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3.4 A note on suspense

By raising various expectations in the reader’s mind, a writer can create an atmosphere of suspense – the desire to turn the page and find out what happens next. How much will the story follow the reader’s expectations, how much will it confound them? In this way, suspense is central to why some writing is interesting, and some is not.

It might be a matter of writing within particular genres, and satisfying or diverging from the reader’s expectations in varying degrees. Or it might simply be a matter of ‘pitch’. That is, where the pitch of your writing is created by the extent and nature of the tension between your ideas and characters.

E.M. Forster, in Aspects of the Novel (1979 [1927]), describes this tension, as created in Arabian Nights, where Scheherazade avoids death by leaving off her story-telling each sunrise at exactly right moment of tantalising suspense: ‘We are all Scheherazade’s husband, in that we want to know what happens next.’

Suspense, therefore, is not a characteristic of fiction restricted to the murder-mystery or crime thriller genres: it is the desired aspect of all fiction – the quality that inspires a reader to read on.

Raymond Carver takes this point a little further:

I like it when there is some feeling of threat or sense of menace in short stories. I think a little menace is fine to have in a story. For one thing, it's good for the circulation. There has to be tension, a sense that something is imminent, that certain things are in relentless motion, or else, most often, there simply won't be a story.

(Carver, 1985)

Activity 21

Read each of the seven anonymous extracts (mostly beginnings) from different fictions. Note down which genre(s) each extract might fit into. Give reasons why.

Remember, they might fit into more than one genre. Make notes on all the possible genres and sub-genres. The discussion at the end of each extract will reveal the source and some genre suggestions.

Extract 1

The voice on the telephone seemed to be sharp and peremptory, but I didn’t hear too well what it said – partly because I was only half-awake and partly because I was holding the receiver upside down. I fumbled it around and grunted.

‘Did you hear me! I said I was Clyde Umney, the lawyer.’

‘Clyde Umney, the lawyer. I thought we had several of them.’

‘You’re Marlowe, aren’t you?’

‘Yeah. I guess so.’ I looked at my wrist watch. It was 6.30 a.m., not my best hour.

‘Don’t get fresh with me, young man.’

‘Sorry, Mr Umney. But I’m not a young man. I’m old, tired, and full of no coffee. What can I do for you, sir?’

‘I want you to meet the Super Chief at eight o’clock, identify a girl among the passengers, follow her until she checks in somewhere, and then report to me. Is that clear?’


‘Why not?’ he snapped.

‘I don’t know enough to be sure I could accept the case.’

‘I’m Clyde Um –’

‘Don’t,’ I interrupted. ‘I might get hysterical. Just tell me the basic facts. Perhaps another investigator would suit you better. I never was an FBI man.’

‘Oh. My secretary, Miss Vermilyea, will be at your office in half an hour. She will have the necessary information for you. She is very efficient. I hope you are.’

‘I’m more efficient when I’ve had breakfast. Have her come here, would you?’

‘Where is here?’

I gave him the address of my place on Yucca Avenue, and told him how she would find it.

‘Very well,’ he said grudgingly, ‘but I want one thing very clear. The girl is not to know she is being followed. This is very important. I am acting for a very influential firm of Washington attorneys. Miss Vermilyea will advance you some expense money and pay you a retainer of $250. I expect a high degree of efficiency. And let’s not waste time talking.’

‘I’ll do the best I can, Mr Umney.’

He hung up. I struggled out of bed, showered, shaved, and was nuzzling my third cup of coffee when the door bell rang.

‘I’m Miss Vermilyea, Mr Umney’s secretary,’ she said in a rather chintzy voice.

‘Please come in.’

She was quite a doll. She wore a white belted raincoat, no hat, a well-cherished head of platinum hair, bootees to match the raincoat, a folding plastic umbrella, a pair of blue-grey eyes that looked at me as if I had said a dirty word. I helped her off with her raincoat. She smelled very nice. She had a pair of legs – so far as I could determine – that were not painful to look at. She wore night-sheer stockings. I stared at them rather intently, especially when she crossed her legs and held out a cigarette to be lighted.

‘Christian Dior,’ she said, reading my rather open mind. ‘I never wear anything else. A light, please.’


Source: Raymond Chandler (1958) Playback, Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Genre(s): ‘classic’ detective fiction.

