Monday Motivation: How to squeeze suspense from your story
Suspense, in fiction, is created when we pose questions and then delay giving the answers. The reader, eager to find out those answers, will read on.
But how about life? Life, after all, is full of unanswered questions. We’re eager to find out whether the baby’s going to be a boy or a girl. The moment the scan reveals one or the other, suspense goes out the window. We’re eager to find out whether our Tinder date will be a disappointment – or the answer to our prayers. We’re eager to find out which horse will win the two thirteen at Newmarket.
Note that suspense in life rises in direct proportion to the stakes involved. If the baby we’re expecting will inherit millions from an eccentric uncle if, and only if, it’s a boy, then the suspense will be excruciating. If we have a lamentable record in the romance department, then the success of this next date will be important, and the resultant suspense acute. If we’ve placed a tenner on Take a Chance in the two thirteen, well, it’d be nice to win, but no great loss if we don’t. But if we’ve bet everything and the kitchen sink on the outcome, then the suspense will be enormous.
Remember the Roald Dahl story about the two men who placed bets on the ability of one to identify a bottle of wine provided by the other? The wine buff – a horrible man with slobbery lips – wagered a house on his being able to identify the wine. That’s quite a stake. But the story only really springs to life when the other agrees to wager the hand of his daughter on the outcome.
So the higher the stakes, the greater the suspense. The more we have invested in the outcome, the keener we’ll be to find out what it is. This is true in life – and in fiction.
But there’s another element involved in suspense – and that is, time.
If the answer to the question is only to be revealed many years hence, then there’s not much suspense involved, even if the stakes are high. Whom a rich man decides to leave his fortune to is a very large, intriguing question. But if the rich man is twenty-five and in good health, there’s no real suspense involved. But if he’s stricken by a terminal disease, then suddenly the question becomes of burning interest to all his possible heirs.
Or take the case of a fiction set against the backdrop of fact.
Having got my teeth thoroughly into Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, I decided to double up on my commitment to Russian literature, and simultaneously read Vassily Grossman’s Stalingrad – a companion piece to his monumental Life and Fate, about which I’ve written previously.
Stalingrad tells the story of the siege of the city during WWII, and it begins in the period immediately before the Germans arrive to encircle Stalingrad. If you have even only a smattering of history, you’ll know that the siege of Stalingrad was one of the cruelest events of the war. In it some two million civilians and soldiers lost their lives and the city was reduced to rubble. By some historians’ reckoning, Hitler never recovered from the losses his armies sustained.
So when, in an early scene in which many of the characters who’ll feature in the story gather for a dinner in Stalingrad, and debate whether or not to flee the city (because they know that the Germans, like winter, are coming), we’re aware as they can’t be, of the true extent of the death and destruction that awaits those who decide to linger.
This creates suspense of the most extraordinary, poignant kind. We’d like to cry out to these characters to leave, leave at once! But we’re helpless to deflect the implacable forces of fate – or of fiction – from playing themselves out with a kind of tragic inevitability. History has already answered the question. All we can do now is watch the answer arrive, battalion after battalion, bomber squadron after bomber squadron.
Suspense is an essential ingredient of fiction. It’s worth pondering how to squeeze as much of it as you can from your story.