Engineering Suspsense

Engineering Suspsense

I’m coming to terms with the fact that much of my fiction work has one foot planted in the thriller genre. The defining ingredient of a thriller is its suspense which has me thinking whether we could isolate and examine that which makes a scene, and the overarching plot itself, suspenseful. I’m hopeful.

Here’s what Hitchcock has to say on the subject:

“There is a distinct difference between “suspense” and “surprise,” and yet many pictures continually confuse the two. I’ll explain what I mean.

We are now having a very innocent little chat. Let’s suppose that there is a bomb underneath this table between us. Nothing happens, and then all of a sudden, “Boom!” There is an explosion. The public is surprised, but prior to this surprise, it has seen an absolutely ordinary scene, of no special consequence. Now, let us take a suspense situation. The bomb is underneath the table and the public knows it, probably because they have seen the anarchist place it there. The public is aware the bomb is going to explode at one o’clock and there is a clock in the decor. The public can see that it is a quarter to one. In these conditions, the same innocuous conversation becomes fascinating because the public is participating in the scene. The audience is longing to warn the characters on the screen: “You shouldn’t be talking about such trivial matters. There is a bomb beneath you and it is about to explode!”

In the first case we have given the public fifteen seconds of surprise at the moment of the explosion. In the second we have provided them with fifteen minutes of suspense. The conclusion is that whenever possible the public must be informed. Except when the surprise is a twist, that is, when the unexpected ending is, in itself, the highlight of the story.”

The most functional example of Suspense I can think of is the “Bad Dates” scene in Indiana Jones: Raiders of the Lost Ark. A bad man who hangs out with bad monkeys poisons a bowl of dates before a little Belushi-child brings the dates to the table where Jones and Sallah are discussing boring-ass archaeologist bullshit. The audience knows that the dates are poisoned and feels a sense of dread as Jones carries the fruit around, pausing to reflect on the information dump Sallah is delivering. Jones pops the date in the air, the audience shits, Sallah sees the dead monkey (a traumatizing experience for every 90’s child) and catches the fruit before it hits Jones’s mouth. Bad Dates. It ends on a grim joke. This scene works to hide the exposition necessary for the plot– a kind of misdirection that engages the viewer while also cramming heavy plot points down their throats. Indiana Jones should be a boring movie (it’s about an archaeologist goofing off with Bible antiques for chrissakes) but it cleverly engages the audience with high-stakes suspense at every twist.

It’s all about information control. That scene wouldn’t have worked without showing the bad man adding the poison. Without it, there’s just a dead monkey and an asshole Sallah obstructing a tasty snack. But it also doesn’t work without a scene roughly ten minutes earlier when Indiana Jones offers Marion the fruit and tells her, “Hey babe, it’s dates, you eat ’em, what is you stupid?” By controlling that information and doling it out at the right time, the audience has been forced to ask the question, “What’s going to happen with those dates, bruh?”

Timing the information is key and where you position this information is going to force the audience to ask different questions. Let’s talk about Tarantino, as he has a flair for torquing suspense during long passages of dialogue.

The opening scene of Inglorious Basterds is a perfect example. You know it’s unsettling because of the historical subtext (uh, Nazis) and because of the direct subject matter of the conversation (Casual anti-semitism and the bureaucratic banality of  the Holocaust). You understand that there’s a power dynamic at play here, and certain elements are played comedically (the size of the pipes, par examplé), but essentially it’s just a friendly conversation between a German officer and a French farmer, the former asking the latter about his neighbors. And then the camera pans below the floorboards and the audience now understands what’s at stake and the tension skyrockets. Were you nervous when the Nazi’s arrived? Of course. But you weren’t afraid about the outcome of the conversation until the camera informed you that you had a reason to feel that way– and then the conversation continues and dangles the outcome on a taut wire.

