Suspense and Storytelling

Suspense is like a gold nugget: unmistakable, identifiable, and nigh impossible to find or create.

Recently I have written on the mechanical manipulations that make a good horror or terror story enjoyable to read. Stories employing terror create fear by assembling a set of circumstances that promote anticipation.

I feel that my previous description of terror has been inadequate. In fact, this description of a terror story is no different from any good story ever written. With this in mind, there is no distinction between a good terror story and a good story overall.

For instance, there is no technical distinction between an Agatha Christie mystery and Jane Austen.

Take for example a story from your own experience. Haven’t you read/watched/heard a story that kept you interested to the very end? A ripping good tale doesn’t need guts and monsters to keep you on the edge of your seat. Any story that holds your attention is employing suspense, whether it be a love story, a heist movie, or even a comedy sketch on an old radio broadcast.

(Incidentally, have any of you listened to Orson Welles’s 1939 Halloween War of the Worlds broadcast? It is awesome, which is an adjective rarely applicable for 30s entertainment media.)

It’s unfair to call only a murder story a mystery. Any and all stories if told properly are mysteries. Every writer who writes spins a mystery for his readers, dropping breadcrumbs and a few red herrings, to tempt readers to persevere until the final title page and read those concluding words: “The End”.

Every story must be a mystery. If there were no doubt as to how the story would end, no one would bother to follow the tale to its conclusion.

Terror and suspense are as interchangeable as ketchup and catsup.

Suspense is not just the domain of gripping storytellers like Alfred Hitchcock and Stephen King. Suspense, simply put, is the quality that makes a book/movie/radio play good. It holds our attention and keeps us in place until the end of the third act.

True, a story with little else but suspense is still a poor story, but I’ve found that the visible cogs of the storytelling machine (setting, characters, dialogue, etc.) are the physical manifestations of suspense itself.

Will Gentleman A fall in love with debutante B or C?

Is life in Metropolis any different from life in Smallville?

How will the argument on page 53 end?

It is easy to confuse suspense and terror with the dramatic trimmings that are actually horror: the bloody knife, the shadows on the wall, and the approaching creaky footsteps. These simple devices are make to elicit emotional reactions in the reader/viewer/listener. These are the things to make you scream out it terror, but suspense will hold your attention until the story is finished, and afterward, keep you awake all night in the reliving of your memory, whether the last thing you read was The Exorcist or Toy Story.

Thanks for sticking by me as I stumble my way through as I study how stories are told. Come again soon! -BW

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