Wednesday, November 13, 2013
Suspense: publishing's most misused label
by Sandra Parshall
After abandoning a slew of “suspense” novels after 50 or 100 pages, I’m left wondering whether the definition of suspense changed while I wasn’t paying attention.
A lot of writers – and since these books keep getting published and bought, I guess a lot of readers too – apparently believe “suspense” means hitting somebody over the head, or shooting somebody, or having a catastrophe befall a character out of the blue in nearly every chapter.
I still cling to the old-fashioned idea that suspense is in the anticipation, not the actual event – the fear that something lurks behind a door, rather than the door banging open without warning and a bogeyman jumping out. The latter produces a moment of excitement, quickly over, then the plot has to shift into a different mode: dealing with the consequences of the attack. The former can be milked for a long, slow rise in the reader’s heart rate and level of discomfort. If the writer is any good at all, no reader will be able to put the book down while the heroine is trapped in a house where a monster may, or may not, be crouching behind a door, waiting for the right opportunity to pounce.
Violence in itself is not suspense. Constant action is not suspense. If a book has an explosion or a shooting or an assault in every chapter, I grow tired and bored very quickly and give up on the book. It’s just movement, which is fine for fans of action stories, but it doesn’t feel suspenseful to me.
Suspense is fear. Suspense is dread of what’s going to happen. Suspense is anticipation.
I want to be inside the protagonist’s head, agonizing along with her as she wonders and waits and tries to find a way out.
But before I can care what happens to the character, I have to care about the character herself. She doesn’t have to be warm and cuddly. She has to be human, real, an ordinary person but one with both the intellectual and emotional resources to carry her through the ordeal she faces. I don’t want to read about a helpless weakling being battered by villains. I’m also not intrigued by invincible action heroes who can stroll through a hail of bullets unscathed. I want the protagonist to struggle, but I want to believe she can prevail if she digs deep within herself for strength she may not even know she possesses.
Publishers need to put a label on everything. The labels sometimes bear little relation to what’s between the covers. But few labels are misused as widely these days as the word “suspense.” So I continue dipping into book after book and discarding them after a few chapters, until I come across a gem that actually lives up to the claims on the cover.