Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot, and Two Kinds of Suspense All Authors Should Be Aware Of

Suspense. What is it? And how can all authors make use of it in their writing?

Suspense. What is it? And how can all authors make use of it in their writing?

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.

Some examples:

  • 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.

If you don’t want to miss out on future posts, you can sign up to follow my blog by email at the top right of the page.

RELATED POSTS:

How genre affects a reader’s definition of plot

Alternating scenes of high and low tension

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32 responses to “Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot, and Two Kinds of Suspense All Authors Should Be Aware Of

  1. I’ve often used Dramatic Irony in my writing without even realizing it, and I don’t write mystery/thrillers. After reading this article, some many of examples of each of these comes to mind. Good stuff as always.

    • Glad you enjoyed it. And I’m glad you made the point you did, because it’s an important one.

      I think just reading a lot helps us learn how to use things like dramatic irony even when we don’t know the actual “term” for it. The term doesn’t really matter…. Some people like to “study up” and know terms, which is fine for those of us who have that interest, but it doesn’t make you a better writer than someone who doesn’t do that.

      Understanding how to use a device and how to use it well–by knowing how it functions when other writers use it–is what matters.

  2. I tend to use the second one at times with villain scenes, so the reader knows that something is going to happen to the heroes. I think that works better for my style and genre, but a fantasy mystery combo would be rather interesting to read.

    I used to watch a lot of crime shows, but I stopped when every episode resulted in one of two things. I knew who the killer was and most of the episode was the good guys chasing false leads. It felt like yelling at a horror actress who is walking into the dark room. The other instance was that the killer (always a murder for some reason) would be revealed as a character you never saw or one from early on that was undone by evidence found off camera. I think part of the fun of these shows and stories is for the reader to figure out the answer and almost race the hero to the end. Throwing out information that you never knew in the final minutes felt like I was being cheated. I guess an author has to be careful with how they do this.

    Oh and Encyclopedia Brown was a great series from my youth.

    • OOOH YES, I loved Encyclopedia Brown!!! I always tried to figure out what the flaw was and solve the mystery before reading the solution.

      I always tried to solve Agatha Christie novels too, but wasn’t very good. Sometimes I would have a lucky guess or a good gut inclination, but that’s not “solving” it.

      And I don’t really watch crime shows anymore either. Just reruns of Law and Order sometimes. That’s about it. 🙂 I agree…. it’s all just too forced nowadays on tv. All the same thing over and over.

      • I watch Elementary and that’s about it. I watch for the characters and they tell a good story in that show. The others are horribly repetitive. I was average with figuring out the only Encyclopedia Brown stories. I recently heard that they’re no longer in print too.

        • Oh man, that is beyond sad if kids today can’t read Encyclopedia Brown!!! 😦

          I’ve never watched Elementary but Sherlock as a British reboot of Sherlock Holmes is just fascinating.

        • I haven’t watched Sherlock, but I hear a lot about it. I tend to have an aversion to things that have giant, crazy fanbases. Something about the mentality of the uber-fans scares me off.

        • makes sense. I actually didn’t realize the show had that when I started watching it. It just looked like fun. I have one friend I discuss it with and that’s about it 🙂 Crazy fanbases put me off too as a general rule.

  3. Hey Victoria,

    I was just about to start writing when I came across your post and devoured it. I think my story is about to take a major twist in the suspense route, thanks for that lol. 🙂

    Great post and I’m looking forward to reading more, after I write.
    Keep it up!

  4. Glad I stumbled upon you! I appreciate the plug for the omniscient point of view. I’ve read many books where the author is religiously tied to only the protagonist’s POV, and it cramps the story. Terry Pratchett is a master of omniscient POV, frequently shifting even within the scene to show the situation from different angles. Now, there’s certainly something to say for sloppily switching back and forth between the minds of characters–we don’t want to do that. But I love dropping in to scenes–similar to a camera in a movie–to see what’s brewing behind that wall, or coming down that street, that the protagonist isn’t anticipating.

    • Ooh, I like your final comment: I enjoy that too! Cameras in film can do SO much that’s hard to do or impossible in writing!

      I have heard so much about Pratchett! I need to read his work, for sure 🙂 I can enjoy omniscient as well as a limited POV…. depends on the story. I think some stories lend themselves to one rather than the other. I’m glad you stumbled upon my blog too! Great to connect with you, Trish!

  5. I read the Nancy Drew series too first, and then Agatha Christie. I have used the mystery novel approach with one book… It can be quite difficult at times though, driving all the horses at once, and making sure what I’m doing with the story actually makes sense,

    • I imagine it takes a LOT of planning to write a mystery novel! The only genre I can see that it’s pretty much impossible to just wing it. You’ve got to know whodunit and why and how, and how they plan to cover it up from the get go. Mysteries are SO fun to read. I think I’d love to write one one day!

  6. I love that you brought Nancy Drew into this. I can’t see a bright yellow book without thinking of her. Talk about a brand, right?!

  7. I would be interested in knowing what you consider a good use of dramatic irony – by your own definitions. I can’t say I have ever cared for it – it is often heavy handed and rarely adds to the feel. The reader knowing steals from the tension, or suspense, rather than adding to it. We know what will happen, because we know who and what the characters are about, even if there is no face off in that moment, we know it is only a matter of time.

    whereas if you suggest rather than tell, put a question mark over the character, over several characters, suddenly the scene and the story can go anywhere.

    Just my take. Interesting article 😉 Will read on.

    • Somehow through a technical glitch my previous response to your comment never showed up, Mary Kate. I apologize. I don’t know what happened!!! I only just realized.

      I think dramatic irony works best in literary fiction and literary drama, to be honest. I agree it often comes off as gimmicky otherwise. It’s not one of my personal favorite techniques… I tend to avoid it.

      It works well in the horror genre too, when the reader knows someone is walking into a horrible trap and the character has no idea. Those are the best usages of it I can think of!

      • No worries 🙂 I do that kind of thing all the time, and you get a lot of comments, so I am impressed you get round them all.

        I had forgotten all about this. I could only really think of horror as you say and Columbo- which always drove me mad 🙂 I am convinced that all tools can be used well, but this one is stumping me. Maybe its just not for me..

  8. Pingback: Creative Writing and Plot: How Does Urgency Affect Suspense? | Creative Writing with the Crimson League

  9. Reblogged this on The Way of the Storyteller:.

  10. angel7090695001

    Interesting, like the dramatic irony. Great examples from Doctor Who and Harry Potter.

  11. Reblogueó esto en agustin1ayalay comentado:
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  12. Pingback: Creative Writing Reflection: Suspense Gimmicks to Avoid | Creative Writing with the Crimson League

  13. Pingback: Blogdom Sept. 25-Oct. 23 ’13 | Welcome to the ToiBox

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