As agents of suspense, mystery and conflict have something in common: they prompt anticipation. But anticipation is not inherently good. Problems arise when what’s anticipated works against other aspects of an intended experience.
Imagine it’s your birthday. You’re so excited and focused on your presents that you are oblivious to the people in attendance, the food, the cake, the ice cream, the decorations and the effort others have made on your behalf. When you open your presents your are rewarded for your anticipation, but at what cost?
Now imagine you were raised to be less of a self-centered jerk. At your birthday party you greet and spend time with each guest. You taste and savor the food, you appreciate the effort made by all, and you recognize the compliment of the party itself. By the time you open your gifts you are overflowing with feelings of love, friendship and family.
In each example the event is the same. But because of preparation (in the way your parents raised you) the experience is completely different. In the first example you have a shallow, vain, dismissive, two-dimensional experience that can only be measured by the value (economic and otherwise) of the items you accumulate. In the second example you have a deep, rich, full, inclusive experience that also infuses each gift with meaning beyond its value or utility.
The lesson, again, is that successful storytelling is always about preparation. Preparation that narrowly focuses reader anticipation should generally be avoided, while preparation that broadens and harmonizes reader anticipation should be pursued.
As we’ve seen in the previous two sections of Hills’ book, his main complaint about mystery and conflict as a means of creating suspense is that they work against the reader’s overall experience. Specifically, mystery and conflict each encourage anticipation in narrow ways that are antagonistic to the story as a whole.
In this section Hills suggests tension as a third and more useful method of generating suspense:
“Tension” in fiction though, is a method, not an effect, and we should try to ignore all the connotations of “nervous anxiety.” We will use it in a way that is close to its root — tensus, the past participle of the Latin verb tendere, meaning “stretch.” Tension in fiction has that effect: of something that is being stretched until it must snap.
Tension comes from anticipating something inevitable. It differs from mystery and conflict in that there’s no uncertainty of outcome: tension promises no revelation about who killed whom, or whether the protagonist will or won’t make a choice. The only uncertainty is about when and how events will play out, which means the reader’s sense of inevitability can grow right along with the story, in full agreement.
Now, at this point you may be thinking to yourself, “Wait a minute — is there really a big difference between uncertainty about what might happen versus when something will happen?” The short answer is yes. Just as there are different ways to evoke suspense (mystery, conflict, tension), each technique creates a different respective effect (curiosity, uncertainty, anticipation). Having curiosity or uncertainty about an outcome is fundamentally different than knowing what is going to happen.
The long answer is that you can’t focus solely on the effects that Hills talks about. When Hills talks about conflict driving suspense through uncertainty, he knows uncertainty can be invoked in a hundred other ways — including uncertainty about how tension in a story will be resolved. In fact, from the reader’s point of view uncertainty is inherent in every aspect of a story simply because they haven’t read it yet. Hills is concerned about hanging your suspense hat on the specific relationship between conflict and uncertainty because it undermines other aspects of storytelling.
The same holds for mystery and curiosity. Readers are innately curious. You don’t have to motivate them, and that’s a good thing. Giving your readers things to be curious about is a good idea as long as they don’t become fixated on one question to the exclusion of everything else in your work. Which is exactly what tends to happen when an intricate mystery is used to drive the action/plot of a story.
It’s not the individual elements that matter: it’s the relationship between each technique and the way that technique generates suspense that matters. And for my money I think Hills is right. The best kind of suspense comes from tension and anticipation. But note: genre fiction is not inherently antagonistic to this truth.
Tension, Character and Point of View
In writing his book Hills had a clear objective: to provide insight into how literary fiction could best be written. He had little interest in mainstream or commercial fiction, and in coming sections will do a thorough job of trashing what he calls, appropriately, ‘slick fiction’.
But art and entertainment are not mutually exclusive, and aspiring to entertainment of any kind does not lessen the need to rely on craft in order to create the work you intend. If 90% of everything is crap (Sturgeon’s Law), and it is, then that applies to literary fiction as well as romance, mystery and every other genre. Deciding what you want to aim for, and being good at hitting what you aim for, are two completely different things. (You only get points for hitting the target.)
I agree with Hills that tension is the best way to generate suspense in any genre. What may not be apparent is that tension and anticipation are already a mainstay of many non-literary genres for exactly the reason that Hills espouses.
Take the mystery genre, for example. As I said in the post on Mystery and Curiosity, we’ve all read books in which a complex mystery dominates every aspect of a work. Such books often feel two-dimensional, and resolve with the fleeting effect of a puzzle or magic trick — even after hundreds of pages of preparation.
We’ve also read mysteries that seem somehow deeper or more compelling. I would suggest the difference between the two is that authors of works that feel more involving focus on the inevitability of the protagonist’s solution to the mystery rather than on the resolution itself. Because in all but the rarest of examples it’s assumed in a mystery that the protagonist will solve the crime, and that convention of the mystery genre fully meets Hills’ test of tension and anticipation.
If you’ve ever enjoyed an episode of the Columbo television series you’ve witnessed this synergy firsthand. The entire premise of Columbo is that the crime and the criminal are known in advance: there’s no mystery about who did the killing or how it was done. Instead, the uncertainty is in how the cat-and-mouse game between Columbo and the perpetrator will play out. It’s completely contrary to the very conception of the mystery genre, yet it undeniably works: taking the mystery of who did it out of a whodunnit does not destroy the enjoyment of the experience.
This aspect of tension and anticipation drives the literary success of all great detectives. It’s not the mystery that’s so much fun, it’s the tension and anticipation of watching the protagonist solve the crime. Sherlock Holmes and Sam Spade aren’t fun to follow around because of their cleverness in the last chapter, they’re fun to follow around all the time. There’s enjoyment in watching them work, including the inevitability of the noose tightening around the prey. Tension, and anticipation.
From a craft perspective there are two interesting things happening here. First, tension is functioning as an engine of suspense not simply through plot, but through character. It’s not the puzzle that holds the power, it’s the person solving the puzzle. Second, point of view directly impacts the degree to which a mystery can exploit this kind of tension. (Hills himself fully addresses point of view later in the book.)
I haven’t made a study of it, but my guess would be that tension is most successful at generating suspense in mysteries that are written from the first-person or close/restricted third-person points of view. Omniscient third-person, which takes a wider view and moves from character to character, would seem to dilute this kind of tension and anticipation by distancing and diluting the protagonist, while necessarily focusing more on mystery and conflict to generate suspense.
Whether you enjoy mysteries or some other genre (including literary fiction), the best craft approach to generating suspense would be to consider which conventions of a genre lend themselves to tension and anticipation. That doesn’t mean mystery and curiosity or conflict and uncertainty are to be avoided at all costs. As I said in the post introducing Hills’ three types of suspense, there’s no rule against using all of these techniques at the same time. A little bit of mystery and curiosity is not a bad thing, nor is a bit of conflict and uncertainty. It’s the measure and mix that matters.
If I had to bet, I would guess that the best works in any genre place a greater emphasis on tension as a means of creating suspense than either mystery or conflict. I could be wrong, of course, and there must certainly be exceptions, but overall I think the proposition is hard to argue against. Harmony and synergy in craft techniques — what Hills calls agreement — necessarily strengthens the stories you tell.
Next up: “Agreement” in Character and Action.
— Mark Barrett