Suspense novels work because suspense is hardwired into our very DNA. The human body is all about unexpected change—some of it is gradual, yes, but other metamorphoses occur quite suddenly and often alarmingly—and it begins from the day we are born (some would say even before).
Indeed, we are born into suspense. You can quibble about exactly when human life begins, but you cannot argue that the struggle to survive our birth is a life or death struggle and one whose outcome is uncertain. Suddenly, something inside of us pushes us down into a harrowing journey, constricted and uncomfortable. It is no wonder that the first sounds we make after birth seem to be a howling against the journey, a cry protesting the new and dangerous world we’ve entered.
Where once all was safe, warm, and secure in the bellies of our mothers, and we floated in bliss, now we are faced with a shocking change in our surroundings. Our senses are assaulted with new sights (once we have opened our eyes). Sounds once muted that made up background noise to our mother’s heartbeat are now amplified. The hospital smells of rubbing alcohol and baby powder nearly overwhelm us. The feel of cold air on our skin makes us quiver and tremble, longing for the warmth of the womb. It is no wonder we grasp at our mother’s breast, sucking long and hard at the one thing that satisfies and brings us closer to what we know.
What lies ahead for us after we are born?
Are we welcomed into loving, accepting arms…or are we rejected and put up for adoption? Do we grow up in the midst of a united family…or do we suffer the ripping effects of divorce? Do we ever find love and form families of our own or do we learn to live alone? And those are only some of the social uncertainties.
It seems that every time we think we have one phase of life mastered, we are pushed into another. Weaned from our mother’s breast, we have to learn to eat for ourselves. Used to being carried, we are encouraged to balance on our own two feet and then walk. Just as we grow comfortable with toddlerhood, we are thrust from the comfort of family into years of schooling and all the uncertainties that come with it.
And our bodies! Suddenly puberty hits and they begin to change in strange new ways. At first, it’s almost frightening, but we soon get used to our new selves. If we are women, we may deal with further changes that come with pregnancy and menopause. In any case, at some point in our forties or fifties, we realize our bodies are changing again. We aren’t as flexible, fast, or strong. The weaknesses only increase until we are almost as helpless near the end of our lives as we were at the beginning.
The only thing that doesn’t change is the fact that we never know exactly what lies ahead. Love, marriage, a new job, unemployment, injury, loss? Nothing is certain.
What lies ahead?
That question forms the basis of every suspense novel, whether romance, thriller, mystery, historical, horror, fantasy, or science fiction. The reader (like the main character) is held in suspense, wondering what calamity, change, or challenge will next occur as he or she turns the pages of the story. The more suspenseful the story, the quicker the pages are turned.
The reader may feel excited expectation, particularly in the case of romantic suspense. After all, there’s a love story in the mix with all the mystery and suspense and that guarantees a happy ending—one they’re excited to reach.
In a 2006 interview by John Connolly of Steven King, the well-known author of such works as “Carrie” said:
“…I think one of the things I’m fearful of is that sort of insanity, the kind of outbreak of
irrationality against which there is no real defense. All of a sudden it’s just there, it’s in your face, and there is no defense against it.”
During an online author interview, Tess Gerritsen, dubbed “medical suspense queen” by Publishers Weekly, said:
“Serial killers are our Frankenstein. We need a bad guy that we can all be afraid of . . . That’s why we read these books. We like the experience of being frightened. We also like the experience of having justice reassert itself by the end.”
The best kind of suspense, in my view, has a combination of both excited expectation and uncertain fear. There must be danger and conflict, really bad antagonists, plenty of twists, and a promising love story or satisfying ending. If it’s romantic suspense, the love story will balance the suspense. If it’s another kind of suspense story, the romance will take a back seat.
After all, life is like that. For some of us, love plays a large role throughout much of our lives. For others, it’s not a central part.
All of us, however, live in suspense.