The Secrets of Suspense

In my dreams, the baby could talk. A one-day-old, apparently understanding the conversation going on around her crib, suddenly weighed in with a factual correction; a three-day-old, still in the hospital, piped up to agree that the surgical procedure being recommended was both unnecessary and outlandishly expensive; an infant, evidently inferring the entire universe from

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In my dreams, the baby could talk. A one-day-old, apparently understanding the conversation going on around her crib, suddenly weighed in with a factual correction; a three-day-old, still in the hospital, piped up to agree that the surgical procedure being recommended was both unnecessary and outlandishly expensive; an infant, evidently inferring the entire universe from first principles, observed that soon she would be able to refer to her mother’s sister’s fiancé as her uncle. In the months before my partner’s due date, I experienced so many variations on this recurrent dream that it finally took a turn for the meta. In that version, when our newborn began to talk, I turned to the assembled family members and exclaimed, “The dreams were prophetic!”

Awaiting the birth of a child is a very strange experience. Life is full of momentous events, but, as a rule, they either happen with no warning whatsoever—someone you love is killed in a car accident; you step into a café and meet your future wife—or occur on a foreordained day: you graduate from college; you get married; you gain your citizenship. Having a baby is not like this, a fact that becomes increasingly obvious toward the end of a pregnancy. At thirty-four weeks, your baby is almost equally likely to be born in seven days or in two months. This presents all kinds of practical problems: How are you supposed to schedule parental leave? For what date should the grandparents buy plane tickets? How long do you have to meet a work deadline or to find curtains for the nursery? If, in your famished late-pregnancy state, you eat all the snacks in the bag you packed for the hospital, will you have time to replace them?

Such logistical issues are vexing. But the final weeks of pregnancy, with all the uncertainty and anticipation that they entail, also foster a very specific emotional state, one produced only by the experience of waiting, for an indeterminate amount of time, for something momentous to happen. And so lately I have been thinking, in the context of life, about something I have thought about for years in the context of literature: the structure, function, and strange pleasures of suspense.

Like a lot of fun things, suspense has a bad reputation. Its detractors have long regarded it as a cheap trick, deployed by hacks or sellouts to entertain the masses. In the nineteenth century, when whole classes of overtly suspenseful books began to emerge, including mystery novels and detective fiction, highbrow critics were quick to denounce them as “preaching to the nerves”—that is, winning over readers by provoking curiosity and excitement, rather than by offering any ethical or aesthetic fulfillment. “Tawdry,” “hideous,” “ignoble”: thus did Matthew Arnold denounce so-called railway books, the potboiling precursors to airport fiction.

Such opprobrium rests on a logical flaw: yes, tawdry literature is full of suspense, but virtually every other kind of literature is, too. In fact, outside of phone books and instruction manuals, it’s almost impossible to find a written work that doesn’t make use of suspense to captivate its readers. With effort, I can think of a few exceptions: Gertrude Stein, that grand doyenne of unconventional attraction, seldom uses suspense to seduce us, and books for very young children, like “Goodnight Moon” and “Pat the Bunny,” run on a different fuel entirely. But almost everyone else in the writing business is on Team Suspense. “A Time to Kill,” “Rear Window,” “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy,” “To the Lighthouse,” “Beloved,” “The Magic Mountain,” all of Dickens, all of Shakespeare, the Book of Job: each of these is borne forward at least in part by the engine of suspense. Snobbish critics who get worked up when that engine steamrolls other literary desiderata, from prose style to character development, forget that the suspense itself is not to blame. On the contrary, it lies close to the origins and the essence of literature. As E. M. Forster noted in “Aspects of the Novel,” every work of fiction, no matter how lofty, must be built around a story, and, “qua story, it can have only one merit: that of making the audience want to know what happens next.”

As generations of would-be novelists can tell you, that is harder than it sounds. The mechanics of suspense are complicated and, like its moral and literary status, often misunderstood. Many people think that it’s created by withholding information, which is true—yet you cannot begin to create suspense without providing information as well. Take Alfred Hitchcock’s famous example, of a bomb going off in a film either with or without the audience’s foreknowledge. If it explodes with no warning, that’s surprising and disturbing, but it isn’t suspenseful. To feel suspense, viewers must know in advance that the bomb is there. If, say, you watched it getting wired to a car, all the subsequent scenes fill up with tension: the protagonist returning to fish an umbrella from the trunk, a police officer lingering to write a ticket, a crowd of elementary-school students swarming the crosswalk in front of the car. In other words, what creates the suspense is not that you don’t know what’s going to happen. It is that, broadly speaking, you do.

