International bestselling author Lee Child published an article in the New York Times recently titled "A Simple Way to Create Suspense."
In it, he states: "As novelists, we should ask or imply a question at the beginning of the story, and then we should delay the answer...the principle works in a micro sense, as well as in a macro one. Page to page, paragraph to paragraph, line to line — even within single sentences — imply a question first, and then answer it second. The reader learns to chase, and the momentum becomes unstoppable."
Lee has sold millions of books, so he's obviously doing something right. But does this simple technique create true suspense? Is that really all there is to it?
And, of course, for a different take, there's rule #8 from Kurt Vonnegut's eight rules of writing: "Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To hell with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages."
I'd like to add that James Scott Bell's book Conflict and Suspense has been helpful to me in creating suspensful scenes. The advice from Lee Child is a good basis, but this book goes much deeper into the subject.
I also think it's a good, if simplified, way to look at crime fiction (any fiction?!). For me, it's not just one question lobbed out at the start, it's that question answer and then replaced with another, or maybe answered by another, equally compelling question.
I have to agree with you here Mark, it's important that the reader has an ongoing series of questions. That doesn't mean the book should turn into a continuous bait-n-switch affair, but rather that the reader should be solving small problems, or pieces of the puzzle if you like along the way, and then these together will lead to the final answer.
I've heard something like that before. What I heard was that suspense is knowing WHAT is going to happen, but not WHEN it will happen.
Speaking of Lee Child, has anyone else read The Max? They constantly make fun of him, it's really funny.
Personally I can't read a person who tries to use 'micro' and 'macro' in the same sentence. It's my 'Wanker' warning.
I do believe the simplest of premises, if told with in-depth (quirky and complex) characterization should deliver as much as a complicated plot.
As for Vonnegut's #8, I suggest giving readers as much information as necessary, as soon as possible. But then again, who am I to argue with Vonnegut? Still...?
Once the reader's curiosity is sated, the desire to turn the page will diminish, so I'd make sure to create at least two new questions with every answer you give.