"I am a Minnesotan by birth and a traveler in wild places by vocation and compulsion." -Paul Gruchow

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Eng. 180: Creating Suspense

It's that weird week of Labor Day Week when Wednesday feels like Monday and everybody is scrambling to figure out what day it is.  I'm pleading extra ignorance today, with the second nasty headache of the week--and I'm blaming it on atmospheric cranky-ness and allergy hell.  Mostly, I always expect that when the calendar turns to September, it's going to magically be fall and sixty degrees.  But it's still in the nineties here in Nebraska and something isn't working with the AC in Andrews Hall, so weather-wise, it's just all uncomfortable.

We finished up Arthur Conan Doyle last Friday in my Intro to Lit class and it was great, for a few reasons.  The first is that it was the end of the second week and we, as a class, were starting to form some common vocabulary for what we're reading, what we're noticing.  We're getting enough reading material under our mental belts to be able to make connections between different writers, between different eras--and this is the exciting part of teaching literature.  Yesterday, we had our first day of Agatha Christie and "The Mousetrap."

I saw "The Mousetrap" in London with my family in 2000 and I'd actually forgotten whodunit (which was kind of surprising to me)--and I'd also forgotten that she'd asked that the story (not the play) not be published while the play was running, and it's been running continuously since 1952.  It's not been published in the UK, though it has been published in the U.S.  I'm not going to give away the murderer here, to honor her wishes (as the cast always asks the audience not to spoil the ending for those who have not seen it).

My students also turned in their Week 3 Think Piece (actually the second one they've done) and as I graded them yesterday, I was really surprised that so many of them had never even heard of Arthur Conan Doyle or Agatha Christie.  I wasn't surprised that they'd never read them (or just assumed that because they were old, they'd be boring), but I was surprised that they'd never heard of them.  I mean, it's one thing when you realize that as a teacher, you can't make Friends references like you did at the beginning of your teaching career, but to have never heard of Conan Doyle or Christie?  Boggles my mind.  And it teaches me something very important about assumptions.  For the most part, my students loved Conan Doyle--and that makes my little teacher heart go pitty-pat.  I have a few that are still stuck in the "like-don't like" stage of thinking about what we're reading, but most of them were floored that they enjoyed Sherlock Holmes and were able to articulate (at least a little) why that was, noticing things that they'd never have noticed on their own (which, of course, is the whole point of taking classes in college, right?).  

Yesterday, we started Agatha Christie, moving from Conan Doyle into the Golden Age/inter-war period of crime fiction.  My first group of students did a great job on their author presentation, which gave us background on Christie, the time period and culture, background on "The Mousetrap," and her position in the crime literature genre.  The Queen of Crime, after all.  Then I moved into a mini lecture that basically picked up where they left off, with the function of the English Country House sub genre of mysteries, the locked door/puzzle mystery, the rules of Fair Play, and such.

The success of a whodunit lies in our assumptions as readers.  What do we assume about the characters?  What do we assume about the plot?  What do we assume about the ending?  Well, we assume that the characters are who they say they are, for one.  We assume that given the rules of Fair Play (in this era, for this sub genre) we will be able to solve the puzzle, given all the clues.  We assume that the murderer will be caught and brought to justice by the end of the text.  Lots of assumptions--and the creation of suspense lies in those assumptions being wrong, in the ability of the writer to use block elements well.  We studied an article about those block elements (too little information, too much information (red herrings, etc.), contradictions, and false gestalt)--and for myself, I think they're fascinating.  Especially as Christie is brilliant at using them.

So, what is required to create suspense? 

Reader’s Assumptions:  How does the author set up the characters and the scenario so that we, as the readers think we know what is going on?  To what extent do we trust the author?  To what extent do we trust the characters?  What do we think we know--and how and why do we think we know it?  If there’s no trust to be broken, there’s no room for suspense. To consider:  Christie’s timing in the Golden Age, the rules of Fair Play, the rules of the Locked Door/Puzzle mystery.  What do we assume about Monkswell Manor?  What do we assume about the people who are gathered at Monkswell Manor?  What do we assume about our hosts?  What do we assume about Sergeant Trotter?  What do we assume about the murder of Mrs. Maureen Lyon?

What is at Stake?  If we don’t care about the characters, if we don’t care about what is happening or what might happen, there’s no possibility for suspense.  The first thing that happens is the wireless announcement of Maureen Lyons' death--so immediately that sets up life and death as what is at stake.  If crime literature is the literature of social order, what has been broken (or will be broken) and what must be restored to order?  What is the time period of the story?  The class structure of the characters?  Our assumptions about what those classes represent?

Control of the Clock:  There must be a time frame established, that if the murderer (or criminal of whatever variety) isn’t caught, then catastrophe will happen.  How many ways can this ticking clock be established?  How does “Three Blind Mice” function as the clock?  (Link to And Then There Were None and other stories that use nursery rhymes as a narrative structure?)

Reader’s Knowledge:  What do we know about our characters?  How do we know it?  How are we fed little pieces of information that don’t seem important at the time, but add up to everything we need to know--and should have been able to figure out?  What happens when we, as readers, know more about what is going on than the characters?  How does this create tension and suspense?

The Role of Place and Setting:  How does the physical world--both the built and natural environment function to create tension? The natural environment?  How does the weather function in the plot?  Either preventing or facilitating the movement of the story?  The built environment?  What role does the house play?

Breaking the Reader’s Trust:  In what ways is our trust broken?  How do we start to question who people are, what they represent? How does introducing doubt lead to tension and suspense?  Is there such a thing as coincidence?  The Christie Twist:  wondering if we can take the information and people at face value, wondering if it's a double-blind, wondering if it's a triple-blind?  And that's how she gets us to close our minds.

We only talked through Act One yesterday, ending with the murder of one of the characters (I'm not spoiling it for you if you haven't read it).  So, tomorrow, we'll finish the play and talk through Act Two.  I'm loving how many of them were really getting into it yesterday--not only a new author, but a new genre entirely (a play, after all).   Can't wait to talk about how our ideas of the genre change as the medium changes.  Can't wait!

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