Epistemic status: This is an attempt to write down what I think I know and understand about suspense — it’s a bit of a work in progress and I’ll update it as I think about it more. I’m writing it down and putting it out into the internet because it forces me to clarify and organize my thinking around this thing which I think is essential and yet often overlooked when it comes to how we talk about how to write.
For whatever reason, suspense seems to be thought of as a genre in of itself or a genre element reserved mainly for thrillers and mysteries.
For me, it’s an essential element of storytelling, something baked into the foundation of a good story — a prerequisite, a necessary condition.
Suspense is about keeping the reader wanting to keep on reading (or watching).
If boredom is the death of a story and interest is the opposite, then suspense is the emotional state of the interested reader or viewer.
Creating suspense means to put the audience in a suspended state, an incomplete state.
Human beings feel anxiety or tension when something is uncertain, undecided, or mysterious.
You can think of suspense as a kind of open loop. When you open the loop, the audience feels suspense that is not resolved until the loop is closed.
Suspense is an emotional state that can only be resolved by finding out what happens, by answering the question, by closing the loop.
Stories make a kind of promise.
When a loop is opened in a story, there’s an implicit promise that it will be closed by the end of the story. If you don’t close the loop, the audience will leave with unresolved tension, and possibly anger at being misled, or contempt at having the loop/promise closed in a way that is unsatisfying (deus ex machina or just shitty writing).
An unresolved loop can compel the audience to return next week (as in a cliffhanger) or just drive them nuts (as in an ending that doesn’t resolve enough).
Suspense is created by drawing the audience’s attention to something.
A woman looking at a tree feels nothing, but if you tell her that the tree could fall at any moment, she will be in a state of suspense: her mind will be focused on the possibility of the tree falling and the state will not be resolved until the tree falls or something happens to resolve her suspended state (e.g. convincing her that you were just kidding or that actually the tree won’t fall, of putting up a support to prevent the tree from falling).
To create suspense, you have to draw the audience’s attention to some uncertainty, mystery, or undecided outcome.
Two detectives looking at a dead body: one says that it’s on overdose. The other one says “no, I think it’s murder.”
Creating suspense similar to positioning in advertising or marketing, where you can change how someone feels about something just by pointing something out or posing them a question. Suspense has this in common with marketing: it’s about tension, tension that propels people towards action (buy this thing, keep reading, keep watching, etc.)
Sports have suspense built in naturally: who will win the game? Will the shot go into the goal?
But unlike stories, sports are only suspenseful in real time. If you know the outcome, watching a game is boring. How many people re-watch their favorite games vs. how many people re-watch their favorite movies?
[I’m still trying to figure out why stories are so different from sporting events when it comes to spoilers. People have been watching Hamlet for centuries and we all know what happens and how it happens, but there’s still something rewarding about going through it again.]
Sports are illustrative in another way: the uncertainty of an outcome isn’t enough to create suspense. You have to care who wins. The biggest, most improbably comeback in cricket is utterly boring to me. I can’t care about it, no matter how much I try. You couldn’t pay me to care about it.
So, stories need to open up a suspense loop, but they also need to make you care about what’s going to happen.
I think that people over-emphasize the role of character in how much we care. It’s not that character doesn’t matter, it’s just that it isn’t essential to creating a compelling story.
Certain story genres have suspense built in — mystery, thrillers, noirs. That’s why we associate suspense with those genres, but dramas and comedies and everything else need to keep the audience interested.
A body is found and the detective says it’s a murder but you don’t know who committed it.
But suspense isn’t confined to media — we use it all the time when we tell each other stories or gossip:
Someone says “did you hear about Jane?” or “did you hear about Jane’s relationship?” This can hook someone into a conversation or story much better than saying “Jane got divorced.”
A story about Jane’s divorce can have many suspense loops open.
The loops can be chained together or nested.
A chained loop goes like this:
- Did you hear about Jane? [No, what happened?]
- She got a divorce, but you won’t believe why. [Now I want to know why + the details].
- Well it started when her husband found a box of fireworks in her garage. [Opens multiple new loops: why were there fireworks? Who put them there? How did her husband find them? How could this possibly lead to a divorce?]
- And so on.
(a skilled storyteller brings a lot more than suspense — they omit superfluous details, they pace it well, they tell it with style, pick a good subject. etc.)
Some techniques for opening up a loop::
- A question the audience wants answered (where’s he going, why is she in a hurry)
- A puzzle.
- A mystery.
- Something unexplained (the ghost at the beginning of Hamlet).
- An unexplained fact or phenomenon.
- Any uncertain outcome.
A basic chain for a bank robbery story might look like this:
- Who is she?
- Why is she talking to this other woman?
- Why does she need to talk to her in private?
- Are they going to rob the bank?
- How are they going to get into the bank?
- How will they disable the security?
- How will they break into the vault?
- How will they get the money out?
- Will the police come?
- Will they escape the police?
- Will they get to keep the money?
- Will they still be friends after this?
Related: Editing and Forwards.
Please enjoy this freewheeling interview in which I use Talk to Transformer to interview GPT-2 on its thoughts on the Golden Age of Television. Later in the interview, we turn to The Wire and David Simon’s other work, the public’s inability to learn, and then we get sucked into some kind of business conference call.
Lightly edited for formatting.
Me: It’s the golden age of television.
GPT-2: You can look at a pilot script and immediately tell who’s on the show. You know if there’s a storyline, if there’s a character, and people can be excited about that. So in a certain sense, people are so excited about this stuff, that this TV industry is so exciting. And there’s this wonderful thing called the Internet, and I don’t know if you’ve ever been exposed to it, but it’s as simple as searching for a show. You don’t have to search for anything. If you want a show, you just go to the Internet. There’s no more guesswork.
