Thursday, November 7, 2013

A Few Words About Suspense

In the Friday "Story Game" posts, I'm talking about a particular kind of formulaic romantic suspense.  And this Friday -- tomorrow -- we're going to talk about an important character: The Villain.

But while I was writing that post, I found myself going off on a tangent as I talked about fact that the heroine will trust the villain at the wrong time.

There is a choice that you have to make with suspense: is the villain's identity as secret from the audience?

Suspense is not a whodunnit.  It's perfectly permissible to show the audience who the bad guy is.  This actually is a great tool for raising the tension: Suspense is always about what the audience knows, not what they don't.  You'll notice that in many Hitchcock movies you know who the bad guy is.

The problem with letting your audience know more than your character is that the audience will then hold the character to a higher standard.  They will be less forgiving if the character does something foolish.  Heck, they may not even forgive her for doing something smart: sometimes they feel that if they know the truth, she should have figured it out.

(At the same time, the audience does get a little satisfaction from being smarter than the heroine -- so the more they know, the smarter you need to make your heroine.  Because there is no point in feeling superior to a twit.)

When you have an audience who knows too much (because you needed them to know for some other element of suspense) one great trick is to make them anticipate something, and then have something else happen.

This is something that we've seen in comedy since the dawn of time:  There's a clown having a bad day.  There's a pie.  The pie is going to get thrown: the audience knows this for a fact.  Then the policeman arrives.  Oh, crap, the clown is going to throw the pie at the cop and get arrested.  Yep, there, he picks up the pie.  He turns, and lets loose... just as the cop bends down to look at the license plate of the car or something.  The pie sails past and hits someone else.  That person thinks the cop threw the pie. Now the cop is in trouble and the clown isn't.

(Edit to add: Actually, now that I think about it, the best twist is when you expect the pie to be thrown and someone sits on it instead.)

You can do this in a non-comedy too.  Hitchcock did it all the time.  And here is the irony of it all: One of the best ways to get the audience to trust you as a storyteller is to trick them like this.

If you raise the specter of inevitability, and then give them something unexpected, they will love you.  Because they want to anticipate and feel smart, but they don't want to be bored.  And it doesn't matter whether the unexpected thing is a relief or something that makes the tension tighter.

Except for one thing: the audience has to know how far to guard their feelings. So if you lead the audience to believe that you will, ultimately, save the puppy, then you can't pull a switch on that one.  You can never let the puppy die.  If you want to pull a surprise on them because you think they are expecting the puppy to be saved, then you can only go two ways: have the puppy saved in a surprising way (for instance, the villain decides he loves the puppy), or make the puppy suddenly much harder to save.  But he will have to be saved by the end.

Meanwhile, in tomorrows Story Game post, we'll create our randomized choices -- our story wheels -- for the villain's cover identity, and for the nature of the crime or plot that drives the story.  We'll also talk about the secondary characters: the victim, the helper and the red herring.

See you in the funny papers.

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