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Posts tagged ‘Thrillers’

Some Mechanisms Underlying Narrative Tension

Since the WIP I’m finishing up is an espionage fantasy, it’s safe to say I’ve been thinking a lot about pacing and how thrillers achieve their heart-pounding, edge-of-your-seat engagement with the reader. Superficially, they do it through mounting tension followed by an action-packed release of that tension. But that describes the characteristics of their pacing, and not their mechanism. How is that effect produced?

I’ve got a theory (which I go into below), but I’d love to know what everyone else thinks.

Where Does Narrative Tension Come From?

Alfred Hitchcock famously suggested that tension didn’t come from a bomb exploding under a table, but rather from the audience knowing that the bomb was about to go off while the hero did not. I can’t think of anything more important to narrative tension than this principle: tension doesn’t come from plot, and it doesn’t come from the characters. It comes from the reader.

When we read a story, we bring our own experiences to the table. One might even think of stories as being half-complete without the reader: our physiological, mental, and neurological reactions are the medium through which the story gets perceived. But as lowly writers we rely on our words to push the reader’s buttons and so evoke an emotional, physiological, and intellectual response.

Like time, narrative is never static, and it moves in only one direction. This structure gets reflected at every level of storytelling, from in the overall shape the story takes all the way down to the sentence. The fact that narrative has sequence makes tension possible because the two mechanisms through which tension is created rely on it. Without sequence, anticipation and resolution would be impossible.

Anticipation, Uncertainty, and Attention

I like to think of readers’ capacity to experience narrative tension as a happy consequence of our evolution: the same pattern-seeking that let our ancestors eat, today enables us to enjoy stories. We are structurally savvy as a result: give us two beats and we expect the third.

This means that when we experience a story, we constantly strive to stay one step (or more) ahead. This anticipatory tendency occurs along all dimensions: we anticipate how characters will feel, we anticipate how characters will think, we anticipate how events will unfold, and we anticipate how the story will affect us.

These many levels of anticipation are directed by the writing: as we read, we learn more about the events of the story, about the characters’ perceptions, about the direction in which the writer wants to take us. We find this evidence in the events the writer portrays, in the way the prose is expressed, and even in the structures of sentences and chapters. We internalize all of the evidence, and it shapes our expectations. Yet there always remains a degree of uncertainty.

We are imperfect predictors, and our expectations are just as fallible when experiencing narrative as when predicting the stock market. Our own awareness of this fact generates uncertainty around our expectations: we think we know what will happen, but until it does, we are never completely certain.

The act of reading is one of battling uncertainty: as we follow the story, we collect additional evidence to refine our unspoken expectations. With each sentence, the range of possibilities narrows. If all of the evidence confirms our expectations, proves that we were right, then the story becomes dull and predictable. But when events unfold in an unexpected direction – while retaining their plausibility – our attention gets focused.

This is why complications and setbacks are such powerful storytelling tools. Complications for the sake of complication are worthless. A checklist of challenges that must be overcome does nothing to heighten tension. Yet when a complication is non-obvious but internally consistent with all the preceding evidence, it represents a significant new set of facts for our pattern-seeking minds to take into account. This focuses our attention, as we use this new information to refine our expectations going forward.

Each time our attention is re-focused, our investment in the story increases. We become more engaged and we pay closer attention, so that our updated set of expectations can be more accurate than our last.

The Evidence that Drives Expectations

The content of the story (i.e. the events, the characters, and their emotional journey) is some of the most significant evidence that readers use to shape their expectations. When it comes to the content, everything is of a piece: character, events, and emotions all shape one another.

Characters respond to events and in so doing create new events. Their responses are influenced by their emotions and knowledge, which in turn are both shaped by past events. When a story gives us insight into a character’s inner perceptions, when the writer shows us something about the character’s nature, it provides enormous amounts of additional information which we subsequently use to adjust our own expectations as audience.

