Monday, December 26, 2011

Confusion Versus Suspense

I’ve recently read a couple of books that have sent me scrambling to try to figure out what was going on and not in a good way. I became frustrated by the need to repeatedly flip back several pages to reacquaint myself with a character or plot line. Luckily, on this latest, 30% of the way in, I understand enough to enjoy the otherwise superb writing.

Suspense is the wonderful creation of tension, in part by the author holding back information. I think, occasionally, when the author is trying so hard to make a storyline taut, in fact important aspects are not revealed soon enough. Of course, you can’t tell the reader everything. But it is important to tell the reader enough so that he or she has at least a glimmer of the basics. Don’t leave us in the complete dark.

Another suspenseful technique is to throw in enough characters so that you’re never sure who did it, who will be eliminated, who really is the bad guy or who the good guy really loves, etc. There has to be several good characters to pin the blame on in a mystery and competition for the girl’s affections in a romance as well as multiple threats in a thriller.

But the number of characters and their introductions is a delicate thing and must be timed right. If the writer doesn’t include enough information in their first appearance, one character blends into another too easily, especially if the intros are rapid-fire, which was the case a few months ago, when I became overwhelmed and quit reading what looked like a promising book.

In my view, the very best creator of suspense is unknown motivation. What makes a character do what they do? Good or bad. In television crime dramas, it’s all about the motivation. I think that’s true in any good book – whether we are trying to discover why the man really left his wife or why the school bully beats everyone up. And the reader must believe in the motivation. The story’s strength lies in why the hero and villain are who they are.

Okay, enough - back to the book that prompted this post - now that I’ve happily entered the land of suspense.


  1. I ascribe to the belief it's detrimental to tell the readers information before they want to know it. That said, expecting readers to infer necessary information from the events depicted is chancy. I think the average reader wants to relax while reading, not struggle with inferences. I try to strike a balance between show and tell now, to prevent readers from feeling confused.

  2. We are coming from the same place, AE! Thanks for your comment.

  3. Som writers can keep the circus flowing so a reader understands without going back and forth-- but not many. You're right, Kathy: Confusion is not suspence. If a writer wristes as if he doesn't know what's happening and writes so that he understands then they can add characters and you're right again about given enough information about characters so that a reader makes an opinion of that character-- good or bad-- then the writer has dne a good job.

  4. I like to think the author isn't holding back information but rather, he/she just hasn't got to it yet. I mean, how much information can you giveaway without it being all telling? But for the record, I think genre fiction is fairly boring because of this. I never care who did it or who is in love with whom or if the good guy dies. I never care, anyway.