Extract 2

The organ swelled as Jane approached the altar, light-headed with happiness and not eating. It had been worth it – the tiny waist of the wedding dress now fitted her with ease, and she was blissfully aware of her slender form moving gracefully beneath the thick satin. The air was heavy with the scent of white roses as, smiling shyly beneath her cathedral-length veil, Jane drew up alongside Nick. Looking at her with a gratifying mixture of awe and wonder, Nick’s face lit up in a tender smile …

The organ swelled and made Jane, fast asleep and revelling in her favourite dream, wake up suddenly. A dead, heavy weight was dragging itself across her chest. Realising it was Nick, Jane groaned more with discomfort than relief as her boyfriend groped clumsily to get his bearings before starting to saw away at her like a lumberjack. She barely had time to let out more than a couple of dutiful moans before, having galloped past the finishing post even faster than normal, Nick dismounted and rolled, grunting, back to his side of the bed.

As usual, Jane was left to lie in the wet patch.


Source: Wendy Holden (1999) Simply Divine, London: Headline.

Genre(s): ‘chick lit’/popular women’s fiction.

Extract 3

Living in Trenton in July is like living inside a big pizza oven. Hot, airless, aromatic.

Because I didn’t want to miss any of the summer experience I had the sunroof open on my Honda CRX. My brown hair was pulled up into a wind-snarled, curls-gone-to-frizz ponytail. The sun baked the top of my head, and sweat trickled under my black spandex sports bra. I was wearing matching spandex shorts and a sleeveless oversized Trenton Thunders baseball jersey. It was an excellent outfit except it gave me no place to stick my.38. Which meant I was going to have to borrow a gun to shoot my cousin Vinnie.

I parked the CRX in front of Vinnie’s storefront bail bonds office, lunged out of the car, stalked across the sidewalk, and yanked the office door open. ‘Where is he? Where is that miserable little excuse for a human being?’

‘Uh oh,’ Lula said from behind the file cabinet. ‘Rhino alert.’

Lula is a retired hooker who helps clean up the filing and sometimes rides shotgun for me when I do my fugitive apprehension thing. If people were cars, Lula would be a big, black ’53 Packard with a high-gloss chrome grill, oversized headlights, and a growl like a junkyard dog. Lots of muscle. Never fit in a compact space.


Source: Janet Evanovich (1998) Four to Score, London: Pan Macmillan.

Genre(s): modern comic crime fiction.

Extract 4

I made my decision, abruptly, in the middle of one of Gareth Butcher’s famous theoretical seminars. He was quoting Empedocles, in his plangent, airy voice. ‘Here sprang up many faces without necks, arms wandered without shoulders, unattached, and eyes strayed alone, in need of foreheads.’ He frequently quoted Empedocles, usually this passage. We were discussing, not for the first time, Lacan’s theory of morcellement, the dismemberment of the imagined body. There were twelve postgraduates, including myself, and Professor Ormerod Goode. It was a sunny day and the windows were very dirty. I was looking at the windows, and I thought, I’m not going to go on with this any more. Just like that. It was May 8th 1994. I know that, because my mother had been buried the week before, and I’d missed the seminar on Frankenstein.

I don’t think my mother’s death had anything to do with my decision, though as I set it down, I see it might be construed that way. It’s odd that I can’t remember what text we were supposed to be studying on that last day. We’d been doing a lot of not-too-long texts written by women. And also quite a lot of Freud – we’d deconstructed the Wolf Man, and Dora. The fact that I can’t remember, though a little humiliating, is symptomatic of the ‘reasons’ for my abrupt decision. All the seminars, in fact, had a fatal family likeness. They were repetitive in the extreme. We found the same clefts and crevices, transgressions and disintegrations, lures and deceptions beneath, no matter what surface we were scrying. I thought, next we will go on to the phantasmagoria of Bosch, and, in his incantatory way, Butcher obliged. I went on looking at the filthy window above his head, and I thought, I must have things. I know a dirty window is an ancient, well-worn trope for intellectual dissatisfaction and scholarly blindness. The thing is, that the thing was also there. A real, very dirty window, shutting out the sun. A thing

I was sitting next to Ormerod Goode. Ormerod Goode and Gareth Butcher were joint Heads of Department that year, and Goode, for reasons never made explicit, made it his business to be present at Butcher’s seminars. This attention was not reciprocated, possibly because Goode was an Anglo-Saxon and Ancient Norse expert, specialising in place-names. Gareth Butcher did not like dead languages, and was not proficient in living ones. He read his Foucault and Lacan in translation, like his Heraclitus and his Empedocles. Ormerod Goode contributed little to the seminars, beyond corrections of factual inaccuracies, which he noticed even when he appeared to be asleep. No one cared much for these interventions. Inaccuracies can be subsumed as an inevitable part of postmodern uncertainty, or play, one or the other or both.

