Monday, December 06, 2010

Masters and mistresses of suspense: How do they do it?

I'm giving away nothing when I reveal that Hilary Davidson's The Damage Done is about a young woman called back to New York by the news of her sister's death, only to find that the dead woman is someone other than her sister; blurbs for the book reveal as much.

The canny revelation sets the suspense high right from the beginning. The protagonist explores her sister's apartment, mournful, puzzled and not getting the clues that something odd is up. The reader feels like Jimmy Stewart helpless in his wheelchair in Rear Window as he watches Grace Kelly snoop around Raymond Burr's apartment.

What are your favorite scenes of suspense, preferably in books, but in movies as well, if you like? What makes them work? What are the necessary ingredients of a suspenseful scene?

© Peter Rozovsky 2010

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36 Comments:

Blogger Yvette said...

One of my very favorite tension and suspense filled novels is John Clarkson's REED'S PROMISE, a very underappreciated and overlooked thriller that sits near the very top of my Best Ever List.
I read this a while back so I can't remember at this moment any specific scenes, but I do remember the aura of suspense the book maintained throughout. I do remember that while reading I had to take 'tension breaks' - the sense of dread and unease was so great.

You'll see what I mean in a moment: here's the set-up. Ex-FBI agent (aren't they all?) Bill Reed suffers a cataclysmic motorcycle accident beginning with the first page of the book. He loses a leg.
(No spoilers here, you know this going in from the flap info, etc) While recuperating he receives a vague request for help from his cousin who is a Downs Syndrome patient living at a certain institute. Okay, Downs Syndrome -from that moment on, we KNOW something bad might happen to the cousin (since he's asked for help) and we know that Reed is not a hundred percent - he is still getting used to the loss of his leg. But off he goes to the institute to see what's up. The place has the usual sinister vibes and all is obviously not well - but exactly what? By baiting the hook with a member of Reed's family who is not really fully capable of taking care of himself, the author has ratcheted the tension sky high. I mean, it just doesn't let up. On every page you worry, then you worry some more, you worry about Reed with his missing leg, you worry about the cousin - are the bad guys so venal they would hurt a mentally handicapped person? So the 'what happens next' aspect in this novel becomes, in some instances, almost unbearable. The whole damn book reeks of this tension. My favorite scenes of suspense in this book are practically every scene. What a book!

December 06, 2010  
Blogger Yvette said...

Peter, I'm sorry, something went wrong with my ability to post on your blog and my post showed up three times. Had to fuss a bit to remove two of them.

December 06, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Yvette, I had not heard of the book, but I like the possibilties of a protagonist and a client who both have vulnerabilities like that.

December 06, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Dang, I saw all those posts, and I thought my traffic was shooting way up.

December 06, 2010  
Blogger Yvette said...

Ha!

Oh, you have to read this book, Peter. You have to.

December 06, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I found a post you made about forgotten books.
Looks like some interesting books there.

December 06, 2010  
Blogger Sean Patrick Reardon said...

The opening scene of Inglorius Basterds had me on the edge of my seat. To me, that was the definition of suspense as he slowly tightened the screws on the father.

December 07, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

That works for me, as I haven't seen the movie. Thanks.

December 07, 2010  
Anonymous I.J.Parker said...

I always end up answering these things off the top of my head and forget even better scenes.
In any case, what came to mind was the start of one of Lee Child's books (probably ONE SHOT), where you follow a nameless assassin into an abandoned garage and watch him set up, wait for the end of the business day, and then carefully take out 10 (?) strangers as they leave work before leaving the scene.

Not only is the whole scene breathtaking and shocking, but it raises any number of quetions about the who, why, and what.

And now that I'm thinking about it, I was similarly fascinated by the first chapter in Jeffrey Deaver's first novel (though the rest of the book disappointed).

December 07, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

A question like this may be better answered off the top of one's head than after a period of reflection. IA scene that leaves that lasting an impression was probably pretty vivid in the first place. I can well imagine the scene you describe. I imagine some of the suspense comes from the reader thinking, "My god, when will he stop?"

December 07, 2010  
Blogger R/T said...

When I read _The Spy Who Came in from the Cold_, I am always very much affected by the attempted border crossings. That is real tension!

December 07, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

That's what I remember from the novel as well. One knows the crossers will fail, yet one hopes against hope they will make it. That's tension.

December 07, 2010  
Anonymous Linkmeister said...

"Wait Until Dark" and "Play Misty for Me" come to mind.

December 07, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I’ve never seen Wait Until Dark, but its script appears to have borrowed a plot device from The Lineup, or maybe the device was in common use in the 1960s and ‘60s.

December 07, 2010  
Anonymous Linkmeister said...

It may have, I dunno. What I do know is that the concept of a blind woman confronted with intruders amped up the suspense. Hepburn played her beautifully.

December 07, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I can imagine that, too, as a cause of tension and suspense: What will happen to the woman?

Did you read my link to The Lineup? (I recommend the movie highly.) The device I refer to is that of a statue stuffed with drugs that a little girl accidentally uses to powder her doll's face. So it's not the same as Wait Until Dark, but it's similar. What the hell, it has potential, so why not?

December 07, 2010  
Anonymous solo said...

Peter, I think suspense has a lot to do with the stakes involved. Say you want to write a simple story about someone climbing up a tree, say one of those Californian redwoods. First of all, give the reader some details of what it's like to climb one of those trees and what can go wrong:

'A distance of 50 feet above the ground is known to climbers as the redline. They hold it as a rule of thumb that, if you fall 50 feet to hard ground, you will very likely die. In a head-first landing after a 50-foot fall, the shock crushes the skull and breaks the neck, destroying the brain and shearing the spinal cord off at the base of the skull.

