And the Function of Suspense
By WTP Writer Richard Wertime
Woven Tale Press writer Richard Wertime reflects
on the craft of fiction in an ongoing series of craft notes
In “Disorientation and the Experience of Wonder,” we looked at the ways in which “travel” might be likened to our experience while we read—reading constituting a parallel “journey.” Here we will deepen the connection.
The expected vs. the unexpected: how suspense takes control of our attention in reading
If we’re certain of our destination in heading off somewhere—confident we’ll face no problem getting there—we do not need a map or any directional device.
So it is in our ordinary comings and goings: our world is familiar to us, such that—again—we can generally afford to pay it fairly scant attention as we go about our business. Our minds turn “outward” as occasion requires, our thoughts, more than not, leading back to ourselves in what might be called the oscillation of consciousness—a principle, it seems, that Joyce formalized, although writers have, of course, known about it for eons. Put very simply: we’re so self-oriented that we can’t stay focused on anything but ourselves for very long stretches, and so our minds “oscillate” back and forth, back and forth between our personal concerns and what the “world” asks of us—the need to pay attention to the oncoming traffic; a question directed at us we have to respond to; or an infant’s cry, say, inviting a diaper change.
… Or except when, as happened that summer afternoon, when I went out for my run and found myself disoriented, we suddenly realize that we don’t know where we are! “Help” with directions—a map, our GPS—being necessary only (a) when we know in advance that we don’t know how to get there, and (b) when we thought we knew the way there, but, having gone astray, recognize that we didn’t!
All this bears on our experience with literary suspense.
Customarily in literature, we understand suspense as our chief source of enticement for inducing in our reader varying forms of “expectation”—uncertainty, eagerness, perplexity, whatever—our reader’s main concern being with what will come next. That’s the experience of “wonder” in its less potent sense: “Where might this be leading us?” Suspense will serve, moreover, to reassure the reader that whatever interpretive obstacles might lie ahead, a path forward will be discernible. The transparency of narrative—its “followability,” as you might say—affords that reassurance. Fiction can’t permit itself, all things considered, to be out-and-out “non-sense.”
But we know, too, about literature—about fiction especially—that it plays a curious form of hide ‘n seek with us, metaphors aside, revealing certain things to us as plainly as can be as if presented on a platter—that’s “telling,” as we call it—and then, at the same time, squirreling other things away and expecting us to be alert to their presence—the work of “suggestion,” of rendering or implying . . . these among the forms of necessary guesswork comprising what we might rightly call “the reader’s share.” –Again, those elements in fiction that challenge our powers of mature discernment, early explored by Wolfgang Iser.
But “suspense”—from the Latin suspendēre, “to hang up” . . . we oughtn’t miss noting that to suspend means to “stall,” to “put on hold, cease all movement for a time” (“walled to a stop!”) . . . And hence, given the hide ‘n seek that fiction plays with us, suspense helps create the stop-and-start tempo that lends to fiction the tension peculiar to it, at times, indeed, to its irritating “friction.” Side by side with our wish to get on with it—that is, our interest in sensing where the narrative will lead us (our being destination-driven)—stands the pleasure of our lingering, under “constraint” in some cases, over a writer’s strong effects, be they captivating scenes, dazzling metaphors, or whatever, wonder coming to us (and likewise the means for inducing disorientation in us) in a variety of forms—remarkable characters; startling plot turns; awe-inducing landscapes . . . any number of things might move us to it. Fiction thus affords itself a rubato tempo, an irregular sense of pacing, as music sometimes does.
“Trampled” reading: the antidote wonder offers and the value of receptivity
In an earlier craft note, “Trying to Get It Right,” I observed that, so often, a writer’s exercise of craft is destined to get trampled in the “‘stampede’ of reading that typifies the reading which most readers do.” Gosh! “‘Stampede’ of reading”?! It’s not, one has to grant, a very flattering way to put it!
What I was addressing in that context was the great likelihood that most readers of fiction will simply not be grounded in the “lore” of fiction-writing, and that their overall impatience—better put, eagerness—in pursuing narrative’s “thread” will naturally foster in them the destination-driven tendency I’ve already noted. If transparency, indeed, is one of our key aims in writing, the hoped-for outcome of our being workmanlike, then who can blame a reader for being destination-driven in wanting to “get on” with where the narrative path leads?
That readers by and large will remain unattuned to our exercise of craft ought to be counted among the costs of doing business—dispiriting though it is to have our marvelous “sleights of hand” go unobserved as they so often are. But how could it be otherwise? If the reader fully grasped and appreciated the writer’s guile, there would be no ‘craft’ left to practice on the reader! No sprezzatura, no adequate opportunity to test the reader’s powers of mature discernment!
Reading, though, that “tramples”—that takes part in the “stampede”—raises yet another issue that bears on our main theme here, disorientation and the experience of wonder. And here we come to the question of which resources—what sorts and what levels of appreciative understanding—the reader might be expected to bring to the table.
For Kierkegaard, we remember, admiration consisted of “happy self-surrender,” whereas its inverse state, envy, was one of “unhappy self-assertion.” We’ve seen, I think, already, that a certain “pliancy” is needed if the experience of wonder is to be had at all . . . that a certain “yielding” must take place to what the moment affords us, in which we stand ready to relinquish control. In literary matters, it’s not always easy, the friction I mentioned earlier coming often when a reader’s wish to “get on with it” and exercise the right of being destination-driven comes into conflict with some “arresting” factor, be that factor, say, a metaphor that asks for its breathing space, or some level of difficulty in the narrative itself that forces the reader to “contend” with unusual effort. The degree of transparency—of accessibility, if you will—differs widely in works, some works verging on an intended opacity in the severity of the challenges they pose for the reader (Finnegans Wake comes to mind). Or, if not opacity, unsettling expectations, as in works that aim to dismay the reader (Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea comes to mind).
In any event, we always keep in mind that “appreciating” literature is an incremental thing, an unfolding process, the reader’s comprehension deepening over time through successive exposures—much as the writer’s own work is endlessly revelatory to her/himself as the writing proceeds (also noted in “Trying to Get It Right”). Any just appreciation of a literary work, then, will rest with the reader’s essential educability, the willingness to “see better,” to see otherwise, as new depths in a literary work reveal themselves. The simplest name for this may well be “receptivity.” Another term for it—Pope’s choice—is generosity, which derives from the Latin verb, generāre, “to beget, to engender.” Receptiveness in reading, like our openness to wonder, has a generative power, a “birth-giving-ness,” to it. That virtue, receptivity, will form a large part of the “reader’s share” in facilitating the work to be—to become—its full self.