I liked sitting next to Goode – most of the other students didn’t – because he made inscrutable notes in ancient runes. Also he drew elaborate patterns of carved, interlaced plants and creatures – Celtic, Viking, I didn’t know – occasionally improper or obscene, always intricate. I liked the runes because I have always liked codes and secret languages, and more simply, because I grew up on Tolkien. I suppose, if the truth were told, I should have to confess that I ended up as a postgraduate student of literature because of an infantile obsession with Gandalf’s Middle Earth.


Source: A.S. Byatt (2001) The Biographer’s Tale, London: Vintage.

Genre(s): modern gothic romance, ‘literary fiction’.

Extract 5

I can hardly say what a curious mix of feelings mine were, the Sunday afternoon when Kitty came to call on us in Whitstable. She was more to me than all the world; that she should be visiting me in my own home, and supping with my family, seemed both a delight too lovely to be borne and a great and dreadful burden. I loved her, and could not but long to have her come; but I loved her, and not a soul must know it – not even she. It would be a torture, I thought, to have to sit beside her at my father’s table with that love within me, mute and restless as a gnawing worm. I would have to smile while Mother asked, Why didn’t Kitty have a beau? and smile again when Davy held Rhoda’s hand, or Tony pinched my sister’s knee beneath the table – when all the while my darling would be at my side, untouchable.

Then again, there was the crampedness, and the dinginess – and the unmistakable fishiness – of our home to fret over. Would Kitty think it mean? Would she see the tears in the drugget, the smears on the walls; would she see that the armchairs sagged, that the rugs were faded, that the shawl which Mother had tacked to the mantel, so that it fluttered in the draught from the chimney, was dusty and torn, its fringes unravelling? I had grown up with these things, and for eighteen years had barely noticed them, but I saw them now, for what they really were, as if through her own eyes.

I saw my family, too, anew. I saw my father – a gentle man, but prone to dullness. Would Kitty think him dull? And Davy: he could be rather brash; and Rhoda – horrible Rhoda – would certainly be over-pert. What would Kitty make of them? What would she think of Alice – my dearest friend, until a month ago? Would she think her cold, and would her coldness puzzle her? Or would she – and this thought was a dreadful one – would she think her pretty, and like her more than me? Would she wish it had been Alice in the box for her to throw that rose to, and invite backstage, and call a mermaid …?


Source: Sarah Waters (1999) Tipping the Velvet, London: Virago Press.

Genre(s): modern take on Victorian romance, lesbian romance.

Extract 6

It was raining cool cats and kosher hot dogs in the city that afternoon and things weren’t getting any sunnier as the cat looked over my shoulder at me looking over my bank statement. I was keeping us in cigars and tuna by tackling a murder investigation every now and then, but the big clients didn’t seem to be queuing up on the street outside my building waiting for me to throw down the little black puppet head with the key to the front door wedged in its mouth.

In fact, things were so bad that the only person who’d sought my help recently in undertaking an investigation for him had been Ratso. Ratso was my flamboyant flea market friend who sometimes served as a rather weather-beaten Dr Watson to my postnasal Sherlock Holmes. In his role of Dr Watson he brought zero sophistication to the table – any table – but he was loyal to a fault, was possessed of a rather charming naïveté, and had a good heart, which any detective worth his low-sodium salt will tell you is invariably the greatest possible obstacle to understanding the criminal mind.

Ratso as Dr Watson I could deal with. Ratso as a client was a whole other animal, and I do mean animal. So, when Ratso first mentioned the matter to me, I demurred. About the fourth time he mentioned it, I inquired as to the nature of the investigation, and he’d said, ‘Well, it’s really a very personal matter,’ and I’d suggested, perhaps a bit unkindly, ‘then why don’t you keep it to yourself?’ The other bad thing about having Ratso as a client was that he’d never paid for a meal or picked up a check in his life and there was every reason to believe that working for him would very definitely not be a financial pleasure.


Source: Kinky Friedman (1995) God Bless John Wayne, London: Faber & Faber.

Genre(s): contemporary spoof sleuth.

Extract 7

Outside her kitchen window, the hedgerow glistened as if the snow possessed a light of its own; when the sky darkened towards evening, an unearthly, reflected pallor remained behind upon the winter’s landscape, while still the soft flakes floated down. This lovely girl, whose skin possesses that same, inner light so you would have thought she, too, was made all of snow, pauses in her chores in the mean kitchen to look out at the country road. Nothing has passed that way all day; the road is white and unmarked as a spilled bolt of bridal satin.