Luke Skywalker and Han Solo will respond to the same stimuli differently. We engage more fully with (read: we pay closer attention to) characters who are more complex because they force us to re-evaluate our expectations more frequently. If we have a one-note character, their responses to events will always be predictable and our attention (and resulting investment in the character) will flag. But a character whose motivations are more complicated has a greater capacity to defy our expectations, which in turn increases our attention and our investment in the character and their story. Which is why Han Solo is more beloved of fans than Luke Skywalker (the ostensible hero).

But defying audience expectations is not universally good. When events unfold without adequate setup, then the contract between writer and reader gets broken. That implied contract states “Everything I show you contributes to the story.” The implicit consequence of this contract is that the reader can shape his or her expectations based on the story’s prior evidence. But when events and character responses unfold implausibly given that prior evidence, then the rationale that enables anticipation – and its resulting tension, attention, and investment – collapses. Which is why the Star Wars prequels fail: they invalidate the evidence derived from the original trilogy, and within their own story arc, their events develop implausibly. (I’ve got an earlier post on plausibility’s relationship to surprises and tension here)

Resolution, Acceleration, and Satisfaction

Stress is bad for our health. And unresolved tension, the kind of unflagging suspense that only increases without any release, becomes quite stressful. For tension to be productive, it must at some point get resolved.

We all know the feeling: that relaxed sigh of release at the end of a roller-coaster, or at the end of a particularly powerful experience. In fiction, we get that when all of the uncertainty and varied expectations crystallize into one – internally consistent – reality. It is where the disparate plot threads and character arcs come together on thematic and contentual levels.

But to produce a satisfying resolution, the means by which the tension gets resolved must remain plausible within the context of the prior evidence given to the reader. Without that, the anticipation that has been so painstakingly built is undermined at the most important moment. This gets complicated, particularly with complex stories with multiple levels of conflict and warring internal and external priorities. But that’s why successful resolution almost always relies on acceleration.

Good stories are often equated to roller-coasters, and that’s because the structure of their anticipation and resolution resembles one. The tension mounts as we go up the ever-steeper hill. We slow down, and the anticipation of the plunge to come grows. Then we reach the crest, and our car plummets down.

The plummet – contrary to simplistic views – is not the moment of resolution. It’s not the moment of release when we can sit back and enjoy a feeling of well-earned satisfaction. The plummet is the moment of acceleration, when the gradual accumulation of evidence (and its consequentially mounting anticipation) kicks into overdrive.

The whole way up, we’re collecting sensory evidence: the thinning air, the view from way up high, the slowing of the car, etc. That evidence tells us “We’re going to fall.” And with each rickety inch upwards, this expectation strengthens. At the top of the hill, we’re still collecting that evidence: now we see the drop, and so our expectations begin to crystallize. The range of possibilities narrows, and we say “We’re definitely going to fall.” As we take the plunge, we’re still collecting evidence: the howling wind, the yawning pit in our stomach, the screams around us. The rate at which evidence is accumulated, the degree to which the senses and the intellect are engaged, increases dramatically. And, influenced by our physiological response, our expectations naturally shift from “We’re definitely going to fall” to “We’re going to die.” When we survive, in defiance of everything our bodies led us to expect, that is the moment of resolution and the resulting sigh of release.

In fiction, the fast pace that leads to the story’s cathartic climax works the same way. The readers expectations modulate over the course of the story, expanding and contracting as new evidence of an emotional and experiential nature is offered them. The anticipatory tension grows leading up to the climax, and then the rate at which evidence is offered, the speed with which possibilities are narrowed down, accelerates dramatically until it resolves into the final – true – outcome.

When done well, the accelerating evidence remains consistent with what came before. But the amount of new evidence given the reader increases, while the space in which that information gets communicated shrinks. In other words, information density grows. If the plausibility of the new evidence is maintained, this creates a sense of inevitability: “Of course that’s how it happened! How else could it have?” And it is from this sense of inevitability – which exists in tension with our previous expectations – that satisfaction derives. And the degree of satisfaction we feel is ultimately determined by the degree to which all of the story’s elements – its characters, its plot, its writing, its themes, etc. – were unified in contributing to those reader’s expectations, and to maintaining the plausibility that lends the story inevitability.

Some stories play with this process in their dénoument – notably post-resolution. Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game and Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd both do so by forcing a re-evaluation of prior evidence and expectations after the action’s resolution.