As all of this suggests, the experience of suspense is basically one of waiting. This is another counterintuitive fact about it: far from proceeding at a breakneck pace, suspense involves an artificial slowing down of time. Highly suspenseful books may indeed be “page-turners,” but that implies only that the reader moves quickly, not that the plot does. Once an audience’s curiosity has been piqued, the story line veers away from whatever might sate it, meandering rather than rushing toward its conclusion. This presents a challenge for the writer, since in many contexts—the D.M.V., the tarmac, on hold with Verizon—waiting is one of humankind’s least favorite activities. The secret to succeeding at suspense is to keep readers interested despite keeping them on ice. That’s why the most important part of a bomb, from a literary or cinematic perspective, is the timer. Counting from one to ten is boring, because what happens next is eleven. But counting from ten to one is gripping, because what happens next is: BOOM! As long as your audience knows that something important will happen soon, the act of slogging moment by moment through time ceases to be tedious and instead becomes thrilling.

Consider the following passage:

He picked up the raft, held it in front of him, and walked seaward. When the water reached his waist, he leaned forward. A swell caught the raft and lifted it, with the boy aboard. He centered himself so the raft lay flat. He paddled with both arms, stroking smoothly. His feet and ankles hung over the rear of the raft. He moved out a few yards, then turned and began to paddle up and down the beach.

So detailed is this description that it brings to mind the panel-by-panel illustrations for assembling IKEA furniture. The prose is pleasant enough, bobbing along like the boy on a becalmed surface. But it is not particularly suspenseful unless you encounter it in context: page 57 of Peter Benchley’s “Jaws.”

The most extreme version of this suspense-building strategy does not merely slow time down but effectively stops it, by yanking the reader away from the action just as it reaches its apex. This is the plot device known as the cliffhanger, a word whose putative origins lie not in pulp fiction but in a lesser-known Thomas Hardy novel, “A Pair of Blue Eyes.” In the relevant scene, a man named Henry Knight is strolling with his love interest along the cliffs of Cornwall when his hat blows off. He chases after it, one thing leads to another, and soon he is dangling from a sheer wall of rock, nothing beneath him but six hundred feet of air terminating in the fanged and foaming surface of the ocean.

I cannot in good conscience recommend “A Pair of Blue Eyes,” which brings to mind T. S. Eliot’s observation about Hardy—that “at times his style touches sublimity without ever having passed through the stage of being good.” Still, the scene on the cliff is a tiny, self-contained masterpiece: smart, riveting, and, so to speak, completely over the top. As his hero’s life hangs in the balance, Hardy makes his leisurely way through five hundred million years of history. Knight looks at an ancient trilobite fossilized in the rock face directly in front of his eyes, and finds his mind turning toward all the countless intervening creatures that link the two of them, from the primordial iguanodon to the earliest human. Facing death, it is not so much his own life that flashes before his eyes as all of life on earth. He thinks about those millions of years of vitality and mortality, he thinks about his beloved, he thinks about the indifference that in his circumstances passes for the malevolence of Nature, he thinks about the meaning of his apparently too brief life, and all the while he is suspended above the unforgiving Atlantic—left hanging, not unlike the audience, for more than a dozen pages, easily the best ones in the book. Far be it from me to disclose whether or not Henry Knight survives his ordeal. Either way, thus was the cliffhanger born.

Speaking of birth: consider the phrase “a pregnant pause.” You might imagine that the idiom was derived from the condition—that we call such a pause pregnant because it is bulging with something important that is about to happen. But that is backward. In a bit of linguistic history that my partner and I found pleasing when we stumbled across it in the months before her due date, “pregnant” meant “laden with significance” before it meant laden with child.

A pregnancy is, in effect, a very long cliffhanger: a state of “expecting,” as the apt euphemism has it, that drags on and on and on. A pregnant pause, by contrast, is a very short cliffhanger: a conversational fermata that fills listeners with anticipation. That it can do so through a technique no more sophisticated than a simple pause suggests, correctly, that suspense does not derive only from the machinations of plot. Instead, it is what you might call fractal: it can be fostered at every level, from a seven-season TV series all the way down to a chapter, a paragraph, a scene, or even a silence.

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