I plan to center my talk at the Tuesday signing around the importance of suspense in all literature and how to develop it. One thing I plan to talk about is the difference between what I’m calling “Quick” and “Slow” suspense. Quick is what thrillers often open with: a bomb’s about to go off in a school, a plane’s engine sputters and fails, a fire breaks out in a hospital and starts to spread. Such events quickly put you into a dramatic situation. An obvious emergency has happened, is happening, and people who are helpless or unaware, or both, are in danger.
There’s nothing wrong with Quick suspense. Horror, thriller, and mystery novels certainly need it. In very short stories it may even be the only thing you have to work with. But Quick suspense cannot carry an entire novel, of any kind. You must have Slow suspense too, which is the kind that develops as we begin to care about characters. In the opening of a book, unless it’s part of a series that we’ve been reading, we have no idea who the characters are. We can only care about them in an abstract manner, which is why thriller openings often place into threat those who we generally view as “innocent.” Schoolchildren and hospital patients work well for such Quick suspense, but would you honestly care as much if you knew the bomb was going to go off in a maximum security prison where the inmates are all murderers and rapists?
Once people have started to develop an attachment to the characters, though, the possibilities of suspense are endless. Even problems that are small in the scheme of things can generate suspense when we care about characters. We don’t have to have bombs going off and fires raging out of control. We just have to have one character that we like trying to do something, achieve something, and being met with obstacles and struggle rather than easy success.
I like books that start with Quick suspense. But I’m hard pressed to make it all the way through the work unless the characters come to life and the suspense turns “Slow.”