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These headphones are in their last week of regular use. You will be fondly remembered blue headphones.

Did I Write This Week?

Yes, but woefully little. I took some notes on how I want a few key interactions to work out in the novel. Some major revelations and turning points for the characters. [Game of Thrones Spoilers ahead] I feel like George R. R. Martin had some major moments like the Red Wedding or Ned’s beheading already in mind before he got to them. These moments profoundly change the way many other characters behave for the rest of the story and I think that if you’re going to have these big twists you need to know they’re coming so you can start thinking about how the character will react moving forward.

No matter how much of a grasp you have on a character and who they are, a life-changing moment can possibly drastically shift the way they’re going to behave for the rest of the story. So, since I’ve got a few of these moments in mind (ok, so probably not Red Wedding level twists), I think it’s a good idea to have them in my head so I can think about how characters will react afterwards.

Then I got to thinking about these moments, and how they’re going to be communicated to the audience.

I marathoned my way through Mr. Robot over the past few weeks. Both seasons in about 20 days or something. As I discuss on the upcoming 9ES, a device that Mr. Robot starts using an awful lot towards the end of the second season is where they reveal something to a character, but not to the audience.

Example:

A character walks in and hear’s gasping coming from the living room. The character gets nervous and approaches cautiously, peering around the corner. The camera angle shifts to the character’s face. “You.” Cut away to another scene.

So, in this case, our character knows who is in the living room, but we as the audience do not.

It’s an effective way of creating suspense and engaging the audience, but ultimately it feels pretty cheap to me. It’s not particularly good storytelling, it’s just an absence of storytelling. It kind of plays like a bad cliffhanger.

Personally, I feel like a good cliffhanger has all the elements in play necessary and hooks the audience by not revealing how it’s going to play out. A perfect example is a literal cliffhanger. A man hanging on for dear life at the edge of a cliff, his buddy racing towards the ledge to try to pull him back up. Will he get there in time? Will the man fall to his death? Keep reading!

A bad cliffhanger is just an unfinished scene. You’re witholding information from the audience to make them care about it instead of making them care about it organically.

It’s kind of like a jump scare versus actually unsettling content in a horror film. A jump scare will scare you, but ultimately doesn’t get you more invested in the story. It’s also definitely not going to stick with you and keep you thinking about it afterwards. Some deep, unsettling horror is going to stick with you for a good long while and keep you thinking. It can also push the story forward, where a jump scare comes and goes with little impact most of the time.

In the case of our bad cliffhanger, it’s kind of the same. The bad cliffhanger disolves the tension as soon as the storyteller reveals what he’s been withholding. The suspense is gone.

Properly built up suspense on the other hand will stick with you. The reader/audience will retain that moment and have something to think about even after it is resolved.

I think that false suspense can be effective from time to time, but an over-reliance on it can be tedious to the audience. It’s like a string of “gotcha” moments that wears thin.

What do you think?

How much would you let a book/movie/tv series get away with that kind of suspense building? Where would you draw the line?

Keith does all sorts of things here on 9to5.cc, he works with the other founders on 9to5 (illustrated), co-hosts our two podcasts: The 9to5 Entertainment System and Go Plug Yourself and blogs here as The Perspicacious Geek.

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