08 December 2010

So-so Suspense

I've been reading some of the Harry Potter books, and I've noticed that Rowling likes to use a suspense technique at the beginning of her stories that I've never been enamored with. I'll call it the "suspended information" technique. (If there's a formal term for this, please comment!). Here's how Rowling uses it in the Goblet of Fire: The various adults hint and comment that "something big" is coming during the next school year, but they refuse to say what it is. Pretty soon, it sounds like everyone knows what this "something big" is except Harry and his friends. Even his minor nemesis Malfroy knows and taunts Harry for his ignorance. Finally, Dumbuldore lets the cat out of the bag: the upcoming Tri-wizard Tournament. At that point, we get a big info dump about what the tournament is, how it works, etc.

Rowling uses a similar technique in Order of the Phoenix, keeping Harry ignorant of what Voldemort has been up to until another big info dump happens.

Like I said, I'm not crazy about this technique. It creates somewhat of a false sense of suspense because, in reality, the protagonist could find out the information sooner rather than later. The author has simply manipulated the plot so that information is withheld. The "suspense" is the timing of the author's reveal of information that should be readily available. On the other hand, I confess that Rowling uses this technique to her advantage because (1) she injects some suspense where otherwise there wouldn't be much until the larger plot develops further; (2) it disguises the info dump. In other words, since the protag so desperately wants to know the revealed information, we as readers don't mind a whole much of narrative and dialogue that is really backstory and/or worldbuilding.

This technique should not be confused with another so-so suspense technique, where the author and the protag collaborate to keep the reader in the dark. A crude example of this would be: "Joe had to sit down as he read the letter from his father. He felt like he was going to be sick. He couldn't couldn't imagine finding out anything more horrible." [end chapter]. The next chapter takes place three days later, with Joe going about his normal life. Joe never bothers to inform the reader what was in the letter. We only find out several chapters later. (And, even worse, we find out it's not so horrible and Joe overreacted.)

This technique feels like a cheat. As readers, we feel we have a right to know what's going on in our protag's head, which includes knowing the information our protag knows. In the above example, the chapter-ending cliffhanger would be okay if, in the next chapter we see Joe, we soon find out what horrible information the letter revealed. But withholding this info from the reader for long periods usually only serves to piss off readers. (I can think of a few examples where this technique has worked, but I can't really explain why).


lesleylsmith said...

So, Editor Dave, are you suggesting our writers NOT use so-so suspense? :)
Good tip.

Steve Bevilacqua said...

I agree with this. However, I also think that Rowling is so great at the "long grift" that it doesn't bother me so much. The final book paid off the previous ones so incredibly well, that I think she can use any tactic she wants to.


Anonymous said...

Good points, David. I would say that because Rowling is considered a children's author she gets away w/such techniques. However, I think just as many adults read the work. Maybe reading her stuff is like watching "Three and a Half Men" on TV -- its shallow, but passes the time?

And, I have to insert my 2 cents re Steve's comment on the last Potter book: I heartily disagree! I was very disappointed w/it. She used another (not even so-so) lame technique of tying up all the loose ends by placing them in a meat grinder and sprinkling them on a small pizza that's supposed to feed 10. OK, I'm SURE there's another label for it. Anyway, everyone ends up hunky dory married w/kids of their own, but we don't find out about the success or failure of the main chars.' life plans! We watched these chars. develop for 7 books! Now, we don't get the payoff of discovering the consequences of their choices? Bah. Of course good triumphs over evil; that's a given. I wanted some sign or hint of the chars as adults since Rowling shows them to us. Did Harry become an Auror (sp?)? What did the smartest one, Hermione, choose to do w/her life? Did the prodigal son of the Weasley family return and how did it affect Ron? etc etc. So many issues weren't addressed. We just had to swallow the happy happy stuffed down our throats. Yuck, not tasty.

Wow. OK, I went a bit over the top there. Sorry, Steve. Not directed at you. I guess I'm sick of the Potter hoopla. Maybe the last part of the last movie will do a better job than the last book. Not holding my breath.

sex scenes at starbucks, said...

I too found the last book utterly disappointing, even boring. (I like the movie better.)

I also disagree that she gets a pass. She makes a lot of stuff work, but it always bugged me that Dumbledore, for instance, was the stereotypical wizard who withheld secrets from his young apprentice, Harry. It's been done to death and rarely makes sense. Another trope was the "Destiny" trope, which I never felt was quite answered to my satisfaction. But they're kids books and read as such. We're an adult magazine, so we tend to focus on more adult conventions and styles, I think.

Todd Bradley said...

This "suspended information" technique is one reason the film adaptations are such crappy storytelling, too. Mysteries are usually interesting only if the reader/viewer has some chance of piecing together the clues on his own. It's no fun to watch a hero unravel a mystery using special information only he knew. Do that enough times and the viewer doesn't care about the protagonist, and without caring there's no suspense.

David E. Hughes said...

I have not get gotten to book 7, so I can't weigh in on that. However, I would like to heartily recommend "The Hunger Games" series to Renata. In the last book of that serires, I felt like the ending was sensible given what the protag had been through.

Anonymous said...

Hmm...OK, Dave. I'll check out The Hunger Games. Thanks!

Simon Kewin said...

I do agree that techniques like this can leave the reader feeling manipulated. But, for myself, I enjoyed these books so much I just didn't notice her doing it. An engrossing story allows no end of "bad" writing practice to succeed.

Betsy Dornbusch said...

Ditto, Simon. A great story can outweigh a multitude of sins. But we're writers and editors so we have to analyze these things to death. :)