Suspense

I watch a lot of cop shows to get through my workouts. The pacing is right, and the fact that there’s almost always a resolution of at least an intermediate problem within a few episodes is very satisfying when I’m not thoroughly in love with the story line. (I need more workout fodder than I can find “thoroughly in love with the story line.”) But oh my golly, do they have a common misconception about how narrative tension and suspense work.

People who tell stories get told to make it personal, and to up the stakes. And apparently for a lot of writers that means “threaten the death of your protagonist, possibly along with as large a number of other people as possible up to and including the entire universe.” But this is actually a pretty decent way to decrease the suspense in your story. Is the main character going to die horribly? Particularly in a show where you have actors under contract, is the star who is under a big contract going to die horribly and not be on the show any more? No. No they are not. I was watching a show last season where people said, “I can’t believe they killed off one of the two leads!” And surprise: they didn’t. In the middle of writing this, I watched an episode where they upped the stakes from “will this kill one of the main characters?” to “will this kill the entire cast?” and guess what, no. It did not.

Some stories try to kill characters off early to show you that they mean business, that no one is safe. This almost never works unless you are not paying attention. Early deaths almost always mean less investment from the viewer/reader–you’ve been with that character for twenty minutes, not twenty hours. And it’s also less investment from the storyteller–especially in media that involve big name actors whose level of involvement in a project is going to be clear from ads. Even prose writers who don’t have to worry about that thing tend to get used to having particular characters to play with. So what early deaths mean is “this will have some level of death/gore,” not “no one is safe.” I can tell you who’s safe. Ask me.

One way to manage this kind of tension is to make the suspenseful question not whether Our Protagonist will get out of this particular bear trap but how. Getting the reader/viewer invested in the details of the story is never a bad idea. If they just want to find out yes/no on horrible deaths–if yes/no on horrible deaths is all you’ve given them as a question–their investment level will probably be pretty low anyway.

Another is to use what appear to be lower stakes problems, because they can result in more tension/suspense if they’re things that might actually happen. Are you going to kill off the protagonist of your successful series? Probably not, or at least not in any lasting way. But are you going to make their best friend or family member mad at them? Are you going to give them setbacks along the road to their goals? Almost certainly. Are you going to give them this particular setback? The reader/viewer doesn’t know. And that’s where the suspense comes in.

One thought on “Suspense

  1. One of the shows I’ve been watching did kill off a main character partially through a season–it was because the actor wanted to move on to another show–but it wasn’t done cheaply or in a way that didn’t continue to shape the narrative even after they were gone. I really, really, really appreciated that.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *