Let’s just get the Wonka out of the way…
So, last week, I did a quickie-bit on suspense over at This Is Horror (with about a dozen other writers, so it, y’know, WASN’T ALL ABOUT ME–though, that’d be cool to do sometime [hint]). Each of us was asked what we thought was most important in creating a sense of suspense of a story or a scene and we duly supplied our answers. I’m not lying that it took me 20+ attempts to get the goddamned thing right; I didn’t write out my thing, just made a list of bullet points to cover, and let fly. This works for me in the classroom, where I have students to bounce ideas off of and modify my presentation to fit the situation, but this style’s a lot fucking harder when I’m staring at a computer mic and pressing RECORD. I’d get three-fourths of the way through my spiel, stumble like I’d suddenly put a sack of marbles in my mouth, and there went your ball game. My wife came in at one point–I recorded in our guest bedroom, to escape any excess ambient noise (re: the dogs)–and asked, “Wasn’t it supposed to be only 5 minutes long?”
But, in the end, I got something in the can and Michael David Wilson didn’t hate it, and, hopefully, listeners didn’t, either. I’ve listened to the entire broadcast a few times now and some people were much more prepared than I was. It’s kinda amazing we all didn’t contradict each other–although John Skipp and I ran in similar directions for a moment–because there’s nothing more confusing than a methodology to writing. The only truths that seem to exist for all people is, “You start a story, you finish the story.” Everything else is dictated by the whims, needs, and talent-quotient of the individual writer.
(Also, it was a fun mental game to finally hear the voices of some people I’ve corresponded with–like Stephanie M. Wytovich, Kristi DeMeester, John Skipp–but had never spoken audibly to. But that may just be me.)
Anyway, I wanted to pause and talk about suspense in a little more detail. I had 5 minutes on TIH, which got the basic thrust of what I wanted to do across, but, after finishing, I realized that I really liked talking about it.
Apologies ahead of time.
So, suspense, if we can all get on the same page here, is the building of dread–of knowing that the worst is yet to come, that the other shoe is about to drop. It’s the doctor holding the biopsy report when he comes into the room, but not immediately saying anything. It’s the phone ringing late at night for a parent whose child is still not home. It’s the walk down the hall to the boss’s office after being unexpectedly summoned. It relies on a fairly negative view of the world–the biopsy is the Big C, the caller is the local police saying there’s been an accident, the unexpected summons is to discuss the consequences of dismal 4th Quarter profit projections–but humans, in our ability to see multiple outcomes, tend to go darker.
If you’re into horror, the possibility of “the worst is yet to come” becomes more of a probability–but not always. That’s the dread, the gamble you take when you go to the next paragraph or the next page.
(Pause. If you flip the negative view, you get anticipation, not suspense. The Wedding Day. The night before Christmas. The labor process at the end of a really healthy pregnancy. It may be tinged with fear [will she ditch me at the altar? will Santa think I was bad? will there be complications?], but when you see the end positively, there’s no sense of dread. End pause.)
With that concept of suspense in mind, you branch off into two formats: what I call the literary equivalent of a knock-knock joke and more of a long-form strategy.
The knock-knock joke style of suspense is familiar to anyone, like me, who cut their teeth on the slasher films of the 1980s–I’m talking Friday the 13th, Halloween, Nightmare on Elm Street, Sleepaway Camp, etc. For example, you have this group of horny, clueless teenagers traipsing around the abandoned summer camp that has a shady history, looking for a place to hump and listen on the soundtrack some song that sounds like a B-side to a bigger hit during the summer of ’87, and you hear the rustling of leaves out in the dark, the snapping of branches, the tumble of a small pile of rocks. You, as an audience member, know the (supernatural?) killer is eventually going to stop fucking around and gut those teenagers like trout, and, when he/it does, that’s the punchline. You then go back to our regularly scheduled program–which is, commonly, a survivor girl.
When you employ a long-game strategy, everything becomes suspenseful. That plotmap you zoned through back in English class, the rising action prior to the climax, ratchets up, and you find yourself on the edge of your seat, or flipping pages in a blur, barely able to keep your eyes on the current line because, goddammit, you have to know what happens next to your protagonist and antagonist.
What’s the difference between the two?
Empathy. The ability for the reader or viewer to identify or relate with the fictional character presented to them.
