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Letter to Students: Suspense (Part 1)

Every week of Writing Games class, I send an email to my current students with a few extra thoughts on writing and the themes or techniques we explored that week, plus take-home exercises and more. The Letters to Students blog series collects highlights from some of these emails. To sign up for a Writing Games class, visit my Events page.



A photo posted by @hannahsternberg88 on Oct 5, 2015 at 1:18pm PDT


A thought on suspense: while suspense is present in virtually all genres of fiction, it's most commonly associated with thrillers, horror, and mystery. In these stories, suspense is so palpable it's virtually another character in the tale. A while back, I reflected on why these suspenseful stories appeal to us so much. (My most favorite holiday in the whole year is Halloween -- case in point, I just bought some Halloween decorations this week -- and I often wonder what's at the root of my obsession with ghosts, witches, and generally creepy stuff.) Some people say it's because our modern lives are bereft of excitement, so we seek a vicarious thrill, but I don't think that's it. I know active military members who read thriller novels while on deployment. I don't think they're hankering for a sense of danger that's missing from their lives. But what those books do give them is a sense of order. As I discussed in class, most suspense also depends on consistent rules and world-building in order to help the reader suspend their disbelief and sink into a sense of anticipation and wonder, even in the absence of direct foreshadowing. (In other words, if the rules of your world are consistent, you don't need to drop obvious hints about what's going to happen in order to develop a sense of dread and inevitability in the reader.) Even in the violent and supernatural worlds of horror fantasy novels where the good guys sometimes lose, order rules. Actions have direct consequences, monsters have consistent weaknesses, and everyone has a theory on what will happen next.

We like these books because we want to believe in something.

We want to believe in something fantastic.

We want to believe in something that follows rules, because our own world really doesn't.

Suspense fans have a direct line to one of the defining features of being human, and it isn't the craving for excitement.

To view all the Letters to Students, click here. 

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