If you’re a writer, or aspire to become one, you know part of your homework is to study suspense.
After all, suspense is what readers (particularly mystery and thriller readers) look for in a book. The American Heritage Dictionary tells us such readers want “the condition of being suspended.” They want to experience the “anxiety or apprehension resulting from an uncertain, undecided, or mysterious situation.”
In Stephen King’s The Shining, will Danny and his mother Wendy escape being murdered by father/husband Jack Torrance? Can you figure out which character in Murder on the Oriental Express committed the murder? Was anyone in the first audience at Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho prepared for the final revelation?
Is There a Problem With Suspense?
Yep, there’s a problem with suspense, and it’s implicit in that last sentence: Was anyone in the first audience prepared for what was to come? What about later audiences? Someone is bound to be a spoiler, so word was bound to get around about Psycho: “Norman Bates and his mother are the same person!” The climax is still shocking, but once the secret is revealed, some of the impact is lost.
Fortunately, a second path is open to mystery writers. This path doesn’t rely on the Big Secret being concealed. It doesn’t require use of red herrings to throw readers off the scent and send them down blind alleys.
Another Way to Create Suspense in Your Story
The second path to suspense in your story is dramatic irony.
To illustrate, I ask you to recall the last time you had private knowledge that a friend or family member didn’t have. Recently, I met “Gina” in a local supermarket. After we exchanged pleasantries, she said, “I know you haven’t heard about Fred and Lucy. It’s a shocker, that’s for sure.”
True, I knew nothing about the pending divorce of our mutual friends, but now I did. “They promised each other to keep quiet about it,” Gina explained, “but one of their kids told a friend. The friend happens to be my son.”
You probably know what comes next. At this exact moment, Lucy rounds the corner with her shopping cart. She spots us, calls “Hi!,” and rolls up. Immediately, I find myself in an uncertain, undecided, even mysterious moment. I look for signs of despair or bitterness in Lucy, but all I see is her usual sunny self.
The conversation that follows–in front of the meat counter–is all dramatic irony. Gina and I are playing dumb as Lucy tells about how she’s flying tomorrow to see her sister. It’s been awhile, so on the spur of the moment she’s decided to go–and she’s taking the kids out of school to come with her.
From this moment on, Gina and I are involved in a conspiracy. We are interpreting everything said and seen in the light of the information Lucy doesn’t know we have. The words coming in both directions are mostly lies. But Gina and I are experiencing a guilty pleasure, one made all the more strong—and guilty—by our liking both Fred and Lucy.
The Magic of Dramatic Irony
Dramatic irony dates as far back as the fifth century BC. The legends and myths that formed the plots in Greek tragedies were already known to everyone in the audience. There was no suspense about Oedipus’s ultimate fate would turn out to be. Wondering “whodunit” did not apply.
But this did not spoil the experience for the audience. They sat in god-like knowledge of what Oedipus didn’t know–that from birth, he was the man fated to murder his own father and marry his mother. Watching as he relentlessly pursues the truth, theatergoers felt (and still feel) the tragic aspect of the human condition: terrible things can come from not knowing the future.
More recent, classic illustrations are present in Shakespeare’s plays. In Hamlet, King Claudius has murdered his brother and married the widow, Hamlet’s mother. Little does Claudius know that his nephew/stepson has been visited by his father’s ghost. Now Hamlet knows who killed is father.
In Othello, we know early on that Iago has evil intentions. But Othello is a good man who assumes other men are honest. He can’t see what everyone in the audience knows: “Othello, wake up! Iago’s going to destroy you!”
Dramatic Irony in Action
Dramatic irony can serve the mystery/thriller writer very well. In The Anything Goes Girl, the first book in my Brenda Contay mystery series, Brenda is pitted against Betsy McIntosh, a smart, ambitious public-relations director. Unlike Brenda, Betsy has fought hard to get where she is. For this reason, it never enters her mind that Brenda would throw away a successful career, just to defend a principle.
The reader knows better, and watches Betsy make big mistakes. When she discovers what the reader has known all along, it makes her ready to risk everything, just to get even.
In my next mystery, Brenda and her lawyer friend Marion go fishing in northern Minnesota. My readers soon know what they don’t: they’ll be followed by a man convicted of embezzlement because of Marion’s courtroom skills. Nor do the women know that Marion’s old college boyfriend has never forgiven her for breaking up with him.
These two men are joining forces. Where better to make Marion pay for her “crimes” than in Minnesota’s Boundary Waters? In other words, “whodunit” is replaced by “what happens next?”
As the name suggests, “dramatic” irony works best when a novel is told through multiple points of view. That way, readers are able to share what some characters know, and others don’t. It’s possible, but more difficult to accomplish this in first-person stories.
Making conscious use of dramatic irony can free writers to develop great twists and surprises. It puts readers in a position of superior knowledge, and the satisfactions of “playing God” often proves very rewarding.