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Marissa Lingen

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Suspense [Nov. 22nd, 2016|08:41 pm]
Marissa Lingen
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I watch a lot of cop shows to get through my workouts. The pacing is right, and the fact that there’s almost always a resolution of at least an intermediate problem within a few episodes is very satisfying when I’m not thoroughly in love with the story line. (I need more workout fodder than I can find “thoroughly in love with the story line.”) But oh my golly, do they have a common misconception about how narrative tension and suspense work.


People who tell stories get told to make it personal, and to up the stakes. And apparently for a lot of writers that means “threaten the death of your protagonist, possibly along with as large a number of other people as possible up to and including the entire universe.” But this is actually a pretty decent way to decrease the suspense in your story. Is the main character going to die horribly? Particularly in a show where you have actors under contract, is the star who is under a big contract going to die horribly and not be on the show any more? No. No they are not. I was watching a show last season where people said, “I can’t believe they killed off one of the two leads!” And surprise: they didn’t. In the middle of writing this, I watched an episode where they upped the stakes from “will this kill one of the main characters?” to “will this kill the entire cast?” and guess what, no. It did not.


Some stories try to kill characters off early to show you that they mean business, that no one is safe. This almost never works unless you are not paying attention. Early deaths almost always mean less investment from the viewer/reader–you’ve been with that character for twenty minutes, not twenty hours. And it’s also less investment from the storyteller–especially in media that involve big name actors whose level of involvement in a project is going to be clear from ads. Even prose writers who don’t have to worry about that thing tend to get used to having particular characters to play with. So what early deaths mean is “this will have some level of death/gore,” not “no one is safe.” I can tell you who’s safe. Ask me.


One way to manage this kind of tension is to make the suspenseful question not whether Our Protagonist will get out of this particular bear trap but how. Getting the reader/viewer invested in the details of the story is never a bad idea. If they just want to find out yes/no on horrible deaths–if yes/no on horrible deaths is all you’ve given them as a question–their investment level will probably be pretty low anyway.


Another is to use what appear to be lower stakes problems, because they can result in more tension/suspense if they’re things that might actually happen. Are you going to kill off the protagonist of your successful series? Probably not, or at least not in any lasting way. But are you going to make their best friend or family member mad at them? Are you going to give them setbacks along the road to their goals? Almost certainly. Are you going to give them this particular setback? The reader/viewer doesn’t know. And that’s where the suspense comes in.




Originally published at Novel Gazing Redux

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[User Picture]From: shark_hat
2016-11-23 11:39 am (UTC)
The new series of Doctor Who has been bad at this in its season endings- are the baddies going to destroy the universe?!? No, they aren't. Are they going to... destroy time itself!?!?! No, they aren't.
Episodes where the companion might die ( we know companions change so you can really be in suspense as to whether this one will die or just retire), or baddies might take over one planet, are more genuinely nervewracking.
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[User Picture]From: klwilliams
2016-11-25 10:55 pm (UTC)
I will note that on Criminal Minds they lost a major character abruptly because the actor kicked a writer. He didn't get a heroic death, he just disappeared, which is actually more like a real-life death than is usually portrayed on these shows.
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2016-11-25 10:57 pm (UTC)
That's interesting, but it doesn't really give writers a chance to use it to build suspense deliberately.

They already had a "this actor did not behave well and we will not give him a heroic death" on that show, so there's some precedent.
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[User Picture]From: klwilliams
2016-11-25 11:56 pm (UTC)
They already had a "this actor did not behave well and we will not give him a heroic death" on that show, so there's some precedent.

Which one was that?

I will note that I'm pleased with the new team lead. For a long time the opening cast shot was all the men in the middle, with the women off to the side. Now it's a lot more balanced.
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2016-11-26 02:34 am (UTC)
Mandy Patinkin didn't give them advance warning that he wasn't returning in the role of Jason Gideon, so they had to scramble.

I really think the show has passed its prime, but I'm still watching it because it's still paced perfectly for my workouts. So I'm glad to hear there are good developments.
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