Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Climbing the Walls

It drives you crazy, but life wouldn't be worth living without it.  I'm reflecting on suspense today, and it's required me to make up a word:  concludability*.  One way to categorize suspense is in terms of its concludability.

First, there are things you can be confident you will learn in a give time frame - the outcome of a contest, the sex of a baby, or whether you got into your first choice college.

Second are the things you may be confident you'll learn at some point, but you have no idea when.  Are they going to promote me or lay me off?   What comes after Blu-Ray?  Will I ever have children?

Third and finally are the things that you aren't confident you'll ever know at all.  Will I have great-grandchildren?  Have humans permanently destroyed the environment?  Does he love me?

In real life, suspense with a more-or-less imminent conclusion is usually both the most intense and the most enjoyable.  Certainly this explains why fiction is popular- the reader gets to experience suspense with the comfort of knowing (a) whatever happens won't actually hurt the reader, and (b) the suspense will end by the end of the story.

But in books, we writers get to play a special game.  We can simulate any kind of suspense we want to.  We can get the reader identifying so strongly with the protagonist that they can temporarily feel as if they might never know the answers.  The question is, should we?

Do you think about what sort of suspense you are setting up in a story?  Many successful novels set up a neat problem on page one, answer it on the last, and everything in between is either part of the problem or part of the solution.  Other successful novels meander are more complex.  Do you have a preference?

*No idea if this is already a word, but it's probably misspelled anyway.

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