In other words, a reader’s attention is a function of mounting narrative tension, which itself is a consequence of the reader’s (conscious or unconscious) tendency to anticipate. As the story nears its conclusion, the rate at which evidence accumulates accelerates, which further focuses the reader’s attention and engagement with the story. And whether this resolution finally satisfies or not depends on the plausibility, internal consistency, and unity of all evidence when the story wraps up.

That’s my theory, at any rate. What do you think?

Why Do Thrillers Outsell Science Fiction?

I’ve written before about the relationship between spy fiction and science fiction, but after recently re-reading Tom Clancy’s The Hunt for Red October, the relationship is even further solidified in my mind. While Fleming and Le Carré provide good examples of using world-building and neologism in an otherwise realistic environment, Clancy wrestles with the tension between scientific accuracy and the narrative’s accessibility in the same way that hard science fiction authors do.

The more I thought about this fact, the more I realized that techno-thrillers (whether espionage-focused or not) are absolutely science fictional. But that begs a basic question: why do Tom Clancy, Clive Cussler, etc. regularly hit the top of the bestseller charts, while more fantastic titles tend to rank lower?

I think the reason is twofold: on the one hand, thrillers have largely avoided the critical condemnation that has afflicted science fiction for much of its history, and on the other hand, I believe that thrillers place a higher priority on emotional accessibility than science fiction does.

Thrillers and Science Fiction: Two Genres, Both Alike in Narrative Devices

I’ve written before about how espionage fiction incorporates cognitive estrangement and jargon into its world-building, but the thriller genre uses many more science fictional devices. Techno-thrillers in particular throw a tremendous amount of technical detail at the reader, asking them to understand submarine naval engineering (Tom Clancy), microbiology (Michael Crichton), or encryption (Neal Stephenson). The fact that much of the science fiction community claims two of those three authors as “its own” should give some indication of the porous borders separating the two categories.

Tom Clancy’s The Hunt for Red October, for example, is brimming with highly detailed explanations of submarine propulsion and sonar systems. With relatively little modification – merely by changing a few words here and there in the text – it could easily be recast as a novel about starships.

The technical detail that techno-thrillers utilize serves a similar purpose to the technical detail included in much hard science fiction: it provides some measure of cognitive estrangement for the reader, signalling that the text necessitates a different set of reading protocols than a mainstream realistic novel. It can also serve as a fig-leaf in the quest for verisimilitude: a profusion of technical details may obscure the blatant implausibility of the story’s technological conceit, for example. And thematically, the technology or its consequences may well be the point (whether metaphorical or not) of the story.

In this, thrillers and science fiction are very similar. However, when we consider the two genres’ histories, their paths begin to diverge.

The Shared Roots of Thrillers and Science Fiction

DISCLAIMER: I’m not really a genre historian, and so this is a broad and sweeping set of generalizations that might not stand up to closer scrutiny. If you know of anything to either support or demolish my theory, please comment and let me know!

While both thrillers and science fiction can trace putative roots back to myth, I think that for all practical purposes both genres really got their start in the 19th century. “Sensational” stories like The Count of Monte Cristo or Les Miserables were published alongside scientific romances like Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea or gothic fictions like Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus.

The two categories shared many of the same narrative devices, and many of the same narrative structures. They both belonged to a macro-class of fiction that one could justly call “adventure fiction”, and which also included the mystery (as pioneered by Edgar Allen Poe, Wilkie Collins, and Arthur Conan Doyle), the adventure (as executed by H. Rider Haggard, Rudyard Kipling, and Robert Louis Stevenson), and later the western (Karl May, Owen Wister, and Zane Grey).

All of these siblings found a popular home in short fiction magazines, particularly in the pulp magazines of the early 20th century. And all were – initially – derided by critics as popular literature of an escapist (at best) or immoral (at worst) bent. But then in the 1920s and 1930s, something changed.

Mysteries and thrillers – particularly spy fiction – began to focus inward on the character, and on the character’s emotions and attitudes. Raymond Chandler and Rex Stout for mysteries, Joseph Conrad and Graham Greene for espionage, Joseph Conrad (again) and Damon Runyon for adventure – suddenly the focus of their stories had shifted inward onto the character and onto the emotional journey the story took the reader on.

