Friday, July 3, 2009

Suspense versus Confusion

By Christine Thackeray

Last night I stayed up way too late watching "Passengers" with Anne Hathaway on DVD. (Okay, I admit it, we are AH fans.) But halfway through the movie I wanted to throttle the writer and the director for that matter. Both men had apparently been asleep when taught the difference between suspense and confusion.

Webster does a great job of defining suspense. They say it is the excited anticipation of an approaching climax. For me the key word here is ANTICIPATION. In order to anticipate something you have to know enough to be excited that it's coming. How can you anticipate something you are totally ignorant of? You can't.

Where some people go awry is when they understand part of anticipation is not telling everything up front and they foolishly decide if a little is good than a lot is better. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, the less you tell, the less satisfying the end.

I'll give you an example. Look at the three pictures below and tell me what you think they are.

Think hard and guess.

The first picture is either a mended donut or a plate of spaghetti served by a very neat waiter. The second is a superstitious giraffe throwing salt over his shoulder. The third is a spider doing a handstand.

The reason these pictures are intriguing is because once you are told what they are, you have to agree and you sort of kick yourself for not getting it first. You are given enough clues to make the puzzle doable without being easy.

This sort of brainteaser is the essense of suspense. Confusion would be drawing a picture, covering it up with your hand and asking someone to guess what you drew. Unless they have ESP, you're just being a frustrating idiot. Growing up, my family used to watch the best series in the world. It was called "Banacek" and the reason it was so good is because every week you were promised every clue that Banacek was given. When the case was presented, it was fun to see if you were as smart as the investigator- I mean, the writers. "Sixth Sense" did the same thing and did it well. The second time you watched it you kicked yourself that he wasn't dead. There were clues EVERYWHERE! That's what made the shock valid.

In writing, it is essential to present enough bits of honest information to build credibility between the author and the reader. Red Herrings that are realistic are totally fair, as long as they don't seem manipulated into the plot. Done well, suspense in writing can be thrilling. Done poorly it can make readers want to hurt you with your own book. And if you want an example of it done stinkin' awful, rent the DVD.


Valerie Ipson said...

Loved this post, Christine. It made me laugh. Laughed out loud at the puzzles, too.

Cindy Beck said...

Cute puzzles. And it's true that writers have to be careful not to confuse the reader with the "suspense."