Monday, October 22, 2012


Savouring the Suspense

I had a grade school teacher once ask this question: What part of an activity or event provides the greatest enjoyment – before, during or after an experience? In other words, is anticipation, real time experience or memory of the experience the most pleasurable?

My brother-in-law told me a story from his childhood that I still find amusing. He’d found his wrapped presents in the closet of his parents’ bedroom closet a few weeks before Christmas. The impulse to find out what was in the packages won out over enjoying two more weeks of suspense and anticipation. Imagine his panic as he lay on his parents’ bed enjoying his new Walkman when he heard the back door open and his parents call upstairs that they were home. Somehow, he managed to avoid getting caught and even feigned surprise Christmas morning.

I, on the other hand, would never have opened my gifts early, even knowing I wouldn’t get caught. For me, the anticipation bit, the not knowing period is one of, if not the best part. I dislike book and movie reviews that tell too much about the plot. I switch TV channels rather than watch a trailer for an upcoming show that will show the highlights. I put off opening presents as long as possible.

I like the surprise.

Perhaps, this is why I write mysteries. Each manuscript comes loaded with surprises, whether they be characters who suddenly appear, events that unfold completely unplanned or crimes that I didn’t see coming. This isn’t to say that I don’t have any idea where a story is going once I get started, but in the writing of each one, unexpected plot twists occur, and I find that contemplating the next step is exciting. Suspense builds in unexpected ways and I enjoy being along for the ride.

For instance, in my latest novel Second Chances, my main character Darlene Findley’s older rebellious and promiscuous cousin Elizabeth come to stay for the summer. I wasn’t completely certain how the two would interact or what the upshot of their entanglement would be, but I knew their enforced closeness would create some good conflict that would be great fun to write. I was not disappointed.

I feel the same sense of anticipation when I purchase a new mystery or thriller. Who doesn’t enjoy holding a new book by a loved author in their hands before reading the first word? Taking time to savour the slow unfolding of a story, the language chosen, the characters revealed – the build up of suspense can be more satisfying than reaching the conclusion.

Perhaps, you would say that the actual act of delving into the book or the memory of the completed story are just as enjoyable as the anticipation of reading it, and I would have a hard time arguing with you. The act of reading and becoming immersed in another world are certainly pleasurable pastimes. Yet, recalling the book years later might give someone more pleasure than the actual time spent reading it. In all cases, however, I’d say that the anticipation and build up of suspense are imperative for later enjoyment of the resolution.

So, are you the type of person who wants to open your gifts early or do you prefer to wait and imagine what is inside the wrapping? Would you rather linger over the suspense in a mystery book or read the ending first?

Take your time answering – I don’t mind being kept in suspense.

Brenda Chapman is the Ottawa author of several mysteries for young adults and adults. Cold Mourning, the first in an adult mystery series will be released by Dundurn fall 2013. Second Chances is her latest release for older teens.

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