At the same time, Gernsbackian “scientifiction” shifted early science fiction in the exact opposite direction. Where crime, adventure, and espionage writing prioritized the philosophical and emotional exploration of character, science fiction pointedly shifted it outwards onto the larger-scale extrapolation of technological consequences.

The critics in the 1940s – 1980s preferred the new-found inward focus of mysteries and thrillers to the outward focus of pulp-era science fiction. The critics prioritized that exploration of morality and character which early science fiction didn’t focus on. And it was those critical opinions in the 1940s – 1980s that discredited science fiction as “trash” literature in the popular imagination.

A Question of Priorities: Differences Between Thrillers and Science Fiction

The consequences of that shifting focus can still be seen in the genre today. Readers – and editors, publishers, and critics – have certain expectations of thrillers and certain expectations of science fiction.

Thrillers, as the name suggests, thrill. They get our hearts pumping and our fingers flipping pages. We engage emotionally and intellectually with the adventure and the characters. If a thriller fails to develop that intense edge-of-your-seat engagement with its reader, then it fails as a thriller: it disqualifies itself from its own category (like a category romance with no romance).

Though science fiction – and even hard science fiction – have focused increasingly on character, emotion, and moral philosophy in the last fifty years, as a genre we continue to prioritize high-concepts over visceral excitement. We look for the cool novum or the intriguing concept, and feel that the story’s underlying conceits are valuable in and of themselves. If the story is exciting, too, then that’s a bonus. In order to be published, a science fiction story does not need (nor is harmed by) the emotional intensity of a thriller. This is not a criticism, nor is it a complaint. It is merely my observation of priorities in the speculative fiction community.

If science fiction is a genre of ideas, then thrillers are a genre of tension. And even if Tom Clancy includes pages and pages of prose describing the detailed engineering of a submarine propulsion system, that technical detail is in service to the tension of the story, and only works insofar as it helps to contextualize or heighten that tension.

Why Thrillers Outsell Science Fiction

So given all this, why then do thrillers outrank science fiction on the bestseller lists? First, I think that the critical condemnation heaped upon science fiction for much of the 20th century cannot be overstated. Mysteries and espionage in particular have gotten much critical love over the years, while science fiction has only relatively recently come in out of the critical cold.

This critical condemnation inculcates – and has inculcated – several generations of readers against science fiction. It is not that these readers reject science fictional narrative devices – they merely reject the category that explicitly contains them. Label those same narrative techniques as a “thriller” and they’ll buy the hardcover.

Furthermore, I suspect that for many readers thrillers are more accessible than much hard science fiction. Thrillers prioritize character and the reader’s emotional journey over science and philosophy. This makes the story more accessible, and anecdotally, I know many thriller readers who gloss over the techno-babble to get to the action (loosely defined).

Technology is rarely the focus of even the most technical of techno-thrillers. Cool Science for the sake of Cool Science is almost non-existent in the thriller genre. Instead, the genre focuses on the application of Cool Science rather than its explication

And finally, thrillers are typically either set contemporaneously to their reader’s experience, or close enough in time that the technology in use seems more plausible. I know just as much about submarine propulsion as I do about starship propulsion (which is not much). But the imaginative effort I must make to understand Clancy’s The Hunt for Red October is far lesser than that which I must make for Peter Watts’ Starfish. Both may be (and are) well-executed and rewarding stories, but the level of effort needed to earn that reward is markedly different.

In other words, thrillers outsell hard science fiction because as a genre they are historically less stigmatised, more emotionally focused, and feature technology that is easier for readers to internalize.

A Future Recombinant of Thrillers and Science Fiction?

Given all of this, and given society’s increasing familiarity with science fictional devices, what does the future hold for both genres? Personally, I think we will see certain branches of science fiction increasingly resemble the thriller genre.

