Running behind this week. Sorry. I’ve just gotten too relaxed after Ex-Communication and the success of 14. And I got zombie Legos, which have taken up far more of my time than a grown man should probably admit to...
Bonus points if you know when Batman blackmailed someone with that title line. Yeah, Batman. Hiding a bomb somewhere in Gotham to stop his opponent.
Anyway... on a related note.
The late, great Alfred Hitchcock had a famous example about suspense that you’ve probably heard before. To paraphrase, suspense is when two people are having breakfast and they don’t know there’s a bomb under the table. If the bomb goes off, it’s a shock, absolutely, but the longer they sit there and the bomb doesn’t go off... well, the tension’s going up a few notches every minute.
Now there’s a few conditions that have to be met for this to work. It doesn’t matter if I'm writing a short story, a novel, or a screenplay. Suspense needs certain elements to be effective.
First off is that there has to be a real threat. A can of whipped cream under the table just doesn’t equate to four pounds of plastique. Neither does four pounds of liquid negathilium with a dynochrome timer, because none of us have the slightest clue what that is (for all we know it might be tastier than the whipped cream). The bomb under the table has to be something the readers immediately understand is a horrible thing.
Second, the reader or audience needs to know about the threat, even though the character doesn’t. We have to be cringing every time they bang a glass on the table or pound their fist for emphasis. If one of them is checking their watch, it should make us tremble every time we see those hands tick forward another minute.
Third is that the characters need to be smart enough to recognize that threat—if they knew about it. This is where it gets tricky, because this requirement has to be carefully balanced with the first two.
Let me toss out a trio of quick examples. Names have been changed to protect the innocent.
A while back I watched a movie where the main character’s friend was... well, psycho. Not quietly, in-the-background psycho, mind you. She was brutally-kill-your-pet, attack-and-mutilate your next best-friend, constantly-check-up-on-you, stare-at-you-longingly while you sleep psycho. There were so many warning signs that she was unstable. How could everyone not catch all those pointed glances and wild eyes and trembling hands.
My lovely lady was reading a script a while back where a naive country boy moved to Manhattan and was taken advantage of again and again. And again. And then one more time after that. And every time it was made painfully obvious that the woman/ man/ indeterminate the main character was dealing with was screwing him over. It was like reading a cartoon script where nobody recognizes Snidely Whiplash as the villain, even with his black cape, twirling mustache, and bad habit of ending every sentence with an evil cackle.
Finally, there was a fairly popular sci-fi prequel this summer. It featured, in one scene, a hissing alien which seemed to be a cross between an cobra, a python, and a gigantic, albino leech. One of the human characters, you may remember, kept trying to pat it on the head.
In each of these cases, the writers were so desperate to meet one or both of the first two requirements (establishing the threat and letting the reader know about that threat) that the third requirement suffered for it. This is a recurring mistake I see when people try to create suspense. My characters aren’t supposed to know about the bomb (to keep using our main example), so they just don’t see it. No matter how much evidence there is that a high explosive device has been activated under the breakfast table, no one reacts. Because if they reacted, there wouldn’t be any suspense. So the attempt to create tension just creates a ridiculous blind spot instead.
Y’see, Timmy, there’s a corollary lesson to be learned here. If there’s a bomb under the table and my characters don’t know it, that could be considered suspense, yes.
However, if the bomb has a bright red flasher, ticks louder than Big Ben, and the characters still don’t know about it, that isn’t suspense.
It just means my characters are idiots.
And it’s tough for any of us to relate to characters who are idiots. I’ve mentioned a few times now that my characters should always be as smart as my audience. If they’re not, everyone’s just going to get frustrated. So when I’m building suspense and tension, I have to make sure it’s in a way that makes my characters look smart while still informing my readers.
No, it isn’t easy. If it was, everybody would be doing it.
Next time, I want to talk about triangles. They’re dangerous, pointy things.
Until then, go write.