On Suspense in Storytelling, pt. 2 – Unpredictable-Unputdownable

Every story, by definition, contains suspense in one form or another.

The most common form is the Predictable-Yet-Still-Desirable (from pt. 1), wherein the reader/viewer already has a pretty good idea of what’s going to happen before it happens, but wants to see it anyway.

This may be either to feel the satisfaction of having been correct in his/her predictions, to see exactly how it happens, or to be already emotionally prepared to vicariously undergo a universal human experience.

Somewhat less common is a second form of suspense, which, ironically, is probably the form that more readily comes to mind when one hears the word “suspense”: the unpredictable-and-thus-unputdownable, which keeps the reader glued to the book, and still reading long after s/he should have gone to bed.

All stories by their very nature contain the precursors of this type of suspense.  How could they not?  Stories come to us described by blurbs designed to hint at the plot and its major turning points, but ultimately give nothing away.

They’re the very definition of suspense, for who knows what might happen between the lines of that enticing paragraph on the back of the book or DVD case?

Not all stories, however, retain that suspense.

Some stories, once one starts reading/viewing, start becoming predictable.  This maybe the Predictable-Yet-Still-Desirable, or may just be plain unsurprising and dull – a story one has no problem abandoning.

I don’t believe any writer intentionally writes a boring story.  A writer may consciously opt to tell a story that is traditional, or that closely follows the conventions of his/her genre, or that’s an homage or send-up of an existing, well-known story.

But I’m sure no writer wants a reader to know everything that’s set to come as readily as if said reader had written the story his-/herself.

So, how does one go about making his/her story unpredictable and unputdownable?  Certain genres have an easier time of it than others just by virtue of the type of stories being told – e.g. mystery, thrillers, horror.

But we’re not all building a mystery or looking to scare readers out of their skin.  I’m certainly not.  So what are some things to consider for injecting some unpredictability into one’s pages?

1. Make the choice to add unpredictability

Because it won’t happen automatically.  Creating a suspenseful story requires forethought and planning.

“Predictable” is the default setting in writing, as every story we could possibly think to write has already been told over and over again since time immemorial.  We already know how every story progresses and ends, and part of what makes us human is the desire to retread those well-worn tracks again and again.

2. Cast unconventional characters

If you create characters that are too commonplace and try too hard to have them emulate everyday, realistic/relatable people, the reader will always know ahead of time what the characters will do because we’re exposed to everyday people … well, every day.

Characters aren’t meant to be like real people, but rather a bit off-the-wall and over-the-top – a distillation of complementary and contradictory character traits that are much more unambiguous than among real people.

Take for example the difference between what a typical man would do to help support his family upon discovering he has terminal cancer (e.g. try to get more hours at work; look into experimental drug treatments; appeal to a wealthy family member for help; sell off valuable belongings) and what Breaking Bad’s Walter White does.

So long as the character makes sense within the context of the story, the readers will have no problem relating and empathizing.  Plus, unexpected characters result in unpredictable stories.

3. Mix your genres

This might be hell when it comes to marketing, but can be particularly useful in creating suspense and unpredictability.

Geoff Davis, a writer and writing software developer, states that every genre has a meta-story, i.e. “the accumulated plots and scenarios going back over the history of the genre”.  According to Davis, it can be hard to come up with innovative stories within a given genre “because the meta-story has already exhausted the majority of strong ideas”.

Readers tend to be quite familiar with the meta-story of their favour genres, yet less familiar with those of other genres.  Therefore, referencing plot elements from other genres can give a writer new – and thus unpredictable – material to work with.

4. Create a plot twist

Some of the most exciting Unpredictable-Unputdownable suspense is preceded by a plot twist, for it’s all but impossible to guess where a story will go when one didn’t even see what just occurred coming.

I’ve written about how to create plot twists before.  Once again, doing so takes forethought and planning (see point #1).  But the writer who pulls it off effectively will leave the reader desperate to know what will happen next.

5. Keep a secret (for a little while, anyway)

In most books I’ve read, secrets have the unfortunate habit of making plots horribly contrived (I’ve written about this before too: tip #1).  However, if it isn’t dragged on for too long – that is, it’s merely part of the setup for the climax, not the actual climax itself – a secret can generate loads of unputdownable suspense.  So long as it isn’t a predictable secret, of course.

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8 thoughts on “On Suspense in Storytelling, pt. 2 – Unpredictable-Unputdownable

  1. Interesting indeed Janna. I can’t think that every story has been told though – there are infinite possibilities around any given structure or theme to make a story unique. And in historical fiction (your specialty) there are endless untold seams to be mined.

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    • It’s a matter of some debate, Roy. I know that when I look at the 20 (or 7, or 3) so-called “universal plots”, I have no trouble assigning various stories (my own included).

      I agree there is an infinite number of ways to tell the same story (now with vampires! With babies! With 2500-ton giant robots!), but the core themes remain unchanged. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. As humans, we seem to be hardwired to tell the same stories over and over again, both to learn new lessons from them as we continue to grow and change from our life experiences, and to reiterate/reaffirm those values we hold most dear.

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  2. I’m definitely a fan of genre mixing, or, perhaps more accurately, putting one genre inside a bigger one. Old Japanese sci-fi and horror movies used to be good at this. “Dogora” is a gangster-heist movie inside an alien invasion film. Very loopy.

    I have a counterpoint to a few of your thoughts, but I might save them for a blog post, or we could do a joint post point/counterpoint thing and let the readers decide. Hmmmm…

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  3. I have read both parts one and two. I am really struggling with this suspense thing in my current WIP because I have changed over from a historical fiction that involved a couple of real murders to an actual crime fiction/murder mystery that is also a bit of a psycho thriller. I am actually finding it MORE difficult to get the suspense and pace right in this work than the previous one. As far as writing about what you know…I love writing about places I am familiar with because I feel it adds to the realism and my life has been anything BUT dull. But writing a fictionalized true story that is a historical fiction, is much easier for me than writing a purely fictional novel where the primary goal is to hold the reader in the right amount of suspense without giving too much away and ruining the read. Thank you for your insights. You have been most helpful.

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    • Thanks for sharing your perspective, SK. It’s funny how everyone is different. I actually find just the opposite: that it’s easier to build suspense into a purely fictional story, for true stories (even if fictionalized) tend to lack the dramatic arc of fiction (real life ain’t like the movies). Plus, with true stories, you run the risk someone already knowing how it all turned out, which diminishes unpredictability. This is why, even though I’m writing historical fiction, I’ve created fictional characters and am telling a story more so of the society in general than the specific events from history occurring at the time.

      Either way, I’m glad my posts have helped you. It’s definitely a delicate balance to offer enough clues and cues to keep the reader interested yet not give away too much too son.

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