Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Why suspense matters

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Over the past few days, I’ve invoked the example of Hitchcock more than once, and for good reason. As the likes of Truffaut and Cahiers du Cinéma understood in the fifties, and audiences across the world knew much earlier than that, the films of Alfred Hitchcock are central to our experience of the movies. His goal was as simple as possible—to play the audience like a piano—but his methods were endlessly complex. As a result, the great Hitchcock thrillers are like laboratories for the investigation of storytelling, in everything from plot construction to art direction to cinematography and editing, not to mention iconic performances from the actors he sometimes claimed to despise. And if the machinery is more visible here than it is in, say, Bergman, it’s because of the genre that Hitchcock perfected. Suspense is the most basic emotion that narrative cinema can evoke, and Hitchcock, as we all know, was its master.

What isn’t always acknowledged is how central suspense is to other forms of art, especially fiction. Years ago, in a review of Nabokov’s Glory, John Updike spoke of a novel’s “obligation to generate suspense,” and suspense remains, in some ways, the most fundamental of all genres: nine times out of ten, any good novel is, at heart, a novel of suspense, even if the suspense centers on emotion rather than external action. In his classic book Writing Popular Fiction, Dean Koontz observes that of all genres, suspense has the fewest overt requirements—simply the need to keep the reader intensely interested in what happens next—which implies that other genres can be understood as overlays on the suspense form. Science fiction is suspense in the future; mystery is suspense where the emphasis is less on stopping the killer than on figuring out who it is. And without a solid foundation of suspense, readers in any genre aren’t likely to keep turning the pages.

This is one reason why I turned to suspense when I began to write for a living, and currently find myself writing something close to pure thrillers. These weren’t necessarily the novels I read the most growing up, but for a relatively young writer still learning the tricks of the trade, it seemed like a good idea to begin with storytelling in its most general form. The lessons you learn from writing suspense—anticipation, momentum, converging structure, and especially clarity of action and motivation—can be applied to any sort of fiction you later choose to tackle. There’s simply no way to forget these things once you’ve internalized them. And while it’s often necessary to set them aside—one of the weaknesses of the suspense form, along with its underlying coldness, is the constant need for things to always be happening—they’re still the ultimate safety net, a sort of writer’s insurance policy when other tools fall short.

And they can lead you to surprising places. Back in the seventies, Koontz noted that most books marketed as mainstream fiction are really suspense novels in disguise, and that remains true today. A novelist like Ian McEwan is essentially an author of suspense, but one whose work has been elevated by intelligence and taste to the point where he can contend for a Booker Prize. Elsewhere, competition with other media has forced serious novelists to pace even ambitious literary novels like page-turners, as Jonathan Franzen says to Time: “It seems all the more imperative, nowadays, to fashion books that are compelling, because there is so much more distraction they have to resist.” I’d much rather read a big literary novel written by an author who understands suspense than one who hasn’t served the same apprenticeship, and for my part, I think it’s all but inevitable that I’ll try to make that leap one day. But not yet. Because if there’s anything I’ve learned from writing suspense, it’s that there are always more lessons to come.

Written by nevalalee

October 27, 2011 at 9:00 am

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