On Suspense in Storytelling, pt. 1 – The Predictable-Yet-Still-Desirable

Suspense, as a concept, is something I’m pretty sure all writers comprehend.

Suspense (/səˈspɛns/):

Noun

“A state or feeling of excited or anxious uncertainty about what may happen.” (Source: Google.)

After all, most writers begin their journey as a reader, and most readers love the thrill of a story unfolding – of experiencing every reversal and triumph that befall the characters as the plot moves along its way toward an as-yet unforeseen conclusion.

True, some readers do read the very last page of the book first – perhaps to ensure the story will have a happy ending.  However a last page really doesn’t convey much when taken out of context of all that comes before it, so even such a reader will be forced to weather the ebbs and flows of a storyline in the sequence in which they occur.

As a reader myself, however, it occurred to me recently that there are actually two types of suspense in storytelling.  Taken in turn, each type produces the following reaction in my head:

  1. I know what’s going to happen.  And I can’t wait to see it!
  2. Who even knows what’ll happen next? (often preceded by, OMG I did not see that coming!)

Of the two, the second – i.e. the predictable-yet-still-desirable outcome – is the most common type of suspense I encounter in books.  Movies too, for that matter.

Predictable in this instance, though, isn’t meant to a put-down or deemed a failing on the part of the writer.

How’s it gonna be?

Due to such things as genre conventions and the fact that there are really only 20 (or 7, or 3*) basic stories that have been repeatedly told since the dawn of time, most readers going into a book have a pretty good sense of how it’s going to end.

Most stories that aren’t tragedies follow the same general pattern:

  • The Hero faces increasingly difficult and critical challenges
  • The Hero grows due to his/her challenges and becomes a better person
  • In the end, the Hero either obtains what s/he’s wanted for the entire story or discovers s/he never really needed it in the first place
  • All the various other steps along the Hero’s Journey.

The fun of reading a predictable-yet-still-desirable story, however, is in seeing how the above list transpires.

It’s about seeing the subtle ways a given book differs from the innumerable other versions of the same basic tale, and what we can learn from that difference.  It’s about feeling the satisfaction of knowing our predictions were correct.

It’s also about having already been emotionally prepared (through knowing what’s coming) to undergo the pathos of a representative human being (a character) undergoing a universal human experience.

Stories told from multiple points of view offer even further opportunities for predictability, for the reader will be privy to more information than are individual characters, and thus wait in anticipation for the big reveal.

Personally, although I don’t really enjoy stories with multiple POVs, I do have fond memories of reading the late Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time epic fantasy series.

In these books, groups of characters were often spread out across hundreds of miles of various kingdoms, all working towards their own smaller piece of a much larger objective.  Due to the distance and a lack of timely communication, each group would perform acts that, while beneficial to them, by and by would unwittingly sabotage the efforts of their colleagues abroad.

All of this I would read with a sense of tension, dread, and, ultimately, utter glee, waiting to see how it would go down when the sh*t finally hit the fan.

Predictable, yet still desirable.

Put another way, readers of Romance novels may know from the outset that the couple is going to get together in the end, yet this hasn’t stopped Romance from being one of the most successful and enduring genres of all time.

Or better yet: we all know what a car crash looks like, but that doesn’t stop us rubber-necking on the highway.

 

*According to my grade 11 creative writing teacher, (1) The Little Tailor, (2) Boy Meets Girl, and (3) The Man Who Learned Better

(Image source)

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A/N: A new look – and name – for this blog is coming soon.

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4 thoughts on “On Suspense in Storytelling, pt. 1 – The Predictable-Yet-Still-Desirable

  1. Hey Janna! I just realized that while I was signed up to your blog…I wasn’t signed up for an automatic email. This has been corrected! The above topic, by the way, would make for a great topic to discuss! Miss you!

    Like

    • Thanks, Nancy. I find the automatic email function useful as well; pretty much all the blogs I follow I get this way rather than using RSS like many others do since I’m always on email already. Miss you too! Hopefully I’ll be seeing you and everyone else next week.

      Like

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