Even though I am-a "literary" fiction writer, I am a slave to momentum and suspense. Literary fiction is the great garbage-pail for the nameof almost anything that isn't plot-driven fiction (genre) or character-driven (mainstream)--both admittedly superficial categories. Literary fiction is driven by an idea, an image, "voice," a title, almost anything that isn't plot or characters.
These are terms that critics use. They aren't necessarily what cataylzes your writing.
In fact, you may be catalyzed by character and called "literary," or catalyzed by plot and called mainstream.
So the somewhat glib classification can be thrown away--and you can have fun thinking about what catalyzes your work.
Yet all three of these forms of fiction are hopelessly tied to the business of creating suspense.
Suspense need not be a cliff-hanger. In "The Sisters," by Joyce, the only suspense (really a sense of momentum) is the process of a death (the priest) witnessed by the narrator (an altar boy). In "Remainder" by Tom McCarthy, the momentum is the unfolding of an outrageous desire to "enact" life, rather than to live it.
In this sense suspense is only a question that engages the reader. The question may be implicit. And once that question is anwered in the narrative, the writer has to pose another.
Thus the main rule of suspense is that there is an unanswered question or deeply-significant event (implicit or explicit) the answer to which is important to the reader. In a short story, you may only have to have ask this question once. (In The Sisters, by Joyce, the only question (implied) is when the priest is going to die.)
In a novel there may be many questions--both over-arcing and within-the-arc.There's the macro-question (who killed X?) and the micro-question (will detective Y, who has a penchant for non-digital watches, be able to get her broken watch fixed before the interview with the Z at the coroner's office tomorrow?).
The only luxurious exception to the importance of the question is flash fiction, where one must spit out a fast-moving story, perhaps in less than a paragraph, without breath. Often flash fiction has an ending that makes you conscious that there was a question to begin with--a question you didn't even know you asked. Or it makes you aware of an implicit corollary in an image. (As in Ana Hatherly's prose poem "Once upon a time there was a landscape where there weren't any clouds/To make rain it was necessar to wash the horizon with feathers.")
As a literary fiction writer, I am usually catalyzed by titles, images, or situations. My characters have always shown up for work with a willingness that I always feel I don't deserve.
But I bowed to suspense because editors and literary pundits said it mattered.
Recently, though, I've come to understand the importance of suspense in a different way: Suspense matters because it engages the reader in a question. And engaging the reader in a question makes the reader forget they are reading fiction and involves them proactively in a sense of real, lived, time. Readers enjoy questions as much for this curious sense of time-travel as they do for the answers (or interesting absence of answers) to questions. To put it a bit differently: Suspense gets readers--albeit unconsciously--to ask a question. Suspense makes readers lose their boundaries between themselves and what they are reading. I
This is why once a question is answered another has to be asked---not because fiction requires histrionic cliff hangers. It's because questions create immersion in the narrative. These questions may not seem important or earth-shattering. But they interest the reader.
They also mimic the world we live in--an uncertain world, laced with suspense: Will our child win the soccer competition? Can we find her lost notebook in time for math class? Will the store that repairs lamps be able to fix the lamp that an aunt left us in her will? (Add a complication: We want to sell this lamp because we need the money.) Will our lover return our call after a fight?
We ask big questions in our lives as well as small questions. We ask questions about love, about careers, about success--and nearly unanswerable questions about the meaning of life itself. But our ordinary lives are filled with smaller questions.
Allmost all questions--and the desire for answers--mirror the uncertainty of our world as well as the eternal (if misguided) optimism that once this question is answered everything will fall into place.
Fiction is luckier than life because questions can be answered with certainty or inrtiguing uncertainty. These questions engage us and make us forget about the world of "real" time, where questions are eternally asked, but answers fade into abiguities. When this happens in life, we hurry on to the next question. When ambiguities occur in fiction, we pause and reflect.
Fiction draws the reader into a smaller world. In this world there is room for an over-arcing question and questions within the arc. We are drawn in to a fictional time. And able to relish uncertainty.
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