What is suspense?
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.
Stories as maps
A story is like a map.
A map is not the territory and a story is not exactly what happened.
A map erases certain features to bring others into relief.
A story is condensed.
Because it’s condensed, it has a POV, a POV about what to include and what to elide.
A story creates meaning like a map, by picking the events, their order, and their connections, just like a cartographer chooses the scale, center, and what to include on a map.
A story starts somewhere and ends somewhere, and these are not arbitrary points.
A story can be true and a lie or it can be fiction and deeply true.
A good map helps us understand the territory at the level of detail that’s important to us.
A good story helps us understand humans, cultures, relationships, or societies at the level of detail that’s important to us.