Here’s a failure in suspense: The stadium scene of The Dark Knight Rises. The audience is told, via exposition, that Bane is laying explosive-laden concrete around Gotham and after some kid sings the national anthem, Bane detonates the lot and we cut around to the mayor dying, the stadium exploding, the tunnel exploding, and bridges collapsing. For so much destruction, the scene plays out fucking languid. We just learned that shit was about about to blow up and there was no countdown. It’s functional, I guess, to move the plot forward, but the destruction showed onscreen wasn’t necessarily in the viewer’s mind as a stake in the villain’s scheme. The audience was relatively uninformed and the result is a diminished legacy to what could have been a perfect Batman trilogy. It’s strange to think that this movie came from Christopher Nolan, given that his bread and butter is creating thrilling, unexpected filmic narratives, perhaps quintessentially achieved in Memento, which keeps asking the audience “How did we get here?” through a disciplined control of information sequencing through a believable, if not convenient, perspective.

So let’s talk about how perspective impacts the release of information to create suspense.

The revelation in Silence of the Lambs is Buffalo Bill is making lady suits. The audience probably understands this before Clarice does, but only after a slow drip of clues allows the viewer to stitch it together for themselves. The way information is controlled in that narrative makes the viewer hink on the question “What the fuck?” while Clarice asks “Why the fuck?” and fills in the plot for us. Onward, the viewer is always ahead of Clarice. We know that Jame Gumb is the killer. She gets wise (because of moths and shit) and then the movie puts the audience further ahead by assuming the night-envisioned perspective of Gumb watching her stumble through the dark. Suspense is achieved by making us understand that the hero is vulnerable. However, in Lector’s escape plotline, the viewer is given only the information that Lector is alone with two unconscious guards and the film suddenly follows the perspectives of the police officers attempting to find and subdue him. We know nearly as little as they do and, although our hairs are up, we’re still trying to piece together the how? The reveal is a faceless corpse springing into an elevator car and we go, “Ohhhh fuuuuuu–” while our brains catch up to speed with everything we’ve been shown, even before Lector sits up to pull the skin from his face.

And I think it’s in perspective that we find how to measure the release of information to keep our audience enraptured, and to figure out what kinds of dilemmas are suitable for the story you’re trying to keep, well, suspended. The Raiders example couldn’t work without an omniscient camera. Silence of the Lambs wouldn’t work without limited perspective. Proper tool for the proper job.

It’s generally understood that this level of tension is harder to accomplish in writing than it is in film. What an insert shot on an object or an actor’s expression can accomplish can easily set up a certain expectation to prime the viewer’s attention. That being said, written narrative has more access to the reader’s direct psychology than film and that can be exploited to create similar, if not greater, experiences of suspension.

The question of Dashiell Hammet’s Red Harvest moves from “Can the Continental Op persuade an entire town’s kingpins to murder each other?” to “Did the Continental Op become so tainted from his involvement with murderers that he murdered Dinah Brand with an ice-pick when he blacked out from gin and laudanum?” That question drives the third act of the novel, after the initial goal was seemingly achieved. The reader, who has no doubt come to like the main character’s wiles, has to wrestle with this unknown, internal quantity. What’s more, the reader knows as little as the Continental Op, narrating his experience. Information control within perspective.

Starting your third act with the main character’s hand around an icepick stuck into a gamblin’ woman’s tit is one way of injecting suspense into a story (editorial: it’s a pretty cool one). There are others.

First person is particularly a hard nut to crack with this– you only have the character’s point of view to play with, making the “bomb beneath the floorboards” harder to establish. But you also have a tool that objective POV’s do not– a breadth of interiority. Take it for granted that the character’s reactions to certain stimuli will generally bleed into the reader’s mind. Now make the character obliviously acknowledge something obviously dangerous. Or began stacking idiosyncrasies from the character’s perspective to make a person or object dubious. Have the character run gut-checks. Make the reader ask the question, “Why is this the focus?” before revealing the payoff.

A favorite device of mine is to employ several first person narratives. Where one experience is incomplete, another fills in the gaps and gives the other narrative a more pronounced sense of danger and vice versa. It is not unlike a game of tennis.

