Thursday, October 13, 2005

Suspense

In both criticism and ad copy, we often hear novels described as "compelling" and as "page turners." This is a novel's chief selling point. It promises readers a book they will not be able to put down.

What makes the reader unable to put a book down? The desire to know what happens.

So, your main goal is to arouse your readers' curiosity and anticipation and keep them aroused. You want to glue your readers to your story so that they can hardly tear themselves away for a trip to the bathroom. You do this through suspense, the most essential element of plotting.

Suspense comes from a Latin word that means "to suspend" or "to hold up" or "to hang." To be held in suspense is "to be left hanging." The moral effect is so excruciating that, historically, "death by suspension" on a gibbet was thought to be the most punishing form of capital punishment through torture and evolved into many methods of execution.

According to Webster's Dictionary, suspense can be used in either of two senses. In one sense suspense is the state of being undecided or undetermined. In the other sense suspense is uncertainty characterized by anxiety or apprehension. In the first sense the reader is curious about the outcome. In the second sense the reader is emotionally involved with the characters so she is vicariously interested in the outcome.

So, as Sol Stein advises, "Think of yourself as a hangman." Your job is to not be a nice person. Your job is to make the reader wonder and worry about the characters. So, leave your hero hanging by her finger nails from the edge of a cliff to exacerbate and prolong the reader's torture as long as possible. There is nothing the reader enjoys more.

In fact, suspense is so enjoyable that some readers can't get enough of it. Hence, novels that maximize suspense constitute a genre just for them.

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