Father said he would be home before nightfall.

The snow brought down all the telephone wires; he couldn’t have called, even with the best of news.

The roads are bad. I hope he’ll be safe.

But the old car stuck fast in a rut, wouldn’t budge an inch; the engine whirred, coughed and died and he was far from home. Ruined, once; then ruined again, as he had learnt from his lawyers that very morning; at the conclusion of the lengthy, slow attempt to restore his fortunes, he had turned out his pockets to find the cash for petrol to take him home. And not even enough money left over to buy his Beauty, his girl-child, his pet, the one white rose she said she wanted; the only gift she wanted, no matter how the case went, how rich he might once again be. She had asked for so little and he had not been able to give it to her. He cursed the useless car, the last straw that broke his spirit; then, nothing for it but to fasten his old sheepskin coat around him, abandon the heap of metal and set off down the snow-filled lane to look for help.

Behind wrought-iron gates, a short, snowy drive performed a reticent flourish before a miniature, perfect Palladian house that seemed to hide itself shyly behind snow-laden skirts of an antique cypress. It was almost night; that house, with its sweet, retiring, melancholy grace, would have seemed deserted but for a light that flickered in an upstairs window, so vague it might have been the reflection of a star, if any stars could have penetrated the snow that whirled yet more thickly. Chilled through, he pressed the latch of the gate and saw, with a pang, how, on the withered ghost of a tangle of thorns, there clung, still, the faded rag of a white rose.

The gate clanged loudly shut behind him; too loudly. For an instant, that reverberating clang seemed final, emphatic, ominous as if the gate, now closed, barred all within it from the world outside the walled, wintry garden. And, from a distance, though from what distance he could not tell, he heard the most singular sound in the world: a great roaring, as of a beast of prey.

In too much need to allow himself to be intimidated, he squared up to the mahogany door. This door was equipped with a knocker in the shape of a lion’s head, with a ring through the nose; as he raised his hand towards it, it came to him this lion’s head was not, as he had thought at first, made of brass, but, instead, of gold. Before, however, he could announce his presence, the door swung silently inward on well-oiled hinges and he saw a white hall where the candles of a great chandelier cast their benign light upon so many, many flowers in great, free-standing jars of crystal that it seemed the whole of spring drew him into its warmth with a profound intake of perfumed breath. Yet there was no living person in the hall.

The door behind him closed as silently as it had opened, yet, this time, he felt no fear although he knew by the pervasive atmosphere of a suspension of reality that he had entered a place of privilege where all the laws of the world he knew need not necessarily apply, for the very rich are often very eccentric and the house was plainly that of an exceedingly wealthy man. As it was, when nobody came to help him with his coat, he took it off himself. At that, the crystals of the chandelier tinkled a little, as if emitting a pleased chuckle, and the door of a cloakroom opened of its own accord. There were, however, no clothes at all in this cloakroom, not even the statutory country-garden mackintosh to greet his own squirearchal sheepskin, but, when he emerged again into the hall, he found a greeting waiting for him at last – there was, of all things, a liver and white King Charles spaniel crouched with head intelligently cocked, on the kelim runner. It gave him further, comforting proof of his unseen host’s wealth and eccentricity to see the dog wore, in place of a collar, a diamond necklace.

The dog sprang to its feet in welcome and busily shepherded him (how amusing!) to a snug little leather-panelled study on the first floor, where a low table was drawn up to a roaring log fire. On the table, a silver tray; round the neck of a whisky decanter, a silver tag with the legend: Drink me, while the cover of the silver dish was engraved wit the exhortation: Eat me, in a flowing hand. This dish contained sandwiches of thick-cut roast beef, still bloody. He drank the one with soda and ate the other with some excellent mustard thoughtfully provided in a stoneware pot, and, when the spaniel saw to it he had served himself, she trotted off about her own business.


Source: Angela Carter (1996) ‘The courtship of Mr Lyon’, in Burning Your Boats: Collected Short Stories, London: Vintage.

Genre(s): fairytale gothic, magic realism.

Activity 22

Do you wish to write in a particular genre? Write down your thoughts in a journal. If not, what aspects of genre fiction do you consider relevant or useful to the kind of fiction you do wish to write?

Remember: even if ‘your’ kind of writing doesn’t fit into any particular genre, there is always plenty to be learned from fiction that does fall into genres.