Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Writing Tidbit: Suspenseful Delight, Not Torture

In The New York Times, author Alex Stone explains the psychology behind why waiting is torture.  The article has some excellent points that I would like to highlight here and relate to writing.  In particular, I want to relate to how writers open up a question but delay when they answer it.  Sometimes the sense of suspense works, sometimes it doesn't.  Perhaps this article gives some hints as to why.

According to Stone's article:

  • It is non-occupation that creates the strong psychological sense that one is waiting longer than they are.  
  • Final moments are key; if one's wait ends with a positive emotion, one will look back on the wait in a more positive light.  If negative, the reflection will be negative.
  • The perceived value of the end result affects how long one is willing to wait.  The greater the value, the longer one's willingness.

What does Stone's article mean for writers creating a sense of suspense?  Well, the first thing to look at is what is happening between the question raised and the question answered.  How well is the author occupying the reader's time?  The better the intervening entertainment, the more likely the reader will perceive the wait time as minimal.

Finally, writers must not only set up a great question, they need to deliver a great answer, and they need to maintain that pattern.  This will hit two psychological points at once: the positive end note and the perception of great value.  If the author cannot create both of these consistently, then perhaps he or she needs to use some other technique than suspense to hook readers' attention.

So there it is, a few psychological tips to make suspense delight not torture the reader.

Cites: Stone, Alex. "Why Waiting Is Torture."  New York Times, New York Times, 18 Aug. 2012. Web. 18 Sept. 2012.


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