Suspense or Manipulation? by Claudia Mills

Naomi Kinsman's wonderful post explored the fine line between suspense and confusion: will the withholding of crucial information entice readers to turn pages or frustrate them into tossing the book aside in frustration? Inspired by her musings, I want to explore the fine line between suspense and manipulation: when do readers feel that an author hasn't played fair? Or simply roll their eyes in irritation (or amusement) at comically heavy-handed narrative strategies?

In the interest of full disclosure, let me say that I'm one of those hyper-sensitive readers who can't bear very much suspense in a story, who finds even relatively modest doses of suspense more painful than exciting. And I do think there are many young readers in my camp. So I tend to be quick to criticize suspense-generating moves as annoying.

Here, then, are a few of my "Do's" and "Don'ts" regarding the attempt to create suspense in a story.

1) Chapter-ending hooks can be wonderful - if used sparingly. But if every single chapter ends with a deliberate hook - "And then Peter could hardly believe what happened next!" or "Susan opened the door and gasped!" - or "When would they ever find their way to safety?" - this feels formulaic and gimmicky. Vary chapter endings so that some can offer, e.g.,  satisfying closure on a scene, or a humorous or serious reflection.

2) If you break a scene at a crucial point to heighten tension, make sure that the tension isn't going to be resolved in the very first sentence of the following chapter. The chapter break shouldn't feel engineered only to provide a cliff-hanger. There should be some significant work that remains to be done to get your character off that cliff, or else the timing feels Manipulative-with-a-capital-M.

3) Avoid "fake" cliff-hanging hooks - that is to say, hooks that rely on the appearance of a cliff, when in fact there is no cliff at all. If a character hears a loud, terrifying noise, don't let it be just the cat knocking a vase off a table. Or at least, don't make a habit of doing this! Don't be "the author who cried wolf" time and time again, when there is no wolf, just a wolf-like sound of the wind howling in the trees.

4) While foreshadowing is crucial, of course, don't be so blindingly obvious that readers of any sophistication chuckle. My favorite example here is a skit on an old Prairie Home Companion that had in it this line: "Now, go off and have a good time playing, Timmy. But be sure to stay far away from that old abandoned mine shaft!"

5) Finally, don't build an entire book's suspense around the withholding of one enormously important piece of information that would have been constantly present in the main character's consciousness, so that his or her neglect to share this with the reader can only be construed as deliberate deception. For me, the otherwise brilliant Walk Two Moons falls into this category. On the other hand, its Newbery Medal and generations of adoring readers show that most readers didn't resent Creech's manipulation of them. And I myself read on breathlessly until the very end. But then, I did hurl the book across the room in rage (so to speak).

This last example suggests that maybe authorial manipulation to create suspense isn't all bad, if it's skillfully enough deployed. After all, Alfred Hitchcock has been praised, not condemned, as a "master manipulator." And as I said, I'm unusually uncomfortable with any suspense at all, so take all my caveats with some skepticism.

But do dial back those repeated warnings about the old abandoned mine shaft!