The Basis of Suspense

So, a week or so ago, Kyle Aisteach wrote a blog post called “Hiding in Plain Sight.” It’s a pretty good post on an important topic–that is, when you want or need to “surprise” a reader with something, but in order for that surprise to work you also have to lay certain information in front of the reader without letting them realize just what it means. This is, no joke, a really important thing to be able to do, and it can be tricky. I think the first time I actually really, truly noticed it was when I first watched The Hudsucker Proxy. Yes, I know, films are not stories or novels. However. The Coen brothers pull this particular trick off in a spectacular fashion, and once I realized what they’d done, I spent some time figuring out just how they’d done it. I won’t spoiler the movie for you. If you’ve seen it, you know what I’m talking about, and could do worse than to watch for yourself, again, to see exactly how they pulled it off. If you haven’t, well, you might want to start watching Coen brothers films.

Anyway. In his blog post, Kyle is contemplating that particular technical issue. It’s an important one, for various reasons. You want it in your tool box.

But there was a particular line in the post that made me go “Nope. Nuh uh. No, Kyle.” But I was at Worldcon, and only looking at the web to relax a bit before going to sleep, and so I didn’t comment. But it’s come to mind now and then and hey, this is why I have a blog, right? So I can muse on whatever takes my fancy.

I’m not meaning to aim any criticism at Kyle or at his post. Like I said, he’s talking about a technique that pretty much every fiction writer needs to think about at one time or another. No, it’s just this one line: “Surprise is also the basis of suspense, which is arguably even more important to the storyteller than humor is.”

Here’s the thing. Surprise is not, in fact, the basis of suspense. Surprise can be very important–though, as Kyle reminds us, it’s mostly a particular sort of surprise. One that’s been carefully prepared. But suspense?

Suspense is not about surprise. Suspense is not about hiding information. You can hide as much as you want, you can jump out from behind doors as often as you like, you can surprise your reader every time but that’s not the same thing as suspense. At all.

I’ve said it before, and will doubtless say it again. Suspense is not generated by not knowing what happens next. Suspense is generated by the reader caring about what happens next.

Now, this is not to say that the order in which a reader receives information isn’t important. In fact, managing the flow of information–the order and the pace of it, what details are revealed when–is something any writer has to get a handle on. Particularly in science fiction and fantasy, where so often you don’t just need to tell the reader what’s happening, you also need to convey just what the world of the story is like, or the history of the story’s world, or…you know. Exposition. I suspect most of us learn very early that we need to pay serious attention to the ways we handle exposition. But we forget, perhaps, that just telling a story is, itself, a kind of exposition.

The aim is not to conceal–suspense is not about concealment, not about surprise. The aim is to expose. Suspense is generated by the act of exposing–by the way in which you reveal.

In The Hudsucker Proxy, nothing necessary is concealed from the viewer. What isn’t immediately revealed to the viewer also isn’t immediately revealed to Norvile Barnes, the protagonist. The viewer learns it at the appropriate moment–the moment he learns it. A large part of the effect of this revelation is surprise (very much the sort of surprise to which Kyle refers). But we have not been waiting, while watching the film, to discover this thing. What makes the revelation so effective is not that we’ve been waiting for it, but that we never actually suspected it was there to begin with (although of course it was carefully set up for us from nearly the beginning of the film*). So it’s not the concealment of this information that makes for suspense. Any suspense is generated by our sympathy for Norville, by the way the viewer engages with him and with his situation.

Any time you tell a story, you aren’t going to be able to present every bit of information at once. So even when you don’t mean to conceal anything, you’re going to start in a state of the reader not knowing everything she needs to know. The way you reveal that information is going to have a huge impact on how the reader experiences the story–but this is not the same thing as getting the forward movement you need from concealment. I know that seems like a nitpick, but it’s really not the same thing. And I kind of wish people would stop framing suspense as an issue of what is concealed–because it’s nothing of the sort. Like I said, I’m not pointing a finger at Kyle. This is the common assumption about suspense, and like so many common assumptions it’s rarely questioned. But the fact of the matter is, a reader doesn’t keep reading because of a mystery, or because there’s something she doesn’t know yet. She keeps reading because she cares about the answer to the mystery. She doesn’t keep reading because she doesn’t know if the character lives or dies. She keeps reading because she cares if the character lives or dies. Different things.

Still, it’s true, how you manage information is extremely important. I mean, like, completely, entirely essential. You could do worse than to ponder that issue daily for the next few months. Or even years. I’m not joking. The order and pace at which you reveal information to your reader can keep your reader reading, can engage her so that you can get her to care. And in fact, this isn’t just an essential issue on the level of story, but also on a word-to-word level. I suspect it’s what Charlie Jane Anders was talking about when she said on io9 that “there’s really only one kind of sentence that actually works: a sentence that carries the reader forward from the previous sentence.” Some of the commenters were all “well, duh,” but actually I think this is an important insight, it’s just that it’s difficult to articulate. It’s all about how you’re feeding the information to the reader. Word to word, sentence to sentence, paragraph to paragraph. Scene to scene. It’s all about getting the information to flow exactly the way it needs to, for your story to be effective. It’s about exposition.

Not how you’re concealing it. How you’re exposing it.


*I’m trying very hard not to spoiler this film, but really, why haven’t you watched it already? And I really, truly feel I learned a lot from how it handles this sort of exposition. It is, for me, a very clear, textbook example of a particular technique that has come in handy, for me, more than once.