Unravel the Mystery of Suspense, Part 1

"We all enjoy, shall we say, putting our toe in cold water." Alfred Hitchcock
The genre, Suspense, as popular as it is and most likely always will be, is at least as large as the topic, Water, which I so winsomely thought up when asked what I was going to write about by one of my first writing instructors. Blank page begged the question: Where to start? No clue; thankfully, resolved in time with a sheer outpouring of effort and will, called, Focus.

Suspense is like that. Your character has a lot going on in her head. And a lot going on in her situation. How, then, do you narrow down your genre?

Start with the Masters
What better way to begin then to go to the top. Alfred Hitchcock earned the title, "Master of Suspense," said Marc Eliot, Film Historian, on Biography.com, after his film Psycho hit the big screen. Born in London, England, on August 13, 1899, Hitchcock's penchant for suspense emerged in the first stories he wrote and published for the in-house publication at a job he took out of college. Biography.com: "From [Hitchcock's] very first piece, he employed themes of false accusations, conflicted emotions and twist endings with impressive skill."

During the 1930's, Hitchcock's early films, including an "exciting treatment" of the Jack the Ripper story, were "responsible for the revival in British movie making." (Notablebiographies.com) In 1939, Hitchcock left England and settled in Hollywood, California, with his wife and daughter. His first American feature film, Rebecca, starring Laurence Olivia and Joan Fontaine, is "considered a great movie," said Jan-Christopher Horak, Director, UCLA, Film and Television Archive, on Biography.com, "because it's a psychological melodrama about the torture that goes on sometimes within families. Hitchcock explores that with a depth that he had not shown before in his films."

The MacGuffin
The MacGuffin is defined as a plot device that motivates the characters, advances the story and increases suspense. Alfred Hitchcock popularized the concept that is said to have originated in 20th century filmmaking. Borgus.com: "The . . . MacGuffin can be boiled down to one thing--nothing. Hitchcock . . . described the MacGuffin as a plot device, or gimmick, on which to hang the tension in a film, 'the key element of any suspense story' (Gottlieb). Because Hitchcock lured the audience to such a high degree of sympathy for the characters through cinematic means, the reason behind their plight became irrelevant . . . Something bad is happening to them and it doesn't matter what. The only reason for the MacGuffin is to serve as a pivotal reason for the suspense to occur."
n can be boiled down to one thing -- nothing. Hitchcock over the
Examples of MacGuffins in other films include, Star Wars' R2D2, described by writer and director George Lucas as "the main driving force of the movie . . . the object of everybody's search"; the meaning of rosebud in Citizen Kane (1941) and the mineral unobtainium in Avatar (2009). (Wikipedia)

John Levesque of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer called Stephen King a "master of the psychological thriller." The Shining has been ranked as one of the best psychological thrillers of all time. When asked at a Highlights Foundation workshop in October, 2012, what author will be remembered for all time, the presenters and participants alike agreed, Stephen King. Born in Portland, Maine, on September 21, 1947, King published his first novel, Carrie, in 1973, after his wife found it in the trash and encouraged him to continue. Indeed, King is "recognized as one of the most famous and successful horror writers of all time. His books have sold more than 350 million copies worldwide and have been adapted into numerous successful films." (Biography.com)

