The Ditchwalk Book Club is reading and discussing Rust Hills’ seminal work, Writing in General and the Short Story in Particular. Announcement here. Overview here. Tag here.
Most writers and readers have at least a passing familiarity with suspense as a fiction technique, as an effect and as a genre. Hills addresses all of these aspects of suspense in this section, and in doing so makes some value judgments you may or may not agree with.
What I think you will agree with is that suspense can be a powerful aspect of foreshadowing, however you choose to approach it. I tend to agree with Hills’ assessment of the pitfalls of suspense, but it’s important to stress that this is not akin to authorial fraud. Suspense, like sex, sells. It has a reliable, predictable effect on the reader, and in a craft driven by the need to attract and hold interest it does both.
The main problem with suspense is that, like sex, it quite often obliterates all other aspects of a work, no matter how well they might have been implemented. Unbridled, suspense has the power to overwhelm any story, becoming not simply an engine of interest, but the only interest.
The question for Hills is not whether suspense works, but how it can be controlled:
…suspense, when it is considered as an aspect of fiction technique rather than as the whole of the desired effect on the reader, can function in literature as subtly and effectively as it does in music.
This quote leads into an excellent analogy comparing suspension in music with suspense in storytelling. If you have a background in music the analogy will be all the more compelling, but Hills makes the point readily accessible to anyone. While suspense as a fiction technique is typically used like a sledgehammer, driving the reader to the end of the story with blow after blow, Hills also reveals it to be capable of great subtlety.
As an author, the more you lean on suspense to drive your narrative, the worse the problem gets. Yes, the reader may feel compelled to race to the ending, but do you really want your reader to race? What would you say of a vacation you felt compelled to race through? Or a date? Or a movie?
Toward the end of the section Hills ties suspense back to foreshadowing, and to the inevitability of retrospect that helps create a full and satisfying reader experience. Far from dismissing suspense as a technique, Hills embraces it, as the next four sections attest. Although Hills is primarily concerned about suspense relative to literary works, once again everything he has to say about the subject is applicable to commercial works as well. If suspense is important to the stories you tell, you should consider these sections required reading.
Next up: Techniques of Suspense.
— Mark Barrett
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