The Art of Suspense, or: Letting the Chips Fall Where They May
Something happened today that was so weird, so hilarious and meta, that I have to write it down now or else. It’s a quarter past 11 at night. I’ve just gotten home from my creative writing class. So I’ll keep this short.
Tonight in Tobin‘s class, we talked about the importance of suspense to a story. Your story has to introduce questions to your audience, and make them so invested in finding out the answer that they read until the end. Of course, there are varying types of questions to be asked, some of them overarching, some of them not.
Tobin broke down suspense further into two types:
- Will something bad happen, or will disaster be averted? (Think Armageddon.)
- Something bad is definitely going to happen. What happens then as a result? (Think Deep Impact.)
We discussed this in the first half of the class, and then took a break. Being the inveterate salt junkie that I am, I headed to the cafeteria to get a bag of chips from one of the vending machines.
I put in my toonie. I pressed the button for the bag of ketchup-flavoured potato chips. And as the spirals wound around the chip bag, in theory allowing it to fall to the ground, I thought of something: What if the bag gets stuck?
And guess what. The bag actually did get stuck. Fuck.
Interestingly, it wat held in place not by the metal spirals themselves, but by the jutting-out corner of the potato chip bag immediately beside it. Did I mention that in one of the earlier classes, we talked about how to make predictable things happen through unpredictable ways? I don’t know about you, but I wasn’t expecting for standard narrative theory to be reinforced by snack food. So it goes.
At this point, one of my classmates walked up beside me, and I pointed emphatically at the suspended chip bag (the irony of that adjective itself is amazing) and said to her, “Look! Just like in class!” She laughed.
I then decided that perhaps I should try shaking the vending machine to get the chips out. However, one of the others sitting in the cafeteria saw what I was attempting and said “No, don’t do that. More people die every year from vending machine accidents than from sharks!”
So now, I was not only being taunted by gravity, but the ante had been upped to potential death.
Did I mention that earlier in this very same class, Tobin included the poster for Jaws in one of his slides as an example of suspense?
Ultimately, a janitor took notice and made the chips fall by shaking the machine himself. All was well.
A lot of the time, though, Fate likes to jab her elbow into your ribs real good, just in case you weren’t listening the first time. I had to roll my eyes a bit when I was on my way home from class and saw yet another package of snack food (some peanut butter cups) suspended in the middle of another vending machine, snagged cruelly on the last metal spiral before it was ready to fall. I put in my coins to buy another bag of chips, hoping that the speed and trajectory of the falling bag would be enough to knock the candy loose, thus allowing me two snacks for the price of one.
Alas, it was not to be. The chips fell alone, and I was left to stuff my gob in contemplative silence.