Progress, and thoughts on suspense

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So, this weekend, I have been a good little trooper: in spite of a busy schedule (errands to run, plus Sunday spent celebrating the BF’s PhD), I managed to finish the edits on Servant of the Underworld and to send off a synopsis to my agent for Foreign Ghosts. Now I get to angst on my cover (not that I need to worry overmuch, judging from the awesome one AR unveiled for fellow author Lavie Tidhar). Also working on Author’s Notes to go into the book–still waiting to hear on how long those are allowed to run…

I have also been reading Alastair Reynolds’ Revelation Space (very good so far), and it’s set me thinking a bit about what keeps me reading. Both the Reynolds novels I have read so far rely on the same way of maintaining suspense: you don’t know exactly what’s going on, through a combination of characters not revealing the secrets of their past, of characters having forgotten them (something that happens pretty easily in a universe where you can reconfigure memory at the snap of a finger), and of characters being plain ignorant of the implications of what they’re running into.

Some readers might find this dishonest (especially the bit where you’re not told about things characters know), but for me, it works pretty darn well. It keeps me turning the pages, and at a much faster clip than usual–I’m already halfway through the book, having started it yesterday.

It’s a very peculiar way of maintaining suspense: not through the characters or through the conflicts of the plot, but rather through gradually working out what’s at the story’s core.

It’s also a very SFnal one. This is just an extension of what we do when we ease ourselves into a new universe: we read the story, soaking up information as we go and figuring out the rules of the world on our own, rather than have everything handed to us in an exposition-glut. Except that here, the rules don’t stop at the quarter mark, but go on to encompass the whole story: the story effectively ends when you’ve seen all that underpins the universe in question, explained all the niggling details that didn’t seem to make sense in the beginning.

It’s also an extension of mysteries. When you think about it, the plot of a mystery (I’m thinking old-fashioned ones, not the thrillers that rely on knowing whether the serial killer is going to get the detective before he can be unmaked) also follows that same kind of logic: the story events only make sense once the detective (and by extension, the reader for whom the detective is a proxy) figures out exactly what was going on: who killed the victim, why so-and-so is lying, why extra murders are being committed, why so-and-so has been acting weirdly in the days before the murder… In cases like Revelation Space, you’re effectively removing the proxy: you, as the reader, are the one gradually piecing the bits and pieces of disparate information and working out what the heck is going on.

And, finally, and that’s probably the reason why it works so well: it’s an extension of scientific reasoning. You notice such-and-such a weird phenomenon, and you have very little idea of why you’re seeing it. As your research goes on and you gather more knowledge, though, you gain a better understanding of why it’s acting that way–until you finally reach the point where you can amend the existing laws or apply them to include your new phenomenon. (at least, that’s the ideal. I wish things would work out that way in real life. They do tend to be messier, at least in applied computer science). It’s a typical scientist/engineer paradigm: you want to get at the heart of why things are working that way–in the case of the story, you want to know why everyone is reacting that way, and why things turned out this way.

As I said: not for everyone. But as far as I’m concerned, it’s a far more effective way of driving the narration than just conflicts (I’ve never been a big fan of conflicts, unless they’re between two sets of characters I care equally about).

2 comments

  1. Congratulations on finishing the edits and synopsis.

    Love this post, very interesting. I’ve been think a lot about this very topic as I worry if my WIP is working the way I want it to.

    (yeah, I know–quit worry and get writing )

  2. Thanks, Patty!
    I’d suggest write the WIP first, and then fix it :) (but if it has any plot like this at this core, I do want to read it. As I said,I love that kind of intrigue).

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