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question about suspense writing

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Anyone have thoughts on whether writing suspense is more suspenseful in first or third person?

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#1 - July 06, 2013, 10:34 AM

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I think both first and third can be very suspenseful, so I'd make the decision based on other factors.

With a first-person, past-tense narration, we of course know that the person lived to tell the tale. But, then, most MCs do survive, so even 1st/past doesn't detract from suspense. One example that comes immediately to mind is Sue Grafton's alphabet mysteries. Kinsey Millhone is a first-person, past-tense narrator, but readers are still loving the books (I think the next title up is W!). 
#2 - July 06, 2013, 11:38 AM
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I think they can both work. It just depends on what you are going for. With first person you can be more immediate in the fear and surprise factor. But in third person you can "pan out" and possible show a few more shadowy characters, peeks into the villains mind, etc.  I've read stories both ways that work great.
#3 - July 06, 2013, 12:18 PM
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Oops, I didn't think of that. I am writing in first person and my MC has a near death experience at the height of the climax. It never occurred to me that the fact she is telling the story is a dead giveaway that she survives. I've got to think about this.
#4 - July 06, 2013, 01:40 PM

Hitchcock defines suspense as when the audience knows something that the character doesn't (ie, a bomb's been planted by the bad guys and about to go off). I find that's much easier to do in 3rd person, when, as AmandaSue says, you can show a few different povs. That said, I think (hope!) it is possible to do in first. One way is to have your character not connect the dots, but know your reader will be.
#5 - July 06, 2013, 04:05 PM
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Helpful responses. I see some writing from both in my future.
#6 - July 06, 2013, 04:43 PM

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Wasn't All Quiet on the Western Front written in first person? Yet the MC still dies. Of course, the reader might not be expecting that.
#7 - July 06, 2013, 05:55 PM
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Oops, I didn't think of that. I am writing in first person and my MC has a near death experience at the height of the climax. It never occurred to me that the fact she is telling the story is a dead giveaway that she survives. I've got to think about this.
I have read one or two books in which the first person narrator does die. You expect them not to because they are narrating, but then you get a disquieting surprise.
So there's no guarantee that the narrator lives (although it's the norm).
#8 - July 06, 2013, 09:50 PM
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I'll chime in with Anne that it definitely seems flexible when you have 3rd person because the reader can know all kinds of things that the characters don't, and there's suspense as we wait to see if and when the characters will find out. Not to mention foreshadowing, which an omnipotent narrator can do anytime.

But I think in first person, exactly, you can drop hints that the reader picks up on and build suspense as we begin to suspect something is going to happen even though the narrator doesn't pick up on the hints. And there are also other types of suspense, like will-the-character-or-won't-she, and that's no problem to do, it's the suspense we all feel when waiting on some event and wondering if it will go well, or the suspense waiting to see if we can stand up to something or hold up against something, like a weakness we have that we know will be tested. Also, you can do suspense around a character other than the first person narrator, in that case the narrator can know something that someone else doesn't, and the suspense, as in third person, is build around that other character.
#9 - July 07, 2013, 07:08 AM
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I have read one or two books in which the first person narrator does die. You expect them not to because they are narrating, but then you get a disquieting surprise.
So there's no guarantee that the narrator lives (although it's the norm).

Yeah. And a few times, I've wondered, while reading, if the narrator would die. I wondered with IF I STAY. I wondered with THE HUNGER GAMES. In fact, when I first read the Hunger Games, I had that thought early on - "oh, Katniss is going to live because she's a first-person narrator" - but two things happened as I read. First of all, I stopped thinking that, and wondered if she really might die. (This was before the books were so popular, so I hadn't gotten any spoilers.) Second, there were a lot of other important things going on. If she lived, what would she have to do to survive? Who might she have to kill? And other questions, like, what might she have to sacrifice? Would she be injured so terribly that she couldn't do the things she loved anymore? There were a lot of personal stakes that felt just as important as her physical survival.
#10 - July 07, 2013, 08:25 AM

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Great discussion!
I'm reading, The Unbecoming of Mara Dyer, first person and it is very suspenseful with keeping me flipping pages. It's first person and there are questions posed at every turn that I have to find the answers to.
I guess it's that age old solution of good writing no matter what!
I usually write in first, but for my new story much of what is happening in my head is coming out third.
#11 - July 07, 2013, 11:57 AM

I'm trying to do what you were talking about, Keith--drop hints that my MC doesn't pick up.  At one point my MC has everything backwards and I want to show her reasoning while at the same time hinting at how things really are. It's extraordinarily hard to do. I need it to be obvious enough that the audience will think "Oh yeah, that makes sense" when the truth finally comes out--but at the same time subtle enough that my MC doesn't look like a complete idiot for not figuring things out sooner. And even though I want it to make sense, I'd still like the reveal to be a surprise. I'm still trying to work out how I'm going to accomplish all that.

It was funny reading your comment, hairaplenty, because this is my first attempt at first person--I usually write in third. I tried writing this in third person at one point when I got frustrated, but it didn't work. The voice kept coming out in first person. Next book I'm going back to third person where I'm more comfortable.
#12 - July 08, 2013, 09:58 PM
« Last Edit: July 08, 2013, 10:09 PM by Michelle DP »

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I'm trying to do what you were talking about, Keith--drop hints that my MC doesn't pick up.  At one point my MC has everything backwards and I want to show her reasoning while at the same time hinting at how things really are. It's extraordinarily hard to do. I need it to be obvious enough that the audience will think "Oh yeah, that makes sense" when the truth finally comes out--but at the same time subtle enough that my MC doesn't look like a complete idiot for not figuring things out sooner. And even though I want it to make sense, I'd still like the reveal to be a surprise. I'm still trying to work out how I'm going to accomplish all that.

I agree, Michelle - it is a challenge. You don't want the reader to face-palm because the MC is so dumb for not picking up on things. I have this sort of thing going on in a mystery I've written, and my MC's strong emotions cloud a lot of her judgement (which helps). But I also have her working through things and justifying her actions in conversations with others, or doing things because she's pig-headed (which might be the opposite of the sensible/rational thing). If the MC is very one-eyed about something, it makes it easier for them to not see what's right in front of them. Or have them quickly distracted by something else so they can't give enough thought to obvious clues. In my current MS (which isn't a suspense but has a secret the MC doesn't know about), there is a lot of dialogue where I had to have a character saying one thing but my MC hearing another and misinterpreting it. It's very tricky!
#13 - July 09, 2013, 03:48 AM
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