The Appeal of Suspense

I’m not really a horror fan of any real sort. I mean, there are plenty of scary movies that I’ve enjoyed, if you can use the word. Getting purposefully scared isn’t really the way I like to pass my time on a typical day, and I’m certainly no fan of gore fests. I typically relate too much to the people on the screen or in the novel for me to take any real pleasure in seeing them put through inventive ways to inflict pain.

But suspense, on the other hand . . .

Suspense is one of the things that keeps me reading or watching, regardless of the medium or the subject. If I get invested in the outcome of something, then I can blaze through just about anything in my quest to Find Out What Happens.

As I’ve thought about it, I’ve come to think that’s really what I get out of watching sports. You pick a team. You root for that team. And then you see if your team wins or not. In a boring game, the outcome is never really in question. One team runs away with the game, and there’s no real pleasure to be derived from watching, unless you’re a big fan of the team that’s doing the stomping. But in a really close game, suddenly the outcome is very much up for debate. And there’s no way of knowing what that outcome will be. Watching a close game, live, at the home team’s stadium, is one of the most suspenseful experiences I can think of. And when the home team pulls it off? That’s a sense of euphoria that’s hard to capture.

In many ways, I think live sports aces out books and movies in terms of the raw power of suspense, and I’ve thought some about why this is. In the end, I’ve concluded that it’s typically because books and movies follow established norms, more or less. Yes, sometimes there’ll be an example that deviates from it, but for the most part, we know the main character isn’t going to die. We know it’s likely to have a happy ending of one sort or another. And so the suspense we feel in reading or watching isn’t from “will they lose or won’t they” but rather from “how in the world can they still win?” In many ways, a book or a movie is like a roller coaster. They give the semblance of action and suspense, but they’re ultimately on rails, and they’re not going to deviate from the track. (At least, they’d better not . . .)

Which is one of the reasons I’ve liked Game of Thrones over the years, both in print and on TV. Because Martin kills off his characters–big, important characters–you can never really be sure what the outcome of the “game” in question would be. And because he writes complex characters, with no 100% “good” or “bad” sides, you get to see both sides at work. One of my favorite experiences watching television was seeing the episode where the Lannister wagon train is attacked. I had favorite characters on both sides, and I genuinely worried that any of them might die. It was intense, and I’ve never forgotten it.

I think it would be possible to do more of what Martin attempted, if it was done correctly. For Game of Thrones, it works because, Martin had plotted things out extensively ahead of time, so the story he’s telling is masked by the tropes of the story we think we’re going to get. We think it’s going to be about Ned overcoming insurmountable odds, but Ned doesn’t turn out to be a major character. (Surprise!)

The risk, of course, is alienating your readers and making them hate you. I read books to be enthralled and ultimately satisfied. When the characters I’m rooting for end up dying, it’s like going to a close football game and having your team lose at the last second. Nobody likes that. (I don’t think.) But the reward is a much more intense, explosive experience with the characters who do end up actually mattering.

One of these days, I’d like to try that, as an author. Anyone know of any good examples of books or movies that have pulled it off besides Game of Thrones?

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