Advice From A Dude Who Hasn’t Even Been Published – Good/Bad Suspense

Today, in the aftermath of the long-anticipated Lost finale, I want to investigate good and bad ways to finish a storyline driven by suspense.

I have to admit up front that I am not a fan of the recently concluded Lost series.  I’m not an anti-fan either; I just never watched it.

When the buzz about Lost started really kicking in, and everyone I knew began proselytizing the show like freshly shaved cultists, I started having Twin Peaks flashbacks.  There was no way I was going to get psychologically invested in a show about weird goings on that would never be explained.

Once bitten, and all that.

Judging from the reactions of many Lost fans to last night’s finale, my caution was prescient.  Despite resolution on a few interpersonal issues between the characters, I have heard from more than one Loster (Lostie?) that the end of the series left most of the questions completely unanswered.

But, looking at this problem as a reader/writer of fiction, it does highlight an intriguing aspect of audience satisfaction.

Resolution of suspense — emotional, narrative, or otherwise — is a hallmark of good writing in any genre.  Even when issues are purposefully left unresolved (Is Han Solo Gandalf Captain Jack Sparrow really dead?!) it usually implies a promise of future resolution in the form of another episode.

The Feedback Loop Between
Writer And Reader

What makes a successful creator of fiction is essentially the same thing that makes a successful creator of any good or service.

A free and open competition, as Adam Smith described it, creates a feedback loop that (ideally) rewards providers who make consumers happy to come back to them.  For example, a novelist who makes the reader happy is far more likely to get her next book read than a novelist who leaves the reader disappointed, frustrated, or resentful.

I know free market talk tends to raise the hackles of some left-leaning folks who tend to be suspicious of exploitative and dishonest business thinking, so let me inject the caveat that most of what gets bandied about in popular discourse as “free market economics” is nothing of the sort.

Smith envisioned free market competition as a sort of mutual accountability, a moral feedback loop.  He was a moral philosopher, and the prequel to his infamous Wealth of Nations was a little book called The Theory of Moral Sentiments in which he argues that moral behavior evolves as people hold each other accountable for good and bad treatment.  For Smith, economics was simply an extension of moral social behavior.

This sort of free competition doesn’t work perfectly in every situations, but when it does work, it’s basically using a form of natural selection in support of the Golden Rule, the selection of our natural human instincts for mutuality, sociability, and justice.

Applied to creative writing, Smith’s feedback loop essentially means that a writer who screws his audience, will lose his audience.

So, how does a series like Lost (and that !#$@% Twin Peaks) get away with leaving viewers in frustratingly unresolved suspense?  Can writers learn something — even something wicked and cynical and profiteering — from this phenomenon?

Opportunities And Stringers

If you’re a writer who wants more than just to be published, if you’re a writer who wants a writing career, you really don’t want to offend your readers in your story’s climax.

Now, let me clarify this by saying that I believe this is almost always compatible with, if not identical to, not offending the story itself, its characters, and the logic of its world.  Keep a story true to itself (and write it as well as it can be written) and readers will respond with affection.  There’s no inherent conflict between genuine authenticity and appeal.

And, when the story calls for a suspenseful cliff-hanger like those mentioned above in the Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, and Pirates of the Caribbean plot-lines, wise professionals will be careful to let the audience know that more is on the way. “This is only part 2 of a trilogy, ladies and gentlemen!”

Why?  Because they know that if they end one story with a key character frozen in carbonite, at the bottom of Khazad-Dûm, or trapped in Davy Jones’ Locker, there had damn well better be another story on the way with some sort of resolution if they want audiences to ever trust them again.

The writers of a series like Lost, however, simply have no such incentive to be nice to their audience. This is why so many television series, no matter how well written during their golden years, end on a sour note.

Lost and television series like it reward their creators by dragging viewers back week after week in the hope of finding resolution to the narrative, emotional, or sexual tensions that have been building up, and those viewers translate immediately into advertising dollars.

Television writers get rewarded before they finally deliver for their audience, so there’s no real need to make the climax count.  What they have to do is keep viewers coming back right up to the end, and all that takes is building suspense, not resolving it.

From what I’ve heard, the distracting commercial saturation of the Lost finale sadly confirms my cynicism on this count.

In moral economic terms, by indefinitely postponing the moment of viewer feedback (much like how Davy Jones offered indefinite postponement of Divine Judgment) the creators of Lost were able to string their audience along, fail to resolve much of the suspense they had created, and make a success out of what many are now saying was — on the whole — a disappointing story.

Lost short-circuited Adam Smith’s moral feedback loop.

Counter-Advice:
Don’t Screw Your Readers

For most of us, however, this short-circuiting isn’t an option, even if we wanted it to be.   Most writers don’t have access to the treasure hoard necessary for a years-long television campaign dangling one intriguing mystery after another before the audience with no real intention (or perhaps, no real literary ability) to provide eventual satisfaction.

Most of us write individual stories, perhaps as part of a larger milieu, but nevertheless stories packaged so that each episode/book carries with it the peril of negative feedback.   Because of this contrast, Lost provides a good example of how not to treat your audience.

Even if, like myself, you write stories that contain elements of suspense that must remain unresolved at the end of certain individual stories, as a writer you had better know what the resolution of those mysteries will be, if for no other reason than to avoid painting yourself into a narrative corner from which no coherent explanation provides an escape.

Writers who confess to having notebooks full of background information on their characters and setting are wise in this regard.  Those notebooks represent literary resources with which to identify ways to resolve the conflict you’ve built, satisfy your audience, and ultimately make yourself a more successful writer.

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7 comments

  1. Great post! I especially liked your caveat that “most of what gets bandied about in popular discourse as “free market economics” is nothing of the sort.” Well-said and spot on! Your points about writing and readers is also spot-on. Thank you for a wonderful post.

  2. Arrr my friend, I be thank’n ya for another wonderful journey through your thought process.

  3. This was a kick ass post! Can I say that? My favorite one yet, I didn’t want it to end!

  4. Very interesting post. I was a Lostie through and through during the final season, and conducted an experiment. I, sort of like you, am a writer (well screenwriter) that has yet to be widely published. I’ve only been screened at festivals and/or showcases (one did make it Cannes though…)

    My experiment? I watched the final season in its entirety, and attempted to guess where it was going based solely on my understanding of plot structure, suspense, character development, etc. It was pretty interesting.

    With regards to resolution of suspense, I think Lost hit it right on the head, but millions of people disagree. In one respect the writers were completely successful, as it seems the entire world talked about it for a few days. In another way there was a failure, because a lot of those people were dissatisfied. People were disappointed that the end wasn’t spelled out for them, which makes me sad, not for the writers of Lost, but for the mass dumbing down of American Television. The end was there. Lost asked the audience to think, and unfortunately a lot of people don’t like to think after ten p.m. They would rather watch washed-up reality stars in a dancing competition.

    Oh well.

    Brilliant article. I look forward to reading more.

  5. Robert, that’s an interesting perspective on the finale that I haven’t seen. What resolution did you find in the finale that you think its detractors missed?

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