Sunday, May 19, 2013

The butler did it

‘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.



KK said...

I guess suspense is like everything else: our jobs, studies, relationships etc.

After a while, we enter a kind of comfort zone and it is no more fun.

Dwiti said...

Humans like the idea of knowing everything... and then showing off that they have all the information (sometimes mistaking it for knowledge also !)...

Like you rightly pointed out, sometimes, the story is the hero... making for a nail biting finish, despite the fact that no information was hidden...

Afterall, what can be more scary than a situation where everything is in front of you, and yet, you are unable to figure it out !!

Visha said...

Works both the ways, as you already mentioned. My favorite is the one where the audience as well as the characters in the story are gobsmacked in the end, when the suspense actually unfolds.

I am with you on the part where you know the culprit, but nevertheless read the book or watch the movie just to see what happens next. Deaver's Divine Justice has the protagonist killing 2 people and making an escape. But the book was a complete page-turner with what, how, why - a perfect suspense thriller :)

Kanthu said...

When to reveal, what to reveal and how much to reveal. Get this right and you have the perfect suspense thriller. :-)

the little princess said...

I remember reading someone who said, "Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To hell with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages."

Me said...

And once you are too used to this suspense you start doubting , guessing and predicting things from the beginning spoiling the fun of actually enjoying the author or director's work!!


phatichar said...

KK, true true.

Dwiti, right you are. It's like being the eye of the storm, not knowing how to get out..huh?

Visha, :) yes ma'am... :P

Kanthu, that is indeed the recipe, now, isn't it? :P

Princess, Ha ha...Ok, I get it! But... 'cockroaches'? Did you make that up? ;-))

Me, hmmm :)

cmus said...

Whodunit v/s howdunit.

Have you read 'The Murder of Roger Ackroyd' by Agatha Christie? It's a mixture of both. Best one by her, IMHO.

Keirthana said...

Applause deserving analysis and conclusions! I have never thought about this from an angle other than the 2 kinds - known from the beginning or revealed at the end.

A very nice read!

Until later,
Keirthana :)

Erratic Thoughts said...

Hmm...I am just thinking about what you have written and trying to categorize myself...
Any which way, I am hooked to suspense, whether you tell it early or in the end it is still suspense, right ;)

phatichar said...

cmus: Right you are. No, but will read it now that you've recommended. Thanks. :)

Keirthana: Thank you. Well, yes..usually the angle is more in the perception than the actual least in my analysis.

ET: Hmmm..

Aditi Ray said...

ah! the analysis! well...either you are sitting absolutely vella and have nothing else to do but analyse suspense and thrillers, or probably I was expecting a thriller frm u ! :P
ps- get rid of the BOT plz! -.-

phatichar said...

Aditi: Ha ha..yeah, vella I certainly was..sorry 'bout the Bot :( :( - they were getting too much to handle..

You...won't stop coming here 'cuz of 'em, will you? (innocent, worried look)