Instant death. No matter which way the victim lands, the impact normally breaks the victim's back, leaving him or her paralysed. If the person happens to land feet-first, a shockwave travels up the legs, breaking them in many places, shattering the lower spine and cutting the spinal cord.

The lungs can collapse from the force of the impact, or they can be punctured by broken ribs, and the flattened or torn lungs can fill up with blood, causing the victim to drown in his blood. Major internal organs, including the liver, the kidneys, the spleen, and the bladder, as well as the aorta, can burst during the impact. If they split apart, they flood the body cavity with blood, causing catastrophic internal haemorrhage.'

Now set you characters climbing up that tree. If the reader doesn't feel suspense after that intro, either the writer can't write, or the reader is already dead.

December 07, 2010  
Anonymous Linkmeister said...

Yeah, I did read it and saw the similarity. That is a plot device I've seen before, of course. Not necessarily drugs, but inadvertent acquisition of dangerous knowledge (The Man Who Knew Too Much and several others) by "the average man", and things of that sort. Helen MacInnes used that in at least two of her Cold War espionage novels I can think of right off the top of my head: The Venetian Affair and The Double Image.

December 07, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Solo, that works for me, especially since I've craned my neck to stare up some of those California redwoods. The deadpan of your proposed narration increases the suspense, I'd say.

December 07, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Linkmeister:

But the child as an agent of the plan's destruction raises the emotional stakes, not to mention the dangerous, emotionally charged conjunction of children and drugs.

December 07, 2010  
Anonymous I.J.Parker said...

Re: Blind woman: I started one of my novels with a blind woman walking home, followed by her killer. Told from her POV.

It worked for me. :)

December 08, 2010  
Blogger Yvette said...

In EYE OF THE ABYSS by Marshall Brown - The overwhelming tension is personified by nothing less than the ultimate personification of evil: Nazis. But in this case, it's kind of an unusual setting. A German bank is taken over by Nazis just before the war - the laundering of loot goes into full swing. A Nazi overseer is installed at the offices of the bank just to keep an eye on things. The bankers have to adjust or else. Lots of 'looking the other way' going on here. Our 'hero' is the head accountant of that bank. One of the women working in the bank turns out to be half-Jewish.
What happens next?
Fabulous book.
When was the last time an accountant was the 'hero' of anything? ;)

December 08, 2010  
Anonymous Linkmeister said...

Yvette, well, there's John Putnam Thatcher of Sloan Guaranty (he's actually a VP, but accounting usually has a central role) in Emma Lathen's books.

December 08, 2010  
Blogger Yvette said...

Bested, yet again. Ha! Okay, but you'll agree that it's hardly a prime time occupation for heroes.
I think now I remember another banker hero, this time in a Dick Francis novel. THE BANK or THE BANKER.

December 08, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Yvette, I was going to suggest that accountants especially might like the book. It appears that they may have more such heroes to root for vicariously than you (or I) would have suspected.

The situation you propose sounds like a fine set-up for suspense. Two opposing forces that cannot co-exist, leaving the reader wondering when, why and how the conflict will be resolved.

December 08, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Linkmeister, one can't help shaking one's head in surprise in this day and age about a bank executive as a central figure in a crime novel unless he dies at the end.

December 08, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Yvette, see my previous comment. It's hard to imagine a banker as a hero these days.

December 08, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I.J., is the victim a masseuse, or does my memory play tricks on me?

December 08, 2010  
Anonymous Linkmeister said...

"Banker" is one Francis novel with a banker as the hero, but his "Risk" has a real, live breathing accountant in the lead.

Yes, Peter, these days bankers would be dying extremely unpleasant deaths, and rightly so.

December 08, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

It's curious how few bankers have been villains in recent crime novels, especially considering that property speculation and redevelopment have been central to so many. Perhaps that's because harder-boiled crime novels tend to take place closer to street level than to boardrooms.

December 08, 2010  
Anonymous Linkmeister said...

I could see a novel about a serial killer who targeted investment bankers. Couldn't write it, but I could imagine it.

December 08, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

That crossed my mind, too. Such a story would have to answer the question of how a killer could get close enough to rich, sheltered bankers to kill them, or it would have to be so compelling as to drive such questions of plausibility from the reader's mind.

December 08, 2010  
Anonymous Linkmeister said...

C'mon, Peter. IEDs. RPGs. Acquiring the first isn't hard, acquiring the second is harder but not impossible.

(Note to Homeland Security and the FBI, this is pure imagination. No intent should be read into these comments.)

December 09, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Oh, acquiring the means would not be difficult. I would think that getting close enough to the intended target would be the challenge. Such a challenge seems more the province of thrillers than of crime fiction.

It's like the scene in The Grapes of Wrath where a frustrated Okie says, "Well, who do we shoot?" The perpetrators are probably very well insulated from the victims.

December 09, 2010  
Anonymous I.J.Parker said...

Re: Is the victim a masseuse?

Close. She's a street singer. They did have blind masseurs at the time, though.

December 09, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I obviously had her mixed up with Zatoichi. It crossed my mind that in addition to whatever pathos and drama inhere when one puts a handicapped personin danger, marginal blind entertainers and such might feature especialy in Japanese culture. But I guess they're pretty universal figures.

December 09, 2010  

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