiction.

So in short, yes, a novel can be considered both literary and suspenseful. Look for both in the best suspense novels that stand the test of time, like The Last Good Kiss, by Jim Crumley and To Have and Have Not by Ernest Hemingway. Look for only the suspense part in novels that will be forgotten in time. No need to list the little buggers here.

2. What are some techniques a writer can use to build tension?

I posed this question on Facebook just a little while ago and each response differed from the other. In general though, most agree that writing short chapters, and short, sharp sentences definitely service to build tension, as opposed to long, flowing, obnoxious, Dickins-like sentences that tend to put you to sleep.

This is personal, but I prefer to work in the first person, especially with an unreliable narrator who cannot be trusted and who might not always be in the right, but who is after something that is inevitably righteous, even if he or she has to break the law in order to find it. Not knowing if you narrator is going to turn out to be the one who actually killed the cat will always make for a riveting read. Check out my critically acclaimed and bestselling noir novel, Moonlight Falls, for instance. Again, it was compared to Hitchcock!

Another technique is to put in all the violence and the action. I once had a writing teacher at MFA school who insisted that I only "imply" violence and action, not dramatize it on the page. For reasons beyond my control I followed his advice all that semester. But once it was over, I put all the good stuff back into my manuscript. He's now long forgotten as a writer. I'm a bestseller.

3. Is the role of suspense different in mysteries than it is literary fiction?

Suspense is dramatic conflict of one kind or another and every good story, literary or not, needs conflict. Otherwise there's nothing novel to write about. Even if you're subject is a plain old orange, you can find suspense: just what is it you're going to find underneath all that skin after you tear into it with your bear, bleeding hands?

You're not going to find much in terms of who-dunnit suspense in literary fiction, but you will find suspense, even if it's a band of orthodox Jews and Romans who band together to crucify an upstart Jewish carpenter.

4. Is suspense a necessary universal component of all fiction, no matter the genre?

Yes. Otherwise it's poetry. There must be a reason for a novel to be written. That reason usually stems from a conflict or the birth of a suspenseful moment. I.E. A man comes home from work to discover his wife has packed up the kids and left him for good; A young woman walks into a coffee shop and believes she sees her former boyfriend. When she confronts him, he denies having ever seen her before; When a young woman begins receiving strange text messages, she starts to believe that the man who abducted she and her twin sister 30 years ago is back. And this time, he wants to kill her (the premise of my novel, The Remains).

So there it is. My take on suspense. Right or wrong. But from a very personal point of view, I prefer not to read something that doesn't have suspense in it. It's like eating a chocolate chip cookie without the chips. It just falls flat and is uninteresting. A plain vanilla cookie with no color, drama or sweet richness. In a nutshell, if you haven't worked up a good sweat after reading something, it ain't worth it!

To work up your own good sweat, get The Remains by clicking here! Kind of suspenseful ain't it?

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