What's the Diff?
  • Suspense: You're sitting on the edge of your seat. You're holding your breath. You can't put the book down. You're asking, "What's going to happen next?" In writing, there has to be a series of events that leads to a climax that captivates the audience and makes them tense and anxious to know what is going to happen. Suspense is a powerful literary tool because, if done correctly, you know your audience will be back for more and more. (http://literary-devices.com/content/suspense)
  • Mystery: You've been presented with a puzzle. Often a crime has been committed and you must find out "who dunnit." There are many tantalizing clues to solve it, but you are perplexed. You want to figure it out. You are challenged. You want to be fooled, the more the better. Who do you suspect and why? You even enjoy following red herrings, those pesky little clues that turn out to be innocent. The game is up at the end; when you find out who did it and why.
  • Thriller: The clock is ticking. There is an immenent danger explained in the beginning that must be dealt with by the protagonist. Generally, the antagonist and the threat are known. Suspense occurs not in who did it, but in how can it be stopped?
  • Mystery Thriller: You want to know who is committing these acts, why is he doing them; and what is the threat to the protagonist and those close to him/her.
  • Psychological Thriller: You're in the protagonist's head. As in the television show, Dexter, a more likely antihero than protagonist, you know what thrilling or frightening acts Dexter has committed. What you want to find out is WHY, and whether more frightening acts will follow.  There can be events that drive the protagonist to question everything about his/her ability to succeed. It could involve questioning his/her sanity or moral compass; questioning what is real or not about the situation; are the supposed 'good guys' friends or foes? The writer's goal is to raise the tension and suspense to a level where the reader feels the inner pain of the protagonist more than the external pain of bombs, bullets, etc. (Mystery-Psychological Thriller definitions from the Psychological Thrillers discussion on goodreads with Charles A. Cornell, author of Tiger Paw)
  • Additional examples of psychological thriller television shows and films: Jack Bauer, played by Kiefer Sutherland in 24; The Game, with Michael Douglas; Black Swan, with Natalie Portman and Gone Girl, book, by Gillian Flynn, and film. Books include, Before I go to Sleep, S.J. Watson, and The Talented Mr. Ripley, by Patricia Highsmith. (ranker.com)
Much as I needed to decide what aspect of Water to write about, I needed to narrow down the genre of my two current WIP's. In addition to being family stories with lots of humor, I needed to explore what elements of Suspense each of them contain. My conclusions are tackled in next month's post.
Next month: Part 2, Tips on Writing Suspense Stories for Children

Sources: http://www.biography.com/people/alfred-hitchcock-9340006Alfred Hitchcock, courtesy of the Library of Congress, 
http://www.notablebiographies.com/He-Ho/Hitchcock-Alfred.html; http://borgus.com/hitch/macguffins.htm; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Psychological_thriller; http://www.ranker.com/crowdranked-list/the-best-psychological-thrillers-of-all-time; http://www.biography.com/people/stephen-king-9365136; http://www.goodreads.com/topic/show/1884270-what-s-the-difference-between-a-psychological-thriller-and-a-mystery-thr.


Linda Wilson, a former elementary teacher and ICL graduate, has published over 40 articles for adults and children and six short stories for children. Recently she completed Joyce Sweeney's online fiction and picture book courses. She is currently working on several projects for children. Follow Linda on Facebook.


elysabeth said...

Great explanation on the various aspects of the "mystery" genre. I'm currently working on something that I thought would be suspense but not sure - maybe it will be in the "thriller" category. I haven't quite figured that out yet. Looking forward to the next installment. E :)

Elysabeth Eldering
FINALLY HOME, a Kelly Watson YA Paranormal Mystery

Linda Wilson said...

Thank you, Elysabeth. I was curious about the meaning of each of these genres and am glad I looked into it! And I hope it has helped you with your current project!

Karen Cioffi said...

Linda, what great information. I love the Hitchcock movies. I admire those who can write great mysteries and suspense. That's one genre I'll leave for others to write. :)

Linda Wilson said...

Yes, I have to laugh because I chose the genre thinking that kids love it and it wouldn't be hard to write! Ha! How naïve I was! But, it's been fun!

Carolyn Howard-Johnson said...

I have always shunned mysteries, but you convinced me. I do think suspense is part of all books, so learning more is a good thing--even for me! (-:

Linda Wilson said...

Carolyn, I'm so glad you found my post convincing! I've found that there is a "science" to writing suspense, just like everything else!

Unknown said...

Thanks for your post. I plan on using suspense techniques in my next narrative nonfiction manuscript about allergic asthma.

Linda Wilson said...

That sounds interesting and challenging. Good luck, Debra!

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