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Letter to Students: Suspense (Part 2)

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.

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Suspense doesn't have to be cartoonish, nor is it solely the realm of thrillers, horror, and mystery. Virtually every well-told story involves some degree or type of suspense--it is the essence of what makes any book "unputdownable." And, as I said in class, I also think that making an effort to build suspense is one way that writers can show respect for their readers. It is something we are creating forthem--because we pull the strings, we will never feel suspense in building our own stories the way readers do when they consume them. It also shows that the writer cares about whether the reader is interested or not, an acknowledgement that the vast majority of us read to be entertained, even when we're also reading to be enriched and enlightened.

Even though I said that suspense is present in all literature, I keep coming back to horror because I've always loved a good ghost story, and thinking about why is what led me to create some of the games for this class.

But I didn't just want to understand why on a technical level, by thinking about the kinds of tools writers can use to build suspense. I wanted to understand why suspense is so appealing to us on a human level. I'm still chewing on that one, but I've come to think that it's partly because suspense, in addition to putting us directly into the world of a story in an interactive way, also gives us something to believe in. Because suspense isn't only the product of surprise--because it also depends heavily on inevitability and convention--it allows us to believe that events make sense, that the wonderful or strange is possible (but in a way that's structured and not too frightening), and that the events of a life can fit a neat story arc--that it's all going somewhere. Like Mulder, we all want to believe.

I often urge students to learn the rules before they break the rules. There are a couple of reasons. First of all, learning how to work within the rules--such as the rules of suspense and world-building that we practice in class--can demonstrate that writing "conventionally" doesn't have to be conventional at all--there's lots and lots of room for invention.

Secondly, when I teach "the rules" I try not only to talk about the conventions of writing, but the human reasons behind them. If you can understand why readers crave suspense, it can help you decide whether you really want to deny it to them, or if that would go against the emotional affect you're trying to achieve. It also encourages a respect for your readers: instead of viewing writing conventions as a shortcut for lazy writers and readers, it opens you up to greater empathy with your readers and why they crave the things they do.

Those things lead to the third reason to learn the rules before you break the rules: if you know the rules, you can break them in a more deliberate and masterful way, in ways focused on your emotional or artistic objective. Some of the most conventional and hackneyed writing is a result of trying to "break" the rules (or exploit them) without fully understanding how to use them in the first place, or why we use them.

For my part, I think I'll continue to explore suspense--even in its conventional forms--in my own writing. There have been few things more enticing to me than a good ghost story, and I won't stop tinkering until I figure out why.

To view all the Letters to Students, click here. 

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