With Third Person Omniscient, you can establish anything you want in any sequential order which, unfortunately, does not make this job easier. The trick, again, is to control the amount of information. If you place a scene which follows a man planting a bomb in a post-office box and in the next scene it explodes, then just like The Dark Knight Rises, you’ve squandered your moment. However, if you wrote the same sequence of events from a removed perspective, where all you saw was a man who deposited a package into the box and looked over his shoulders before he walked away, well, then we’re watching the mailbox now, aren’t we? Remove it further. Let’s say a hotdog vendor with a hearing-aid can’t get a certain beeping out of head. He complains all day. Our hero buys a hotdog, says something dismissive to the man’s complaint and walks away– only to witness an explosion a dozen yards away, and he’s covered in letters and postcards.

To instill suspense, one must make the audience understand danger. To make that understood, one must inform the audience of that danger one way, or another. When and how you do that is up to you but you do need to realize the questions you are proposing to your audience. If they’re asking “What is happening?” then you’re either a surrealist, a lazy surrealist, or a lazy writer. If they’re asking “Why is this happening?” you can rest more assuredly that you’ve provided enough information to have them ask, “What’s going to happen next?”

 

Black Box: The Art of Restraint

Black Box: The Art of Restraint

There’s a concept in illustration called artistic restraint– at least, that’s what I call it. It’s knowing when to stop adding texture and detail before you over-complicate the image and make it harder for the eye to engage with it. The idea is that the viewer will fill in the missing pieces subconsciously. The full image is implied by the artist’s “incomplete” rendering.

This applies to fiction and I’m not talking about brevity, either. I’m talking about the pacing of information, because in a lot of ways, the best examples are those that are technically “overly-complete,” in its exposition, while burying the lead– the grander narrative, so to speak– under layers of storytelling .

The classic example of this is Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants,” wherein a couple has an intense conversation without ever directly acknowledging the subject of debate. One of my professors once told me that this story was a failure, in that no one understood what the story was actually about until Hemingway gave it away in an interview. I kind of agree to an extent (anyone who tells you what that story is about was 99% likely to have been told themselves. It’s not exactly evident in the writing.) but I also appreciate that all readers understand that something bigger is going on in this little exchange.

Easier discussed examples are found in the horror genre. I’ve mentioned before that H.P. Lovecraft loves to obfuscate the true horrors of his stories with psychosis, doubt, and scientific reasoning, while only allowing a mere, vague glimpse of the monster before the story ends. His contemporaries, such as John Carpenter, do likewise– you never see what the Thing actually looks like, just the perversion of its replicated host. The doubt and conflict is born out of the fact that anybody could be the Thing.

A modern novel that understands informational control well is Bird Box by Josh Malerman. The premise is this: there are “somethings” floating around outside and if you see one of them, you go insane and kill yourself and those around you. The entire book is therefor written, essentially, blind whenever the characters are not inside of a boarded up house– which also creates a sense of blindness to the outside world, despite the sensory details of a home. The amount of information as to what the hell is happening is minimal, and experienced minimally. As such, there’s a pervading sense of paranoia and claustrophobia throughout the entire book, expressed through these sensory limitations. Also, the climax contains one of the most appalling things that has ever entered my brain.

It Follows takes this concept and makes it one of its primary themes. The horror is only experienced by the protagonist as they’re the only person who can see the monster in pursuit. Furthermore, it’s relevant only to their life, taking on the image of someone they know personally. Essentially, the cursed person’s experience of the horror is filled in by their own subconscious– generally with the broad strokes of Freudian of sexual formation (Jay first sees an elderly naked woman, possibly her grandmother; Greg sees his own mom in a night gown; Hugh claims to see a girl in a yellow dress). The horror experienced is a black box that no other character can access. What’s excellent about It Follows is that it spends just as much time with its secondary characters, usually slasher-fodder, and actually develops them into a unit of friends concerned about the protagonist undergoing a difficult time that they don’t understand– because they don’t have the information that the protagonist has. As much as you sympathize with the main character’s isolation, because you’ve been there, you also empathize with the others’, because you’ve been there today.

