Whatever genre you choose to write, suspense matters. Suspense will be a part of it. Of course, the best genre for suspense is the mystery/thriller genre, so today we’ll turn there to find two kinds of suspense writers can make use of.
I’m a fantasy writer, but the first genre I ever fell in love with was the mystery genre, thanks to Nancy Drew. In eighth grade I discovered Agatha Christie and Hercule Poirot, and recently I started watching “Sherlock” on Netflix.
This led to me downloading all Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes novels and stories for 99 cents on my Kindle. I’ve read about a third of them so far, and I realized the way Doyle creates suspense is very different than Christie sometimes.
SUSPENSE ONE: SHERLOCK–AND YOU–KNOW WHO DID IT…. BUT HOW OR WHY DID THEY DO IT? AND HOW CAN ANYTHING BE PROVEN?
I was shocked to discover, reading about Sherlock Holmes, that while the police are often convinced an innocent person is guilty, the real guilty party is pretty obvious.
Doyle gives a reader (and Holmes) reason to suspect some shady character or other. Sometimes there’s no other option. You KNOW who is behind the “crime” or “evil doing.”
You just don’t know exactly what he’s doing, or what for. And that’s where the fun comes in.
You can definitely turn a “whodunit” into a “why’d he do it?” And you don’t have to write in the mystery genre to do this.
Lots of stories, in lots of genres, can involve a character readers heartily and rightfully distrust. They know not to trust this person. The protagonist knows not to trust this person.
The reader is just not sure why.
- If the stepfather killed the sister of Holmes’s client in “The Adventure of the Speckled Band,” which is almost a given, how did he possibly do it?
- In “Law and Order,” where did the defendant stash the murder weapon? The trial has started…. Can the cops and the DA find it in time to get a conviction?
- What is Harry’s nemesis, Draco Malfoy, doing with the vanishing cabinet in “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince”? Why is he so desperate about it?
- When the Doctor, in “Doctor Who” first meets Amy Pond and takes her to meet Winston Churchill, he finds his greatest enemy, the Daleks, pretending to be robots made by a Allied scientists to assist the Allied effort in WWII. What are the Daleks really up to?
Hopefully, the examples from fantasy and sci-fi will demonstrate that suspense indeed belongs in every genre to some degree and in some form. And this is one of the greatest forms of suspense:
You know someone is up to SOMETHING, but you’re not sure what or why. Or you know they did something, but you don’t know how they pulled it off and there is an urgency to proving their involvement.
SUSPENSE TWO: DRAMATIC IRONY
In the above examples, the main characters as well as the readers know who the villain is. They have no doubts who is behind the mischief. That’s not where the suspense lies.
Harry Potter knows Draco’s intent can’t be good.
The Doctor knows far, far better than to ignore the Dalek threat or to imagine they might be harmless.
Dramatic irony, however, is something different.
Dramatic irony is one of my favorite literary devices: it’s when a reader knows something that a character (in this case, your main character) doesn’t.
When dramatic irony is present, you can view the scene or the novel’s conflict from two perspectives: that of the informed reader, or that of the uninformed character.
Dramatic irony is heavily related to point of view (which is why I discuss it in the point of view chapter of my writer’s handbook). An author has to play around with point of view–usually by making it omniscient and not limiting it to one character–to make a protagonist the victim of dramatic irony.
A great example of this is the old television show “Diagnosis Murder” with Dick Van Dyke. It’s corny, and it’s not very good, but certain episodes make great use of dramatic irony.
- Most episodes are classic whodunits, but some have scenes that cut away from time to time to reveal the murderer or person plotting murder.
- The “good guys” aren’t in those scenes at all, but they clue the viewer in to what is going on, giving him or her more information than the doctors and the cops.
- The rest of the episode involves the viewers watching the good guys get up to speed and figure out what is going on: usually just in time to prevent a killing.
Suspense here comes from the tension of understanding that a real danger exists, and that the people who can stop it are unaware of the fact to a large degree: even, perhaps, blissfully ignorant.
This is, of course, not the only way to employ dramatic irony, but it’s one way.
SUSPENSE THREE: THE CLASSIC WHODUNIT
Almost everyone is familiar with this one: the classic thievery/ murder caper.
Some of the Sherlock Holmes stories, and almost all of Agatha Christie’s stories, take this form.
Something has been stolen. Someone has been killed. The police have no idea who is responsible.
The main point I want to make here is that you can use the classic whodunit structure as a subplot in a novel that doesn’t belong to the murder mystery/ thriller genre.
Don’t discount it as part of the whole…. It doesn’t have to be the crux of your story if you don’t want it to be. It can add depth, realism, and complexity to a different kind of story altogether.
I hope you enjoyed this post…. Make sure you come back Wednesday for a continuation of the topic of suspense, and how suspense relates to urgency.
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