During a session of the 2017 convention of the Association of Writers and Writing Programs #AWP, someone whose name I did not get paraphrased an Alfred Hitchcock quotation about the difference between mystery and suspense.
I was curious about the exact quotation and looked it up. (See below.)
In my search, I found a longer, fuller explanation about the difference between surprise and suspense.
The key lesson of both quotations: Give the reader information the characters do not have and you will create suspense.
Herewith, Mr. Hitchcock:
“There is a distinct difference between “suspense” and “surprise,” and yet many pictures continually confuse the two. I’ll explain what I mean.
“We are now having a very innocent little chat. Let’s suppose that there is a bomb underneath this table between us. Nothing happens, and then all of a sudden, “Boom!” There is an explosion. The public is surprised, but prior to this surprise, it has seen an absolutely ordinary scene, of no special consequence. Now, let us take a suspense situation. The bomb is underneath the table and the public knows it, probably because they have seen the anarchist place it there. The public is aware the bomb is going to explode at one o’clock and there is a clock in the decor. The public can see that it is a quarter to one. In these conditions, the same innocuous conversation becomes fascinating because the public is participating in the scene. The audience is longing to warn the characters on the screen: “You shouldn’t be talking about such trivial matters. There is a bomb beneath you and it is about to explode!”
“In the first case we have given the public fifteen seconds of surprise at the moment of the explosion. In the second we have provided them with fifteen minutes of suspense. The conclusion is that whenever possible the public must be informed. Except when the surprise is a twist, that is, when the unexpected ending is, in itself, the highlight of the story.”
I didn’t plan to buy any books at the annual convention of the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (#AWP) at the Washington, DC, Convention Center.
I have more books now than I have time to read. Besides, I’m trying to write books for other folks to buy.
Nonetheless, I succumbed:
- Dope Tits by Bix Skahill. I mean, how could I not? Bix, we will meet again, whether you like it or not.
- A Simplified Map of the Real World by Stevan Allred. I met the founder and publisher of Forest Avenue Press, Laura Stanfill, and shared her enthusiasm for two graphics in the book, one the author’s hand-drawn map and the other a diagram linking the characters of the various stories. I love people who experiment. Always have. Best of luck to you.
- Color Your Campus – Indiana University. As a left-hander, I hate coloring, but I’m trying to understand the fad that accounted for last year’s increase in sales of print books, and I know a bit about I.U. from my years as a reporter in Indiana.
- I will read Allred and Skahill, but I can’t promise I’ll color I.U. I’m still left-handed, and the smearing problem has not gone away.
Finally, I let a good one get away.
It was a memoir about the Viet-Nam war set in the early 1960s before the huge American military buildup and executed by a Vietnamese author as a graphic book. I thumbed through it, comparing observations against my own experiences and unpublished memoir (HIDDEN WAR: A Memoir of the CIA’s Secret War in Laos).
I should get this, I thought. But my backpack weighed heavily on my right shoulder, and I figured I would pick it up on Day #2. I never found it despite haunting the bookseller aisles in the exhibit hall.
I regret that decision. If anyone knows the book I’m talking about, I would love to hear from you.
Lesson Learned: When your gut says Buy it, buy it.
One more post to come inspired by the AWP: Hitchcock: What to Tell the Reader – What?
Robert Louis Stevenson turned out The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in six days.
I look at that and think, “I’m so slow.”
J.D. Salinger wrote for 10 years to produce Catcher in the Rye.
Look at me. I’m a speed demon!
Printerinks created the following mandala (click for larger view) showing how long authors took to produce 30 of the world’s most popular books.
I devoted three months each to my first three manuscripts back in 2014. I’ve been rewriting them ever since.
I’m still looking for my place on that circle.
(Tnx to the bookbaby Blog for bringing this to my attention.)