Information becomes currency in stories. Look at Silence of the Lambs and pay attention to what information does. The main storyline unfolds like a procedural tracking down Buffalo Bill until Hannibal Lector comes onto the scene. He understands that information is powerful. He delivers information about Jame Gumb to thread the narrative along for what? Information about Clarice Starling. Specifically, personal, traumatizing information about Clarice Starling’s childhood. Quid quo pro. It does something to a reader, having to face a character’s darkest memories. The reader, along with Clarice, has to access their own personal account of darkness and attach the weight of their own traumas to hers. But the character of Hannibal Lector does something even more insidious– he gets the reader to goddamn like him. You do what Crawford always warned Clarice about: you forget what he is. So when he finally bursts out of his cell via the grisliest means necessary, you’re suddenly stuck between cheering him on and personal betrayal accompanied with self-disgust.

It’s called a psychological thriller for a reason.

The thing that you carry away isn’t necessarily the way that the story ends, but how it affected you. Silence of the Lambs is effective because it’s main plot line is almost a red herring for the more subtle horror of Lector accessing Starling’s/your mind. Buffalo Bill is disturbing. Hannibal Lector is seductive. Silence does this by foiling Lector with Crawford, both manipulative men. The story controls its flow of information so carefully, that while you, along with Starling, are wary of Crawford who remains stoic, vague and unyielding of his intentions, you buy into Lector, who’s smart, polite and generous with his knowledge. It makes Starling, and you by extension, despite everything in her power to remain at the head of the curve, naive. 

The Black Mirror episodes, “Shut Up and Dance” and “White Bear” execute this perfectly by stringing along an increasingly cruel set of circumstances for the main character, encouraging our sympathy the entire time, before dropping the curtain and revealing who the main characters really are–a simple revelation that makes us question whether or not our sympathy was deserved. It puts the entire narrative we were just told into another light with a single line of information. That’s the power of limited perspective.

In the batshit crazy House of Leaves the information we are given is… a lot to take in. The worst but only way I can describe it: this is a book about a guy who’s writing about a book he found written by a different guy about a film a third guy made about his house that doesn’t make sense. And that’s just scratching the surface.  I think I’ve mentioned before that reading this book in public makes you look crazy– you have to turn it around to read all of the annotations, flipping through several pages, back and forth, as there are annotations to annotations, forcing you to reference the index in the back and you journey through the narrative only to find that it folds into itself endlessly. And then, if you’ve done the homework, solved the puzzles, educated yourself about architecture, documentary film-making, and cryptology… the real story emerges like a 3D painting.

And it happens weeks later after finishing the fucking thing. It’s a study in forming broad strokes via intricate design.

I know what you’re thinking: how does this relate to True Detective? Funny you should ask because I was just about to go there, you pidgeon-toed, gawking ratfink. Hardboiled noir fiction runs on the engine of gathering information about a crime or infidelity. Usually this is done with a progression of interviews, voyeurism, and clever deceits. Like all stories, it becomes complex and then it simplifies. Which you have in True Detective, expressed as a buddy cop procedural. Within that basic structure, you have the narrative device of flashbacks, contextual to the interviews of Cohle and Hart. It’s a simple thing to point out, but the fact that you see these guys as ruined, possibly insane old men makes you wonder what exactly the hell happened 18 years ago to warrant these changes.

