How does an author build suspense if the reader knows the ending?
January 27, 2014
The last two days I’ve watched the first two installments of The Hobbit with my youngest daughter.
I don’t understand The Hobbit.
According to my daughter, now that I have watched Hobbit I and II, I am off the Hobbit hook until the release of Hobbit III, which will probably be in about six months.
Maybe Hobbit III will be delayed.
But meanwhile, I am processing what I already know:
Dwarfs lost their kingdom. They want it back. The heir to the dwarf throne is fearless if diminutive. Elves hate dwarfs, but they hate the bad guys more, so they are willing to help the dwarfs in their quest. Due to a shortage of evil dentists, the bad guys have terrible teeth.
In the lost castle, a wicked dragon named Smaug guards a treasure trove of gold and jewels, including the gem that will make its possessor the hooking bull.
Smaug is the real dragon thing.
It is better not to get on his bad side.
The dwarfs and their unlikely companion, a Hobbit, are on his bad side, in the worst way.
But there is a chink in Smaug’s armor and a weapon that can bring him down if our hero wields it at just the right time.
So far he hasn’t wielded it.
And therein lies the point of this blog.
Everyone who watches the Hobbit knows early on about the dragon. And they learn early on about the chink in his armor and the one weapon that can bring him down.
It’s like the Titanic.
Everyone who bought a ticket to the movie knew the ship sank at the end.
Just like everyone who watches the endless Hobbit movies knows Smaug will get it in the end, or the stomach, or wherever.
In a situation where the reader knows the ending, how can an author maintain suspense in her story?
I could cheat here and say the best thing for an author to do is not to give away the ending until the very end.
But maybe the better approach is to understand that a book has many endings. It has as many endings as it has story lines, as many as it has heros and main characters.
The grand scheme of the novel is simply a tool the author uses to tell a host of stories, each one containing the rise and fall and rise again of the characters that matter.
If the ending is known, the reader wants to know how the characters will make it to that climactic moment when the pieces fit together. She wants to know who will survive to the end, who will perish long the way.
Back to the Titanic.
The known ending is what makes the story work.
How can hope come out of certain death?
In the Hobbit the question is not whether the good guys will win.
We know they will ultimately prevail.
The question is how will they traverse the terrain, what impossible ordeals will they survive?
Suspense only works, however, if the trek is important to the reader. If the reader doesn’t understand what hangs in the balance, she doesn’t have a reason to keep reading.
And, as always, what hangs in the balance should be two fundamental things: Life or death.