Monday, January 17, 2011

Suspense Account

Ah, suspense. The lovely buildup of tension that makes us claw at our palms and hold our collective breath in anticipation. I love suspense, but why is it often so hard to do?

Dan Wells, genius author, made a statement about suspense that I loved (and that I may have shared previously, but I'm the blogger here, so deal with it!). He said that suspense isn't about a bomb exploding under a kitchen table, suspense is knowing the bomb is there, seeing the family sitting down to eat dinner, looking at the lovely turtle cheesecake right in the center of the table...okay, so he didn't say the bit about the cheesecake, but the sentiment is the same. Suspense isn't about the inciting action, but rather the lack of action.

A movie that did this well, in my opinion, is Inception. There was a lot of palm clawing and breath holding, but I'll cite one instance in particular. Spoilers ahead...for those who haven't seen the movie:

The character Saito gets shot in the first level dream, and we know as they travel deeper and deeper, that his condition is worsening. We get flashes of Saito, reminders that his situation is dire. Was the gunshot itself suspenseful? No. Was waiting for Saito to slowly bleed to death as they went further and further into the dreams suspenseful? Absolutely!

I love a story with great suspense. What are movies/books/TV shows that you think have done this well? How about ones that post a big FAIL in the suspense category?


  1. So, I skipped the spoiler. I still haven't seen it.

    But one that failed was North By Northwest. There was a big buildup but NO pay off. When it ended Steve and I looked at each other and laughed in bitter disappointment.

  2. Ummm, not that I have Batman on the brain or anything, but THE DARK KNIGHT! Hello! Suspense!!!!

    I also love The Hunger Games. And how can I not mention Dan Wells' amazing "I Am Not a Serial Killer" series. All mentioned before, but when talking about suspense my mind immediately goes to those series. Funny enough, in classic lit, The Count of Monte Cristo has plenty of suspense. Not to mention character development.

  3. Dan's books are a great example. In I Am Not A Serial Killer, he builds a lot of suspense in the relationship John has with unsuspecting Brooke. We know that John has the potential to be dangerous and therefore every interaction is a little creepy and suspenseful. Its even better in Mr. Monster. I hate stalker scenarios but in the tight web of John Cleaver's story I couldn't help but bite my fingernails and keep reading.

    I'm trying to remember a FAIL in this but since I don't love suspense, the movies that fail at it don't really bug me as much.

  4. Ha we posted at the same time Lene! Yep, gotta agree with The Dark Knight too especially the boat scene literally a bomb waiting to go off.

    And Hunger Games does a good job, but I almost think that Catching Fire is better in the suspense category because we understand so much more about what's at stake.

  5. I simply must mention in the fail category, a book that I love to hate, "Breaking Dawn." Taking 200 pages to build up to a war that never happens...FAIL on a scale so huge, I can't even describe it in coherent words. But it's something like this: herring...lousy...rotten...completely gut wrenchingly awful...I want to throw up...give me my life back that I wasted reading that piece of...

    You get the idea!

  6. Deb, I guess I never realized that you actually read that book. I am so surprised I just don't know what to say.

    I thought all your anger was from rumors, not from actual reading experience.


  7. Ah, DJ. Your comment just made my night.

  8. Some of my favorite suspense filled movies: Duel
    Rear Window
    Silence of the Lambs
    The Usual Suspects
    Wait Until Dark

    Lots of TV shows have been disappointments - recent examples being Flashforward and Happy Town.