 

True Detective also plays out as a horror story. There’s an encompassing feeling of dread threaded throughout the miniseries. But it’s only glanced at as reverberations in the “psychosphere,” mentioned by junkies, felt but never seen– the closest we come to seeing it is Cohle’s hallucination of the black star while he’s being choked out by Errol. Usually we see it in brief glimpses through Marty’s eyes– his daughter’s recreating a ritualistic murder scene with dolls, or the entropy of of a tasseled tiara stuck in a tree. Likewise, the protagonists never face the shadow society responsible for the historical murders in the area. They get Errol– which disappointed a lot of viewers but is thematically on point. Sticking with concrete leads brings them to a concrete, yet impotent conclusion and Cohle understands that the bigger, elusive (and allusive) culprits are still at large. Hart acknowledges their own limit of understanding by the consolation “We got our guy.” The story becomes complex in its information and then it simplifies, but the difference here is that there is still incomplete, complex, deliberately placed information that hasn’t been digested by the narrative, speaking of a much larger conspiracy that appears unconquerable.

All of this is to say that the most effective story you can tell is one that subtly asks the reader to tell themselves a story along with you. They’ll meet you halfway.

 

How Stanislaw Lem Writes Allegory

How Stanislaw Lem Writes Allegory

A friend of mine (Hey, Zane) lent me a book, The Cyberiad by Stanislaw Lem, because of its parallels to The Fish Fox BoysThe Cyberiad is a collection of somewhat related short stories concerning two inventors, Trurl and Klapaucious and nearly every story is an allegory for philosophical mind experiments, a political satire or a treatise on the human condition.

Unlike other allegorical writers, Lem’s approach is hilariously heavy handed and very intentional. From the Introduction by Christopher Priest:

“Lem […] always intended that these stories could be read on two levels […]. On the surface, they are amusing and intriguing, full of novelty and wordplay, but they also contain many moral ambiguities and reflect Lem’s personal philosophy.”

And apparently, he was very frustrated with his American contemporaries, and saw the sci-fi genre as a pulpy excuse to simply make beer money (with the notable exception of Philip K Dick, who repaid this appraise by reporting Lem to the FBI, barring him from the United States). On the topic, again from the Introduction:

“[…] he had a deeply sceptical [sic] attitude to commercial science fiction, and wrote an essay in which he described American writing as ‘ill thought out, poorly written, and interested more in adventure than ideas or new literary forms.'”

But Lem also understood that there was a practical reason for allegory: subversion. While I’ll make a subtle parable out of a Fish Fox Boys chapter to disguise a philosophical idea as absurdity on the sly, Lem had to get his works through state censors– work that contained agnostic, anti-Communistic messages. So, Lem shrouded his work– amusingly– in the sci-fi genre:

“[…] Lem was beginning to understand, that functionaries of a totalitarians state are never as intelligent as all that. Lem was starting to learn that the abstract metaphors of science fiction were one way of confounding the doltish Party men with their blue pencils. They simply lacked the subtlety, the imagination, to see past the words on the page.”

What’s particularly striking about that, is that the veil is relatively thin– but also happens to include a lot of fantastical technical jargon (that’s not a typo. Again, it is as fantastical as it is deeply technical which makes it, uhm, challenging to say the least) that pummels the reader with clever word play and puns, but is essentially non-essential to the plot. Lem himself even winks at this in “The Sixth Sally,” by creating a “Demon of the Second Kind,” which drowns a pirate demanding facts by writing down inconsequential information on an endless roll of ticker tape. (The mechanic of which, I believe, was explained to be literally grabbing facts out of stagnant air particles). This also seems to allude to Lem’s belief that “information technology drowns people in a glut of low-quality information,” which is not only a relevant and apt criticism of the Internet age, but is also particularly amusing to me as it illustrates my first college essay which drew parallels between Toqueville’s Democracy of America and the society influence of Facebook.

What’s that? Sorry, I couldn’t hear you. My Auto-Horn-A-Tootinator was screaming.

Back to The Cyberiad.

There’s a certain flippancy to this style. The characters have been given the god-like power to construct anything asked of them and the effect is one of aggressive anti-realism (which again is poked at in a story about how dragon’s don’t exist. I’m going to paraphrase it the best I can and apologize for any lapse in logic. The probability of a dragon’s existence is about 0%, the certainty of dragons not existing is about 100%, meaning that there is about a 100% chance of non-existing dragons, which increases the probability of dragons having had to have existed and as such a dragon materializes. My brain hurts.) which allows for a certain sense of freedom in his storytelling– in a crafted world where you can make anything happen, you can literally tackle everything as your subject matter. And Lem does. It’s a nice reminder that fiction doesn’t need to be necessarily formulaic to be interesting. It can just be interesting. And poignant.