I’m familiar with the internet. But I’m wondering, what do you say to people who call it “peak TV”, who say that there are too many shows nowadays, and that this has led to audience splintering, that there’s no shared common culture anymore?
I can’t answer that. I don’t know about the media, and what you’re saying is that it’s just not the case anymore… I could also say to you: “It sounds like more people are coming to social media, the internet, for a lot more important reasons” because it’s easy to go to Youtube and it seems there’s more of them, maybe it’s because the other places are trying to attract people there, that’s why the internet is getting more popular right now. And this will continue to move forward.
All over the world, TV stations have started to do social media promotion to bring in people. But there are some reasons: because now there are big channels with huge budgets for marketing on the internet and a lot of the people on the internet, on these Facebook pages are people who don’t have social media accounts and then they become a part of the network and now there are many channels that have different content.
You can’t compare what you share on WhatsApp and your Facebook accounts, or you can’t compare what you write
But have we had a show as good as say… The Wire or Deadwood in the last few years? Does the golden age refer more to quantity than quality?
Is a show good enough that the person sitting next to you might watch it if you tell him it’s good? Well… Yes, certainly it is.
Show #5: I have no idea What it is : I guess it comes from the fact that my favorite shows to watch are on Netflix so for most people they’d expect to buy the show before checking the box asking specifically whether or not it’s good. A few more years ago this would have been hilarious.
Show #6: I don’t know How to watch it You are right and I have no idea if The Wire came out before The Sopranos, Deadwood, etc.. I’m sure if it came out there’s a good chance that you haven’t been aware that it came out before both.
I mean… How does The Wire compare to any of the other recent shows we’ve mentioned?
I would say The Wire compares quite favorably to the shows that are currently on the air.
The difference is that HBO and Showtime are still getting the same amount of shows, whereas The Wire may not get all the stuff it wants.
The show’s final season was filmed on site in front of the same set of studio cameras it has always used — from which, naturally, the same exact shot is used over and over again. There were no special effects, just the traditional live footage from the same cameras on all four sets. We had a very detailed visual that we shot for years, and never thought that it would have to be filmed in a different way, where there would be different lighting and the actors would stand on separate plates. But it’s also true, The Wire really was shot inside of those exact same spaces.
This was always our goal, and I think it’s what we did on The Wire. We never really got around to it, or to the same goal of doing a full production. But because all of the shows we did with David Simon were made inside those exact same sets, every time a show is made on cable or in the air, it really affects a big part of how a show evolves, whether it’s a network or whether it’s online.
I watched the entire show in its entirety, and I think it had the most fun
You mentioned David Simon and his other shows — were you involved in The Corner and Homicide? I assume you’re not suggesting that Generation Kill was shot on the same sets as The Wire.
I think the two were quite different shows. I didn’t write The Corner because I wanted to do comedy and write. The Corner’s premise was just that one guy is a cop. So I was drawn to that.
I wasn’t interested in producing comedy. I wasn’t interested in making music videos. He asked me to write a script, so I wrote some stuff, and he ended up doing one as The Corner, and the next was Homicide. And it was The Corner where I wrote The Wire.
He brought the idea of the police being corrupt and they’re not held to the same standard, and as a comic you have to think of the public in terms of, well, what is the public in a free society looking for? Then you have to talk about them not as criminals who’re out here, they’re here to be judged.
The reason I brought The Corner and Homicide to HBO, which is a place where I didn’t want to go, was because I wanted to do comedy with a public persona and show people who these characters are. It gives them all their own persona. And at the end of the day, to me, it’s much more interesting
OK, wow, so you see yourself more as a comedian than, I don’t know, an algorithm or a neural net. So I guess we have that in common. I want to follow up on the question that you posed, because I think it’s really interesting. In your opinion, what is the public in a free society looking for?
Do we feel like we’ve learned anything? I mean, the public is a very complex animal.
DAVE: It’s very complicated. I mean, it’s not like the public is going to be able to learn from something as easily as us. But what’s interesting about my response in my interview is that in a book like that, which has a very specific subject, it goes way beyond the simple question of how do we educate people.
The real question is what’s true, what’s true about the human condition if it’s true, and that’s my response.
Who is Dave?
Dave is a self-made entrepreneur who started the blog The Real Deal and co-founded two successful online brands: DDP and DripClub. His products are made from scratch, with the idea of bringing products to users’ wrists, and are developed by his team of engineers, designers, sales, and customer support specialists for his clients.
His mission is to give you better products.
OK. Great. Nice to meet you Dave and congrats on your success. It sounds like things are going well for you. I think we should wrap things up now but before we end this, can you expand on what you said earlier about how the public is not going to be able to learn something as easily as you?
I guess it would be nice if you could elaborate on that further before you come to me tomorrow. Thanks.
David E. Epstein: Yeah and I can say that we are doing all we can, as you can see with the results, all we’ve been doing.
Our first quarter was really nice and we will continue to do what we’re doing for the remainder of the quarter, which is increase our customer contact information and get more customers contacting us.
For instance, we had a huge uptick in the call volume, a phenomenal quarter and we don’t want to do any surprises with it. We’re definitely looking ahead and, I think, I guess, a good sign for the future.
MARK: Just so we are clear. First quarter, that’s pretty good news. Do you see any other results with this strategy, the increased customer contact number coming out in the next quarter or does this all go together with the launch of that mobile app?
DAVID E. PEDERSON: Yeah, I think the company’s got a great product
Thank you for your time.
We appreciate your cooperation