Sunday, December 04, 2005

Suspense by Hanging

The old movie Thirty Seconds over Tokyo illustrates the power of suspense. Released in 1944, the title hinted that it was about the daring bombing raid the United States conducted less than six months after Pearl Harbor. This, of course, was a historical event that the audience already knew the outcome of. No suspense there.

The purpose of this bombing raid was to cheer American morale and to set Imperial Japan on its heels with the knowledge that we could strike the Japanese homeland. Those bombers getting off aircraft carriers and making it to where they could crash-land in China was a miracle.

The movie opens with an officer telling a group of fliers, "Boys, you're all volunteers to perform an exceedingly dangerous mission. It's so dangerous that it would be best for the safety of all of you not to discuss your possible destination even among yourselves." With that, the audience was left hanging.

Though there was no conflict in the first two-thirds of the film, the audience sat as still as if hypnotized, awaiting those thirty seconds over Tokyo.

Unlike your novel, Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo had some powerful help generating suspense. There was, of course, still great suspense over the outcome of the war. We didn't know about the atomic bomb yet. We had already lost a half million lives, and at the unbelievable rate of about 20,000 lives per South Pacific island. We were looking forward to an invasion of the Japanese main islands, with its 100 million inhabitants armed and trained to fight to the death.

Much of the suspense about this horrible war itself got transferred to the movie, so the movie could afford to forgo the usual conflict between main characters and still hold the audience.

Normally, powerful as it is, suspense wears off. It must constantly be renewed.

Though you renew it, however, you cannot maintain strong enough suspense about the core conflict to hold the reader to the end of your novel. In other words, you cannot maintain enough suspense about whether your hero will achieve his main goal. A novel is simply too long.

Though it grows, in the beginning, suspense about what will happen in the end is hardly gripping. But urgency increases suspense, so suspense about what will happen next can well be gripping.

Therefore, in every scene create suspense about the outcome of the conflict in that particular scene. Doing so gives the reader something immediate to wonder and worry about, heightening suspense.

In The Basic Formulas of Fiction, William Foster-Harris writes,

We do our best to paralyze the reader — freeze him to the book. All quivering helplessness, he waits to see what is going to happen next.

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