In this anti-realism, there is a complete bucking and subversion of traditional storytelling conventions. Frame narrative, for example, gets a lot of abuse. In a story about Trurl inventing story telling machines for a king, the machines tell a story about Trurl telling a story to a second king, and in that story a dream-maker captures a third king in a long series of dreams, the ultimate being a dream of having a dream. I’m pretty sure there are actually more layers than that. Predates Inception by 45 years. Just saying.

Here’s what this can accomplish: by putting form on the back burner, one can more directly attack the subject of satire. In one episode, there’s a planet that’s pestered by a ship outside of its orbit who won’t leave. They launch a nuclear bomb at it to no avail. Trurl sails by on his rocket and instructs them to send a letter and wait for the response, only to respond with an assault of ceaseless forms and requests for licenses until the alien ship becomes frustrated to the point of leaving voluntarily. It’s the classic “pen > sword” parable, but in a more modern and global sense, it’s the crushing intimidation of bureaucracy, which might be favorable to nuclear annihilation– and then in a further sense, it illustrates how diminished the threat of the bomb is when it’s easily nullified, and how we resort to petty global politics to achieve our nation’s wants.

When Lem wants to discuss the callousness of Stalin’s Communism, he writes about The Multitudinous– a borg-like conglomeration of many, who feels nothing when scores of itself dies or becomes enslaved– and even commits those crimes against itself for its own amusement. When Lem wants to discuss religion, he invents a drug called Altruizine, which makes the users feel automatic empathy for those around them– which of course ends in alienation, murder, grief and voyeuristic sex crimes. When discussing existentialism, Lem writes a story about a robot who came into existence the pure happenstance of an airborne jug knocking some wires and body parts into a puddle of electrolytic fluid, spending eons to become conscious only to drown shortly after the realization of self-awareness. This versatility lends itself well to discussing human absurdity. I’ll quote from the final chapter of The Cyberiad, in which a robot disguises himself as a human to win over a robot princess and explains the daily habits of human life with rigid, robotic objectivity:

“In the morning, they wet themselves in clear water, pouring it upon their limbs as well as into their interiors, for this affords them pleasure. Afterwards, they walk to and fro in a fluid and undulating way, and they slush, and they slurp, and when anything grieves them, they palpitate, and salty water streams from their eyes, and when anything cheers them, they palpitate and hiccup, but their eyes remain relatively dry. And we call the wet palpitating weeping, and the dry– laughter.” (284)

Part of the reason why I found Stanislaw Lem so refreshing is that the aesthetics in modern sci-fi are so up its own ass, actual novelty in the storytelling has fallen by the wayside. There are exceptions, certainly, but the mainstream obsession is focused on how complete a certain world looks, not necessarily the message behind it. In The Cyberiad, all of the worlds are generally placed in a feudal, medieval setting, regardless of the planet, as if to say, after all of this technology and possibility, there hasn’t been much progression in human (and robotic) behavior.

 

But the thing that struck me as the most profound was Lem’s awareness of the function of story. Mirroring the sentiment of the first quote of this post, Trurl escapes certain death by creating storytelling machines that relay narratives that are compelling and perceptive of the nature of being. The awareness speaks of a deep understanding of how the human mind will resist foreign ideas, but might be accepting of the narrative vehicle in which the idea travels. To quote King Genius who allowed the constructor of the storytelling devices to live:

“Go then in Peace, my friend, and continue to hide your truths, too bitter for this world, in the guise of fairy tale and fable.” (243)

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the translator Michael Kandel, who, through some miracle was able to translate The Cyberiad into English and Daniel Mróz, whose illustrations added an extra whimsical flavor, featured in the header