There are a lot of ways for a novelist to create suspense, but also really only two: one a trick, one an art.

The trick is to keep a secret. Or many secrets, even. In Lee Child’s books, Jack Reacher always has a big mystery to crack, but there are a series of smaller mysteries in the meantime, too, a new one appearing as soon as the last is resolved. J. K. Rowling is another master of this technique — Who gave Harry that Firebolt? How is Rita Skeeter getting her info?

The art, meanwhile, the thing that makes “Pride and Prejudice” so superbly suspenseful, more suspenseful than the slickest spy novel, is to write stories in which characters must make decisions. “Breaking Bad” kept a few secrets from its audience, but for the most part it was fantastically adept at forcing Walter and Jesse into choice, into action. The same is true of “Freedom,” or “My Brilliant Friend,” or “Anna Karenina,” all novels that are hard to stop reading even when it seems as if it should be easy.

Charles Finch, in his round up of the summer thrillers in the New York Times Book Review. Just clipping this into the Tumblr, because I thought it was such an elegant formulation… the trick vs the art. The whole piece is worth a look for people who need a warm weather fix of suspense. (via joehillsthrills)

Hmm. I appreciate the praise for my favourite, Pride and Prejudice, but I do think this conflates some different things. As a writer, I’m increasingly uncomfortable with the concept of characterization as above all else. I think there are many cases when nuanced artistic characterization is not particularly valuable or useful, and many cases where it is–it depends on the type of story. 

Something like P&P is a novel about character that executes its purposes beautifully. The Harry Potter books are whodunnits in fancy clothes. That is, the story is itself the thing, rather than a vehicle for other things. I don’t think that’s any less artistic–no more than setting-focused stories or theme-focused ones. 

Obviously everything involves all four to some extent, but different works have different focuses. The art is in the execution, not the subject.


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