Ah, suspense... another subject I could discuss at length! I hope to keep this short, but will I? Can
I? Stay tuned!
is not my favorite Dickens novel--but it’s probably his best-known, and it’s virtually a textbook on suspense. Central to the novel is the question, Who is Pip’s benefactor?
Pip thinks he knows, but is terribly wrong... and that misunderstanding creates much of the tension in the novel. Another key questions –Will Pip and Estella end up together?
–was one that not even Dickens himself could seem to answer. Depending upon which of the two endings you accept (and how you interpret the tricky last sentence of the second ending!), the answer could be either “no,” “probably not,” “possibly,” “probably so,” or “definitely.”
I’ve used suspense of some sort in every one of my longer stories and novels. You mentioned the possibility, Jan, of ending a story with suspense–leaving the outcome somewhat in doubt. That reminded me of a novel in which I left the two main characters in suspense at the end, though I provided a little more information to the reader in an epilogue. And since I can’t remember one of my Challenge entries that has suspense as a major element, I’ll link to that epilogue.
The novel takes place in the mid-1990s. One key element in the story is a box of costly jewelry which has been lost since the early 20th century. This jewelry (and the subsequent search for it) has been the catalyst for much heartbreak, misery, and even murder. At the very end, after the culprit has been identified and the other elements of the plot resolved, the MC and his wife think of one more possible location for the jewels. They find a small cave, and a possible hiding place, but instead of the jewels they find a old box full of a child’s treasures: bits of broken glass, etc. There has been a lot of tension between them during this search–subtle hints that perhaps finding the jewels wouldn’t be good for them. But when they find the box of children’s playthings, they fall into each other’s arms laughing, and accept that sometimes it’s better not to know some things. And that’s how the story ends, followed by this epilogue (which is written in a very different style from the rest of novel):
Epilogue to February Mist
This ending felt (and still feels) absolutely right to me... though I have to admit that no one else has liked it!
And that relates to what I believe is an important element in writing suspense. I think the suspense created in the story should be somewhat proportionate to the payoff for the reader. In a short story (such as a Challenge entry), you could probably get away with 700 words of a woman lying in bed, hearing footsteps in the hallway, terrified, wondering what to do... only to find, in the last sentence that it was only her cat or dog. But in a longer story–especially a novel–you make a certain compact with the reader. And it doesn’t matter whether you’re writing a mystery, or a romance, or any other type of story in which the ending is in doubt.
If it’s a mystery, for example, and you’ve hinted for 200 pages about some “dark secret,” it needs to be at least somewhat original and unexpected. (I don’t mean shocking or horrific--I think I said a couple of weeks ago that I don’t like the pop culture sensibility that equates “original” with “lurid.”) You simply need to make the reader feel that the ending was worth all the dark hints and clues and tension.
Okay, I suppose I’ve rambled enough. Thanks, as always, Jan, for the great opportunity to learn and share! I really missed this last week!