Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Suspense and Humor: Timing and Hints

At their core, suspense and humor are essentially the same thing but with different anticipations--how one chooses to see the outcome.

In the case of suspense, the outcome is usually negative, and we wait with bated breath for the other shoe to drop.  We have an inkling about what is coming.  If we didn't have any clue, there would be no suspense.  But we don't know when it will happen or exactly what will happen.  It is these two items that create the tingle of suspense.

See this strategy in effect here (I will discuss it below):

For you to completely appreciate what's happening, you may also want to see clips from the beginning of the movie (like Chrissie's last swim) and the end (Brody kills the Beast).

Similarly with humor, we have some idea what should be, but for some reason, that "should" expectation is not being fulfilled, is being thwarted or perverted, in some other way.  We don't know exactly what will happen next or when the problem will come to a resolution.

See such a comic strategy in effect here:

How do we achieve these effects?
  1. Play with your timing.
  2. Spend some time with the fake out.
There are currently two excellent articles on these topics.  For suspense, I highly recommend Carol Davis Luce's chapter, "Writing Killer Suspense," in The Complete Handbook of Novel Writing available on Amazon and from our own library.  For comic timing, I have both deeply enjoyed and found extremely helpful Backstage's article, "Can Comedic Timing Be Taught, or Is It Innate?" While the article is written for actors, it provides many helpful bits for writers.

Boiled down, though, these are some common tips to pull us through:
  1. Make sure your reader is aware of the situation.

    In "Jaws," before we get the Alex's death, we've already had Chrissie's, and just in case we're not as concerned as we ought to be, we have brooding Captain Brody to remind us that worrying about the possibility of danger in the water is important enough to ignore the neighbor with a problem, brush his your wife, and insult an old man.

    Also in the "Jaws" sequences, note that the music builds as the audience's awareness builds.  There is no music in Chrissie's last swim unless you count the buoy's bell.  We don't know of the danger, so there's no sense in drawing our attention to it.  By the time Alex is attacked, we know the shark is out there, so the music immediately before the attack sets us up for the immediate action, even though we see very little of it.  When we are ready for Brody to kill the shark, the music is a constant undercurrent--just as is our awareness.  You have to bring your reader with you for the suspense to work.

    In "Mr. Bean," we have strategic double takes and the laugh track.  We know he can't get out the instant he pulls in because of the laugh track, but just in case we didn't know, he's going to bang the door, look at it, and bang it again--and again and again and again.
  2.  But also divert that awareness (or fake us out).

    The best "Jaws" clip for this technique is Chrissie's last swim.  First we are diverted from danger in the water by the possibility of danger on the land.  The boy is drunk.  Is Chrissie running away to escape him or is she really interested?  Then we are diverted by where the real malice lies.  Does Chrissie really want him to follow her or is she kind of hoping that, drunk as he is, he will hurt himself?  Finally, we are diverted by blame.  Is it really the shark's fault he ate her?  If she had had a little more sense (or, depending on how you perceive her intentions, if her intentions had been a little less malicious), would she still be alive?  If he hadn't been drunk, would he have been eaten also or could he have saved her?

    Similarly, in watching Mr. Bean in his car, we are not paying any attention to movement in the car beside him.  We don't pay attention to the fact that the man who walks in front of his car clearly gets into the car beside him, as we can see from the slight lowering of the red car when he gets in and shake as he slams the door.  Thus, because we are diverted by Mr. Bean's antics, we are surprised when the red car pulls out and drives off.
  3. Up the stakes.

    Did you notice how many kids went in that water as soon as we had established the fact that it was unsafe?  There was hardly anybody in there until that point.

    How about Mr. Bean?  I think the upping of the stakes here is with the work and intention.  We see the plan.  We know that it's a ridiculous plan, but it's a plan nevertheless.  And the more he does, the more deliberate he is, the more he has lost when a better parking space opens up.
  4. It's not over till it's over.

    Just when we sigh with relief, there's more.  In "Jaws," that's the story of the whole movie.  First it's one death, then another.  First swimming is unsafe, then boating.  A harpoon won't kill that shark; neither will bullets.  He must be blown up.  How long can you prolong the problem (with caveats--this is where Luce's advice comes in)?

    In comedy, it's that natural reaction AND a breath moving on.  It's not over until Mr. Bean is really done.  First, he could have pulled in, seen the problem, and pulled through.  But no.  Second, he could have climbed out the window, but no, he banged the door and then pulled back.  Third, he could have just left the car there and then walked away, but no, he pushed the car forward.  Fourth, he could have walked away immediately, but no, he stuck around just long enough to see the offending car drive away.  By waiting all that time, by taking all those detours, by adding all those "ands" instead of "ends," we are pulled along.
  5. Whose fault is it?

    This last is not necessarily needed, but our culture has a tendency to assign this and it often end caps our stories.  In the "Jaws" clip, we have seen Alex's mother on the sand not watching Alex.  Do we blame her a bit?  To some extent, this blaming strategy not only throws a spotlight on prevention but it also allows the perpetrator to continue his/its reign of terror.  Because it was someone else's fault, I can prevent it from happening to me (which of course is only partly true, but that's why you have the rest of the book, movie, story, or whatever).

    In "Mr. Bean," this fault functions as an instance of needless suffering.  If Mr. Bean had just waited, then he would have been fine.  But he didn't, so we've all had a good laugh.  Sometimes this circumstance makes our protagonist out to be a fool.  Of course, that's Mr. Bean's hallmark.  You might want to watch this tendency in your own stories, though, and play around with caveats unless you really want to implicitly criticize your protagonist.

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