Monday, May 14, 2012

Boo! I Scared You. (Surprise verses Suspense)

Monday: Mystery, Murder, and Manuscripts

My grandkids, and my sons before them, always delight in sneaking up behind me or popping out in front of me and shouting BOO. (Someday I’m going to explain to them the concept of little old ladies and heart attacks.) This action is usually followed but that age old question: Did I scare you?

When they were little, I always said yes. That was the point of the game, after all. But lately, I’ve taken to saying no. “You startled me,” I explain. “There’s a difference.”

Simply stated, startled is a reaction to an event, scared (fear) is an emotion born of anticipation.  In writing, we look at this as the difference between surprise and suspense.

There is an oft quoted explanation given by the master of suspense, Sir Alfred Hitchcock, that says if two people are sitting at a table having a conversation and a bomb goes off, that’s surprise; but if they’re sitting there having that conversation and the audience/reader knows there’s a bomb under the table set to detonate in a few minutes, that’s suspense.

One makes us jump; the other makes us squirm.

But they are not mutually exclusive. Mysteries tend to be more about surprise. An intellectual puzzle with the reader learning the clues along with the characters. But add in an element of danger, something we know will happened if our hero can’t solve the crime – now our emotions are engaged as well. The same is true in reverse. After our hero has taken that long walk through a dark alley (where we know the villain lies in wait)—drawing our nerves taut with anticipation—there has to be that unexpected event or action that breaks the tension and allows our hero to prevail. The surprise.

So while your story may be a mystery or it may be a suspense/thriller, the telling of the story still needs at least a little of each.

And if I hear a strange noise in the basement, and nervously tiptoe down the stairs, wondering what it could be, and just as I reach the bottom someone jumps out and yells BOO!… Okay, kids, you got me. Now let’s talk about cardiac arrest.

How about you? Do you like/write a little suspense in your mysteries? A little surprise in your suspense?

Groaner of the Day:  A software engineer tests new programs by seeing if it's simple enough for his computer-challenged brother to use.

This is known as the "Brother-can-use paradigm".

(Betcha had to say it out loud.)

30 comments:

Jessica R. Patch said...

Absolutely! I like to write what I like to read and I want to freak out when there's a noise and I want to be surprised all the time. Great post!

LOL! I did have to say it out loud...a couple times!

Cate Masters said...

Cardiac arrest is right! I'm a big chicken when it comes to scary things. Everything in moderation, though - a little suspense works well.

Stacy McKitrick said...

I love suspense and surprises. I can't seem to write romance without them! Well... let's say I TRY to include them. Makes a story more interesting anyway!

Arlee Bird said...

I'm still not so hot at writing suspense or creating surprises.

The groaner did require saying aloud a few times.


Lee
Wrote By Rote

LD Masterson said...

Jessica - If you really like getting surprised, I'll lend you my grandkids.

Oh, you meant in your writing/reading.

LD Masterson said...

Cate - So you're not a fan of books that keep you awake long after you've stopped reading? *grin*

LD Masterson said...

Stacy - There's usually a lot of suspense in the romance itself. Will he? Will she? When will they? etc.

LD Masterson said...

Lee - I'm not sure how good I am at writing suspense but I love reading it.

Sarah Ahiers said...

They did a whole episode of southpark regarding this - i think it was called The Startling. And any time Randy was frigthened by a noise, etc, he'd jsut say "I'm just so startled right now".
It was awesome and we still quote it

Clarissa Draper said...

Hitchcock is the master of suspense. I love his work. I love putting as much suspense as I can in my manuscripts.

Karin said...

I love to read mysteries and, while I like suspense, what I really love is an ending I did not see coming. I guess that is what you call surprise. On the other hand I have enjoyed books that are very suspenseful, even though the ending is predictable or even revealed at the beginning of the book. The journey to the end is the mystery and can also be a surprise. That takes a lot of craft to accomplish.

Got the groaner right away! Cute.

Karin

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Yeah, probably time you had a chat with your kids. Or got back at them, one of the two!

Maryann Miller said...

I'm so glad you cited Hitchcock when explaining the difference between fear and suspense. Few have done suspense as well as he did. Some of the visuals from his movies have stayed with me forever.

I do like to write suspense. Not sure I will ever measure up to the master, but I keep trying. (smile)

LD Masterson said...

Sarah - I missed that one. Don't you love it when a TV show leaves an ongoing joke to share.

LD Masterson said...

Clarissa - I love everything Hitchcock. Even his "Good Eeeeevening."

LD Masterson said...

Karin - Nothing like a good twist in an ending. Especially in a story that has kept you on the edge of your seat. The perfect combination.

Aw, you're just too good at the groaners.

LD Masterson said...

Alex - Well, I won't say I don't get my own shots in but they seem to like it.

LD Masterson said...

Maryann - I rented a couple classic Hitchcock movies to show my grandson - who is into modern horror movies - how the master could scare the daylights out of you without chainsaws or gross special effects. It worked, too.

Jemi Fraser said...

I didn't say it aloud - but I did have to say it twice! :)

I like a little suspense in my stories for sure. Just not too much or I don't sleep... !

Maria Zannini said...

Even though 'I think' I'm not a mystery/suspense reader, Hitchcock always reminds me that deep down--I am. He is the master.

I love the reference you cited too. Brilliant!

Susan Gourley/Kelley said...

You explained that so perfectly. My boys in their twenties still try to scare me, or should I say, startle me.

LD Masterson said...

Jemi - Nothing like a good thriller to follow you to bed.

LD Masterson said...

Maria - When it's Hitchcock, we're all fans.

LD Masterson said...

Susan - I hate to break this to you but my boys are way older and still do it.

Ciara said...

Suspense is a tough one to pull off. I've read books that rely more on graphic descriptions to scare the reader than actual suspense. Great post.

LD Masterson said...

Ciara - I agree. I think the graphic descriptions are like the fake gore in slasher films. We should try to do better.

Sarah Allen said...

Very helpful way to think about this. Great Hitchcock quote!

Sarah Allen
(my creative writing blog)

Darke Conteur said...

I try to add mystery and suspense. Whether or not I get it right is another story. :D

LD Masterson said...

Sarah - If you're going to talk about suspense, you have to go to Hitchcock.

LD Masterson said...

Darke - In movies they get to use spooky music to heighten suspense. We have to do it all with words. Not that easy.