Science fiction – even “hard” science fiction – has been shifting its focus inward for the past fifty years, and this is an ongoing process that is nowhere near complete (if such a process can ever actually be completed). Many notable authors in the genre – William Gibson, Tim Powers, Ian McDonald – write stories that could easily be published either as thriller or as science fiction. And some authors, like Mira Grant in her Newsflesh trilogy, take the strengths of both genres and integrate them so seamlessly as to approach perfection.

I’d like to see more of that. And I’d also like to know what you think. Why do you think thrillers regularly outrank science fiction on the bestseller lists? And what are the implications for either genre?

Why do we love science fiction, fantasy, or horror?

Over on the Absolute Write Forums, GreenEpic posted a fairly thought provoking question:

Does anyone have a theory as to why science fiction and fantasy are so popular?

While the thread there has a bunch of really good answers, most of them tend towards the anecdotal. And as this is the Internet, and I have a generalized opinion, I figured I’d share it for public consumption. Here’s what I think:

Science fiction, fantasy, and horror are all marketing categories. They loosely describe a set of fictional conventions that can be expected within a given work. Does a story have robots? Odds are it is science fiction. Does it have magic? Most likely fantasy. Does it have undead monsters out to eat your flesh? I’d guess horror. Of course, this is a gross over-simplification. As a lot of my earlier posts on genre observations suggest, the reality is a heck of a lot more complicated. But your typical reader or movie-goer isn’t terribly concerned with the minutiae of genre theory (which I think is unfortunate, but I’m both nerdy and pedantic). Why do so many respond – in one fashion or another – to speculative storytelling?

Psychological, Physiological, and Neurological Levels of Storytelling

Rational, Emotional, Physiological, and Neurological Responses to Storytelling

Levels of Response to Story

Experiencing a story affects us on both psychological and physiological levels. Have you read stories that put you on the edge of your seat? They tugged on your subconscious emotions to increase tension. That sensation of your palms sweating or your heart beating faster? The story, and the tension it engendered, elicited a physiological response. Or have you ever fallen into a story so lovely that the world around you and the passage of time faded into mere background noise? The story produced a neurological trance-state, not unlike meditation or hypnosis. Have you ever read a book and realized you might be wrong about something? The story’s rhetoric affected your rational thoughts and values.

There’s a connection between our brains and our bodies that good storytelling can powerfully manipulate. It is simultaneously a positive and negative feedback system, where if a story affects one aspect of our beings it has ripple effects that impinge on every other aspect. When a creator manipulates this system skillfully, the effect is transparent and immensely powerful. And here’s why this is important: a story’s marketing category has no bearing on the audience’s response.

That’s right. Whether we’re reading mainstream literary fiction, watching Blade Runner, or flipping through a comic book, our brains and bodies will still respond to the underlying story. When we participate in ludic reading (reading for pleasure), we are looking for a certain configuration of those four responses. Of course, we can’t possibly articulate what that configuration might be (I can’t imagine anyone looking for a story that produces a 40% emotional, 30% physiological, 20% neurological, and 10% rational responses). And the components of those configurations are likely to have fairly fuzzy borders, because they are greatly affected by our state of mind/body at the time of the experience. But when we experience a satisfying story, when a story has elicited a satisfactory configuration of responses, we know it. We say “That was a good story” or “That was fun” without trying to really take it apart and understand why. And a story’s marketing category does not affect how it manipulates our responses. Instead, it describes the conventions appropriate to correctly interpreting its plot.

Basic Modes of Storytelling

Put away your Northrup Frye. I’m talking about something much more essential than mimesis or myth. If we just focus on a story’s plot and how that plot is constructed, we find several different modes of storytelling. Each of these modes relies on a certain configuration of those responses I mentioned above.

For example, an adventure story is going to produce a certain kind of physiological response. Our heart rate might increase, our breath might grow short, we might be eagerly looking to see how the hero will get out of a particular jam. But a mimetic (for the sake of simplicity, let’s call it a representative or slice-of-life) story is unlikely to produce that kind of response. Instead, it is more likely to be quieter, slower.

