* suspense & tension

Posted by Lew Weinstein on January 27, 2012

Scaramouche by Rafael Sabatini

  • the concluding scenes are full of tension, both political and personal, as Andre-Louis’s life is made clear to him, at age 28, for the very first time. The personal melodrama is fully submerged into the action, and it is the action which reveals it.
  • who shall appear after the duel? is a question Sabatini uses twice.
    • Andre-Louis’s appearance at the Assembly after his first duel is brilliant … “his place was vacant … very few ever expected to see him again … they saw him enter, calm, composed, and bland … M. le President, my excuses for my late arrival … I have been detained by an engagement of a pressing nature. I bring you also the excuses of M. de Chabrillane. He, unfortunately, will be permanently absent from this Assembly in future.”
    • the second instance of who shall appear? transforms a dramatic tension into a comedy of errors. Aline, terrified for Andre-Louis, rushes to the scene of the duel with Mme. de Plougastel, sees the Marquis appear first in his carriage, thinks Andre-Louis is dead, and faints. The Marquis stops to help her. Andre-Louis now drives past, incorrectly interprets Aline’s condition to her concern for the Marquis, and angrily keeps on going.

Silence in Hanover Close by Anne Perry

  • Pitt’s first meeting with Ballarat ends with a high degree of tension. “He (Pitt) went out with his mind seething.” This tension is immediately relieved. “Then the cold air hit his face …” The next scene introduces Pitt’s children anticipating Christmas eve.
  • Veronica: “We too are taking up our lives again.” Mrs. York: “You are.” Mrs. York’s tone was charged with emotion, but … Charlotte could not define it … a warning of some sort?
    • Something is there. We want to know what it is. We want Charlotte to figure it out so she can help Pitt and he won’t be as furious with her as we expect him to be. The reader wants to know something and will keep hooked until it is revealed.  
  • Mrs. York: “Family responsibilities are something one never grows out of, nor is one able to escape them.” … Charlotte had the sudden, intense feeling that the two women disliked each other, perhaps even more than that … Charlotte believed they were speaking of something quite different, and for all the tension between them and the underlying violence, they understood each other perfectly.”
    • But the reader will not understand until almost the last page in the book.  
  • Pitt and Charlotte are conducting separate investigations of the same crime, but not sharing the information. This creates tension in the reader, who wants them to share.
    • I think Perry relieved this tension too soon, allowing them to share their information when it could have been sustained longer.

 The Bridge of San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder

  • in the first paragraph, it was “unthinkable” that the bridge should break.
    • This suggests a hidden reason. I began to think very early on that the bridge did not fall by accident, that perhaps someone cut the ropes. I was looking for a character in the story to commit this act, which didn’t happen, unless God, having a plan for all of us, is ultimately that character. The narrator never openly states his conclusion on this point (which would be ‘preaching’ in the literal sense), but the ending suggests it.
  • Brother Juniper “knew the answer … there was no element of doubt … he merely wanted to prove it” But we’ve already been told that Br. Juniper did not know everything.
  • by revealing 3 of the people who perished in the bridge disaster, but not the other two, Wilder creates a tension (who dies?) that is not resolved until well into the book.
  • the Abbess “had felt not only the breath of old age against her cheek, but also a graver warning” (the lack of a successor) …
    • foreboding establishes tension … will she accomplish her life’s work? This question is never again addressed until the final pages of the story, when it is resolved. 

 The Instrument by John O’Hara

  • Yank describes Jiggs. “To this man Yank Lucas owed his life, and he suspected that the man was not going to let him forget it. He was afraid of the man, his brutishness, his low-grade guile.”
    • This is a potentially useful thread of suspense, which O’Hara does almost nothing with.  ·     potential suspense is relieved too quickly.
  • many suspense threads have been started in the first two chapters.
    • Will Yank fuck Zena, and if he does, will it be for PR purposes or something real? (hackneyed plot line now, but maybe not in 1967)
    • How will Jiggs interfere with Yank’s rising success?
    • Will Walton screw Yank, or vice versa?
    • What conflict will emerge between Walton and Payne? between Yank and Payne?
    • Will Zena dump Payne? Will Peggy (the agent) prove a reliable ally for Yank?
    • And, underlying all else, how will Yank change as he becomes famous and rich? Will he remain the “sweet” person that Peggy says he is?
    • Will Zena turn out to be as described?
  • None of these threads are pursued in any suspenseful way. 
  • Ellis to Yank: “already Barry is kind of afraid of you, and he never was of me.”
    • Good setup, but nothing ever done with it.

What Makes Sammy Run by Budd Schulberg

  • foreboding … “That was the first time he ever scared me.” The sentence appears before Sammy’s words which provoked it, which follow, in which Sammy tells Manheim he doesn’t want the help which has just been offered, that the route Manheim suggests for him, which is the only way within Manheim’s power to help him, is far from matching Sammy’s ambition. “No thanks.”
  • the hook … “What makes Sammy run?”  bartender: how should I know?  “But I’ve got to know.”
    • Why does Manheim have to know? Is there something in what Sammy does that he wishes he could also do? Is he jealous? Manheim’s statement “I’ve got to know” seems intended to make the reader also want to know, to establish the hook for the rest of the book.
  • “My old lady at a musical show?” This unanswered question suggests a family situation that is going to play a role in the story. The fact that it is unanswered makes the reader want to know something. Keep reading!
  • “The first sure sign of Sammy’s growing up …”   a hint of what’s to come. Keep reading!
  • “but some day …” Sammy has a much more clear idea of his future than does Manheim, who is never revealed to have any driving ambition, at least not to make money, which . Thus ends Chapter 1, with a premonition of what’s to come.
  • “Sammy Glick was teaching me something about the world.” A blatant role reversal, recognized early by Manheim, and suggesting to the reader that Sammy has something to teach all of us about the world. Later Manheim says … “when it came to knowledge of Sammy Glick I was still in the first grade.”

 Write Away by Elizabeth George

  • suspense needs to be created; suspense initiates wants in the reader – the reader wants to know what’s going to happen
  • a writer achieves suspense by making the reader care about something
  • putting a character at risk heightens suspense
  • confrontation creates suspense, either physical, psychological, or emotional
  • suspense is created by a scene in which a momentous discovery (a new piece of information) is made which propels the story forward, perhaps in a new direction
  • characters working against time creates suspense
  • Make partial disclosures creates suspense
  • Suspense is that state of wanting to know what’s going to happen to the characters and how it’s going to happen to them
  • A novel has suspense only when it contains characters the reader cares about
  • Give the character an intention – suspense: will he carry it off?
  • If reader cares about character, will anticipate problems he’s going to face
  • Create suspense by making a promise to the reader at the beginning of a novel
  • Don’t play out your hand too soon!
  • Anticipation in the reader adds to suspense 
  • making long term promises to readers (through foreshadowing, or by placement of dramatic unanswered questions) creates suspense
  • clues are pieces of information which, if correctly interpreted by the reader, lead him to solve the case in advance of or along with the detective
  • red herrings are items planted in the story to deceive the reader
  • readers should have no way of telling whether they are seeing a clue or a red herring
  • the detective cannot ignore what the reader sees as real clues. This puts the reader ahead of the story, knowing more than the detective knows, and destroys the suspense



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