‘XYZ did it’.
Three simple words. Some idiot wrote this on the notice board of a college years ago, spoiling the fun for hundreds of students who wanted to catch the latest murder mystery that weekend. No, I'm not naming the actor, or telling which movie. I'm sure you guys'll figure it out. This piece of news, more than the movie, made a lot waves. :P
Point is, when it comes to suspense, and that surprise ‘twist’, we humans are a funny lot. While the majority of us get a kick out of that twist revealed to us at the end, I’ve also seen that sometimes it’s not just about the suspense, but the way it builds up in the story, and the way it is revealed to not just the audience, but also to the other characters inside the story. Which brings me to the question – What exactly is ‘good’ suspense, if there is such a term at all? And what is it that really plays havoc in our brains? The twist that is kept from us, or the fact that the rest of the characters in the story are kept from it.
Funny, isn’t it? When I wrote ‘Façade’, many liked it. It was a typical 'suspense'. But then there were some who told me, ‘we wanted to know about the actual perpetrator earlier on in the story’. That intrigued me. It proved that there was indeed a segment of readers (viewers in case of a movie) that wanted to be kept informed of the proceedings. So then, how does one keep the audience/readers engaged, despite telling them about the culprit right away?
And then I remembered that a few years ago, I myself had sat through a movie biting nails, when actually the story was really very simple. It was about a crime, and we knew who did it. But the story was the real hero. It made me conclude that there indeed was a third angle to this all. Suspense, or twist, it all depends on what is being revealed that really does us in. And it’s actually this angle that makes a story nail biting. It also made me conclude that there indeed is a kind of duality to the way we think. And more often than not, it is the type of crime and the nature of the culprit, that decides whether or not we care more about knowing who did it, or cared more about how it was going to affect the other unsuspecting characters. Usually, the suspense, or the effect of suspense is heightened when a character we totally trust and care about throughout the story, turns out to be the actual culprit.
For those who have read the story ‘Murder on the Orient Express’, you will remember that the denouement comes in the end, but by then you as a reader pretty much knew what was going on, and who all were involved. The way Agatha Christie revealed that plot to us was the unique factor. I did a quick mental survey of those kind of stories that revealed the culprit in the end, and those that revealed that person to us early on, but kept us hooked with something more intriguing – The final stakes. Which then brought me to the conclusion that there are two things to the whole aspect. The suspense. And the thrill. Both work on different levels.
But ultimately what usually works better is the thrill.
The word 'suspense' itself, ironically, becomes predictable after a while. But getting to know how it is revealed to the other characters, is what makes the ride worthy. It’s like when we were kids - chancing upon somebody else’s secret place, and sitting behind the bushes waiting to know how the ‘other’ people reacted when they chanced upon that place. Making us an accomplice, almost.
And that gives a kick. Always.