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.


Elizabeth Zelvin said...

I agree that the hallmark of suspense is that feeling of dread. One thing suspense is also not is frustrating the reader by, for example, cutting off the chapter just before the climactic moment or reveal and shifting to another POV. These artificial attempts to provide suspense arouse not anticipation but annoyance.

Steven M. Moore said...

Hi Sandra,
Isn't it preferable to ignore the blurbs on the cover and sit back and enjoy a book for what it is? I practice that for both movies and books. For example, the movie I, Robot relates to Asimov's stories only in the title and a few characters' names. I saw the movie and enjoyed it though, for what it was. Hollywood's adaptation of famous novels always leaves something to be desired, but the media are very different.
That said, I agree with you 100% on what we should mean by "suspense." Suspense is in the anticipation. It might not be realized by action. A mystery or thriller often contains elements of suspense, though, so the three are not mutually exclusive. In fact, some of the best novels I've read have all three elements, blurbs and publishers' pigeon-holing notwithstanding. The Sherlock Holmes books, for example, have all three elements, although some novels often emphasize one of the three.
From these comments and previous ones, people will know that I'm not a fan of publishing taxonomy. The old dust jackets or a review are much more enlightening than simple blurbs about the book or statements about genre. Nowadays, endorsements of a book by other authors are generally suspect too. I hate to say it, but Amazon's "Peek Inside" is more useful to me than just about anything else--I can form my own opinion about a book and not depend on pundits.

Sandra Parshall said...

I hate the kind of quick cuts you mentioned, Liz. I call it the James Patterson Effect, and it's disheartening how many authors are slavishly following his lead with two-page chapters and constantly shifting POV. That's not the way to build deep reader involvement with the characters and story, IMO. When I read reviews or hear comments that emphasize that the book is written that way, I cross that book off my mental TBR list. It's worth noting that most people who enjoy that kind of book refer to it as "light" reading. I'm not denigrating anybody's personal taste, just saying it isn't mine.

Sandra Parshall said...

Steve, I agree completely that a good crime novel has all the necessary elements, not just one. I think Lehane's Mystic River is a perfect example of a crime novel that has it all: deep characterization, a baffling and horrifying murder, meaningful social context, surprises, the right amount of action, wonderful writing and a constant underlying sense of dread. We know something awful is coming, and we dread it because we have begun to care about the characters.

Sheila Connolly said...

I'm still a bit blurry on the concept of suspense vs. thriller, but the first thing I think of is a hidden menace, something to flee from while still trying to stop it permanently. (If anybody's counting, I think more things blow up and more blood is spilt in thrillers, but don't quote me.)

Love Mystic River. Particularly love it within the arc of Lehane's writing--he took it to a whole new level in that book.

Steven M. Moore said...

The ultimate mystery/suspense/thriller is Hamlet--plenty of all three, and yes, most people die at the end. Another is Cavellieri Rusticana, the opera.
One of my sisters-in-law often asks how many people have I killed today. I think bodies and blowing up things and violence in general are a bit like including sex scenes--it's another Goldilocks conundrum, because the right balance for every reader is different.
In one of my books this year, Teeter-Totter between Lust and Murder, one reviewer complained that the title was misleading--he didn't find enough lustful content (I'm not pushing the book, a mystery, only using it as an example).
I guess when we write we should always have Goldilocks in mind. :-)

Claire said...

Thanks for the reminder of what's so important in the murdery mystery - that element of suspense. We want to be surprised, not necessarily shelled by shock after shock.

Keeping up that sense of anticipation is tricky and I think it's too easy to fall into the trap of replacing that with bullets and bludgeons.