Basic Modes of Storytelling, with Realistic & Fantastical Examples

Basic Modes of Storytelling, with Realistic & Fantastical Examples

These responses have nothing whatsoever to do with whether a story has fantastical elements or not. Consider two adventures: Alexandre Dumas’ The Three Musketeers and Steven Brust’s The Phoenix Guards. They make for an interesting comparison, in that the latter is explicitly modeled on the former. But while Dumas’ most famous work has no fantastical elements to speak of, Brust’s novel is replete with them. Yet both stories produce similar responses in the reader, particularly if we are familiar with both works.

So if a story’s fantastical elements (or the lack thereof) has no bearing on the mode a story is told in, then why do some folks prefer speculative fiction over realistic fiction?

Gateway Drugs, Sense-of-Wonder, and the Multitudinous Genre

I believe that fantastical storytelling has an inherent advantage over realistic storytelling. There are no boundaries on what we can do with it. If a concretized metaphor (*cough* the one ring *cough*) adds value to our story, then why not run with it? Just because it isn’t realistic does not mean such images or metaphors are valueless.

Realistic storytelling is actually a subset of fantastical storytelling: by design, it chooses to limit its images and narrative devices to those which can be found in real life. If we love good storytelling, then it’s perfectly natural that we would love the speculative genres. Like Whitman, they contain multitudes. Every single realistic story, from Shakespeare to Joyce, can be presented using fantastical imagery. That a particular execution of a story remains realistic is merely the consequence of an authorial decision as to its ideal presentation.

Yet despite the fact that good stories do not need fantastical devices to remain good stories, plenty of folks out there read exclusively in the fantastic genres. Why? If they can find equally enjoyable stories among the “realistic” shelves, why stick with SF/F/H? I suspect it is because of a positive feedback loop imprinted on our brains early on. When we first consciously encounter storytelling, we look for patterns. It’s a consequence of our highly-developed simian brains. So if in those formative years, we learn that science fiction, or fantasy, or horror is statistically more likely to produce a particular configuration of responses that satisfies us, we treat it like a drug. We learn to love it, and to equate that particular marketing category with the pleasure it produces. And then sometimes, we never stray beyond that gateway.

This gate swings both ways, of course. The same holds true for many readers of realistic fiction, or for many movie-goers who never pick up a book. It’s all about the positive feedback loop that gets imprinted on our neurons at a formative age. I suspect (on the basis of absolutely zero neurological knowledge) that this imprinting can be changed as our experiences change us, but it remains a powerful driver of our experiences.

I suspect the tough-to-pin-down “sense of wonder” is actually a consequence of this gateway drug. If we are adequately self-aware, we learn to recognize (through a meta-cognitive experience), the response we are seeking. That recognition produces that scintillating sense-of-wonder fans of SF/F/H use to justify our genre habit. Speaking for myself, I can elicit that same sense-of-wonder reading outside of genre (Patrick O’Brian’s books come to mind, as do Yasunari Kawabata’s). I don’t believe wonder is genre-specific, although the experience is statistically more common among the fantastic shelves.

And this brings us to the core reason why the speculative genres are so popular: they are a marketing category that encompasses all of the basic modes of storytelling found in realistic fiction. You’ll notice there is no such marketing category as “realistic fiction”. If we want to balance “SF/F/H” we would need an equally broad “realistic fiction” category. But instead, the “realistic fiction” section is fragmented into literary fiction, thrillers, romance, mystery, historical fiction, etc. If you want to find a realistic story told in the romantic mode, well your odds are pretty small looking under literary fiction. If you want a piece of mimetic fiction that deepens your understanding of the human condition, you should probably avoid the thriller shelves.

Yet all of these storytelling modes can be found side-by-side in the science fiction, fantasy, and horror section. Fans of genre fiction need never wander outside of those shelves to find stories that satisfy their every need. And that’s why, as a marketing category, it is so popular. It contains multitudes. And those increase the odds that a story from that marketing category will produce a satisfying response. Of course, much as I love fantastical fiction, I still think folks should read outside of their beloved genres every now and again. But if they don’t, well that’s fine, too: speculative fiction’s got a lot to love.

What do you think? Why does speculative fiction push a lot of our buttons and keep our attention the way it does? Why does it produce such fervent loyalty on the part of readers and viewers?

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