Suppose you are a romance writer who want to learn more about suspense. You're invited into the home (read: spooky mansion) of one of The Big Three suspense writers. (To recap from Part 1: "The Big Three" is defined as Mystery, Horror and Thriller.) The butler leads you into a dimly lit study where you see a familiar portrait, an infamous silhouette, hanging over the fireplace. You take a seat in a wing back leather chair and the butler leaves you alone to wait for the master of the house.
What happens next?
This is the essential question of suspense. It's a situation, and one that, more often than not, doesn't happen by accident. Certainly we might feel we are a victim of circumstance, but if there is time to second guess how we arrived at the situation then we can see that there were choices -- even those outside our control. And we also have the choice to exit the situation. The choices may not be good or even possible, but we will think of them. We have the time to think of them. Will we or won't we exit the situation? And from that choice, what will happen next?
So suspense, to my way of thinking, is a mixture of curiosity, anticipation and apprehension all rolled into that "feeling" we have when waiting for something...or someone.
Back to our situation...
What would you do while you waited for your host to arrive? Wonder what the reclusive writer looks like? Observe your surroundings? Organize your notes and the questions you've prepared? All of this, however, you have already done in preparation for this meeting. And so far, the isolated mansion has exceeded your Gothic expectations. Only, as you avoid making eye contact with any of the mounted wildlife on the walls, you hadn't thought your host would be quite the big game hunter he appeared to be. Mr. Rochester hadn't been a hunter had he?
For a while you keep a surreptitious eye on the door and a polite, professional smile at the ready to greet your "Mr. Rochester." No, not a smile, you correct. According to your rehearsal of this meeting, you'd just give a nod to signify a meeting of equals. Then you'd rise gracefully to your feet and shake his hand. But as the minutes tick by and your host fails to make an appearance, you start to think you've been forgotten. How long before you start to fidget and glance more and more frequently at the clock?
Why had he told you to arrive at 3:00 p.m, "no sooner, no later" as the email with driving instructions had unnecessarily dictated, and yet now kept you waiting...?
You raise your eyes to the portrait of the Master of suspense, Alfred Hitchcock. Ahh, of course! A very logical explanation dawns on you -- this wait must be a lesson in suspense. Reassured that you've figured out the strategy of your host and found a way to give him the benefit of the doubt (preferable to rudeness), your annoyance fades, as it usually does once you've made sense of a situation.
Of course you've done your research and, as you'd been instructed in fact, you've recently refreshed your memory of the infamous "bomb under the table" example Hitchcock gave for showing the differences between suspense and surprise.
From the transcript of the interview:
"We are now having a very innocent little chat. Let us 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 audience knows it, probably because they have seen the anarchist place it there. The public is aware that 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 this 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's a bomb beneath you and it's 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."
Of course, you rationalize, in your present situation there is no "bomb under the table." (You check just to be sure.) What, exactly, was the ticking bomb to make the situation suspenseful? Did he think all he had to do was place you in his home and leave you alone with your thoughts? That wouldn't work! You were made of sterner stuff.
Not unlike the wall decor, in fact. And, as far as observations go, glancing into the glassy eyes of the stuffed moose you'd been avoiding went a long way to diminish being made of "sterner stuff" as a confidence booster.
Thankfully, at that moment the door begins to open. Finally! But it's only the elderly butler who reenters carrying a tray laden with sandwiches and an old-fashioned tea service. The china rattles with each step and you breath a sigh of relief when the tray is deposited without incident on the table next to your chair. His blue-veined hand pours steaming liquid into one of the two cups, leaving the other empty.
"Will your...employer be joining me soon?" (You can't be blamed for your hesitation over the word "employer" when "master" had been on the tip of your tongue.)
The butler inclined his snowy white head. "When he is able."
And with that he exits, closing the door firmly behind him.
You stare at the closed door. Able? What did that mean? There could be any number of explanations. And for how much longer must you wait for your host to be "able"? The afternoon shadows were lengthening and you still had a long drive back to the hotel. When you'd agreed to this meeting at the remote mansion the time hadn't concerned you. In fact, the reclusive writer's insistence on punctuality had reinforced the impression of a short meeting. But darkness in late autumn arrived early and if you were delayed much longer...
You lift your cup to take a sip of tea in an attempt to swallow your annoyance at your imagination falling in line with the "lesson." You will wait. By now this game has become a challenge. If nothing else, you have a few choice words to say to your host. You raise your cup, toasting the silhouette portrait of Mr. Hitchcock and, for good measure, the moose as well.
But your cup clatters back on its saucer as a connection to the approaching darkness and your absent host's inability to appear clicks into place. An inability to appear in daylight?
Oh, my. Ridiculous. Beyond impossible. "And me without my garlic,".you say to the moose.
Your joke makes you feel better, but you've decided a change of scenery might be good for your sanity. You get up, smooth your skirt of wrinkles and stride to the door. You'd find the powder room. Or maybe you'd keep walking out the front entrance to your car. But that would be rude. At the very least, you'd tell the butler to relay your message to the master of the house that you were unable to stay.
You keep planning your next move long after you realize none of those things are going to happen. Not unless someone unlocks the door.
What happens next? That will have to wait for Part 3.