With knock-knock joke suspense, there’s little empathy. The teens dawdling through the creepy woods are the equivalent of walking blood-bags, and you’re drumming your fingers, waiting for the killer to just open them up. These characters were created to die, and so we build no connection to them. (You can see it in each slasher series as the number next to the title grew–viewers found themselves rooting for the villain, which says all kinds of unseemly shit about the audience.) Sure, there can be a kind of visceral reaction, but that has more to do with the creator’s presentation of the event–short, sharp sentences, or, in the case with film, a lot of building cuts–and the punchline doesn’t linger. It’s the equivalent of eating uncooked tofu–it can fill you up, but it has no taste to it.
With a long-game, all the work occurs before the suspenseful scene in question. We’re talking fifty to a hundred pages, or, in a short story, the handful of paragraphs prior. The writer has taken the time to make the character seem real, within the parameters of the story, to the audience. Backstory, personality, related incidents–these are the rudiments of empathy. Maybe the character has a personality quirk the reader shares–getting itchy when nervous, or popping one’s knuckles; maybe the character has been in situations (prior to the suspenseful one) that the reader has also found themselves in. This is no easy bullseye; the writer has to be acutely aware of human commonality but also know that something that works for one reader may not work for another.
I think of Horns, Joe Hill’s troubled second novel (troubled for him when he was creating it; a masterpiece to the rest of us). Ig Perrish is at the bottom of the barrel, ostracized after his girlfriend is killed and his town blames him although there isn’t any proof. Now, that’s not a situation a lot of people can identify with, nor the titular horns Ig gets that jumpstarts the novel, but Hill leans hard into the loneliness of Ig’s situation, the paranoia, the mourning. Who hasn’t felt those things?
More, Ig is no superhero (although Hill has said, to me and elsewhere, that this can be seen as a superhero novel, just one where the Devil is a superhero)–he fucks up and fails plenty of times over the course of the novel. Hell, Hill reveals the end of the mystery long before the climax of the story, but that’s just the beginning. Watching Ig try and fail, try and fail, try and fail to overcome his failings–guilt, rage, etc–and his enemy reminds us of something we already know: we love superheroes, but we know we aren’t them in our day to day lives. We fail everyday. Ig’s constant failure not only makes his ultimate success that much sweeter (like when we finally triumph over something), but it humanizes him. This makes each subsequent scene that much more suspenseful and make the resolution of those scenes linger much longer. There’s a lot of blood and violence in Horns, but these aren’t walking blood bags. Within the parameters of this story, the characters are real.
If I’m successful at all at this kind of lingering suspense, it’s because of empathy. Building empathy between character and reader does all the heavy-lifting when it comes time to turn the suspense up. In a story like “Crawling Back to You”, which kicks off Bones Are Made to be Broken, we have a relationship between (don’t laugh) a vampire and his familiar. Not very relatable, but I wrote it deliberately from the perspective of toxic, abusive relationships, and I know most people can identify with that to some degree. To me, Patty is the protagonist in that story, not the cop (you’ll have to read it), because she’s the most real to me. Patty doesn’t know if she can physically or emotionally get out of the relationship she’s in, and the story chronicles her attempts.
A story like “Baby Grows a Conscience”, though, can be seen from the other style. I cheerfully kicked all backstory to the curb and just went for it, seeing where each turn can lead to. If the suspense rises above knock-knock joke levels, it’s because the confusion Richie feels is very easy to understand and relate to (who wouldn’t be confused as all hell in his situation?).
Empathy. You build that connection and the heavy-lifting is done before you even get to a really suspenseful scene and, when you reach that scene, you can focus on your presentation–the POV, the word-choice, the sentence structure, the actual ebb-and-flow of the action between characters. All the other stuff the other writers on the This Is Horror podcast. They mentioned excellent, awesome things and often made me think, “Damn, why didn’t I think to talk about that?”
But, truthfully, I need to empathize. And then I care. And then, when the time comes, I become terrified.
And, hey, thanks for listening to the podcast and (maybe) reading this! If you want to see how I handled suspense and empathy, you can pick up Bones Are Made to be Broken in trade paperback or eBook over at Amazon, or go for the deluxe, expanded (I’m told it’s gonna be almost 500 pages when it goes to print) hardcover over at Dark Regions Press.