Sunday, November 30, 2014

Suspense versus Tension

Suspense and tension are fundamentally different concepts, although they often work in tandem. Suspense is the emotion generated by questions such as: Who did it? And why? Suspense is the essence of mystery, and the protagonist’s primary objective is to solve the puzzle of what happened.   

Tension, on the other hand, is emotion driven by someone being in jeopardy. Often, it’s the hero or a person close to her such as her husband or daughter. In thrillers, a stadium full of people, a city, a country, or even the whole world may be in jeopardy. Tension is the essence of the thriller, and the hero’s objective is to rescue the threatened. 

Of course, suspense and tension often work together to heighten the total drama in a story. In a murder mystery, as suspense increases with red herrings piling up, tension escalates as well, as the hero is in jeopardy of failing to find out who the murder is. When the danger of those threatened in a thriller becomes more immediate, the suspense of whether or not the hero will save the day drives the tension.

While mysteries and thrillers offer the clearest examples of suspense and tension, all most all stories from the most literate to the most basic genre-specific ones involve unanswered questions and threats. Readers who understand their preference for different amounts of suspense and tension can better pick the novels they’ll like.

What blend of suspense and tension do you prefer? What novel is an example?


Douglass Seaver, author                                                                                                                
The Fourth Rule


Shalanna said...

I get too nervous with some versions of "suspense and tension," so I tend to skip forward to the end of the intense scenes in some books. I prefer intrigue and puzzles with the occasional dodging of falling anvils. So I'm not really the one to ask.

I did try to do the suspense thing in LOVE IS THE BRIDGE, but it was more of a mystical wonderment deal than the Chuck Pahlaniuk or James Patterson thing. I feel that there is far too much "slasher porn" (for want of a better term) and that too many authors feel they must have gory and disgusting scenes described in detail. Let's have a place in the publishing world for an even-handed softer book with a light touch.

After all--the MASTER of suspense, Alfred Hitchcock, never needed gore and ick. In "Psycho," he never shows anything much in the shower scene except the drain, but people left the theater swearing that they'd seen awful things. In "The Birds," you get the creeped-out feeling that the birds, if organized, COULD get us . . . without seeing gory stuff (just a couple of bandages on arms and such). Let's emulate Hitch and be sophisticated!

Now to go download your book. . . .

Jackie Taylor Zortman said...

Personally, I think a nice balance of suspense and tension, but perhaps on a softer note, is a good mix. That's what I attempted to do in my book FOOTPRINTS IN THE FROST, which doesn't come out until June 2015. I left out graphic details and just left enough of each to keep it interesting. Good job on the blog.

Beryl Reichenberg said...

Good discussion of the difference between tension and suspense. As a writer of children's stories, I do use both but in a low key way. For example, in "The Mysterious Case of the Missing Birthday Cake", suspense comes in the form of who took the cake and how can Frieda Frog and her friends find the thief. Tension emerges when some of the smaller animals see the giant footprint of the thief and decide he may be too big and scary to pursue. Like adults, children like a mystery or quest and like stories where the characters overcome odds in pursuit of their goals.

Billie Johnson said...

Excellent discussion, Doug! Thanks for posting.

Doug Seaver said...

Agatha Christie, the bestselling mystery writer of all times, writes suspenseful novels, but ones with relatively low tension levels. Rarely are Miss Marple or Hercule Poirot in personal danger.