There is a distinct difference between “suspense” and “surprise,” and yet many pictures continually confuse the two. I’ll explain what I mean.
We are now having a very innocent little chat. Let’s suppose that there is a bomb underneath this table between us. Nothing happens, and then all of a sudden, “Boom!” There is an explosion. The public is surprised, but prior to this surprise, it has seen an absolutely ordinary scene, of no special consequence. Now, let us take a suspense situation. The bomb is underneath the table and the public knows it, probably because they have seen the anarchist place it there. The public is aware the bomb is going to explode at one o’clock and there is a clock in the decor. The public can see that it is a quarter to one. In these conditions, the same innocuous conversation becomes fascinating because the public is participating in the scene. The audience is longing to warn the characters on the screen: “You shouldn’t be talking about such trivial matters. There is a bomb beneath you and it is about to explode!”
In the first case we have given the public fifteen seconds of surprise at the moment of the explosion. In the second we have provided them with fifteen minutes of suspense. The conclusion is that whenever possible the public must be informed.
Stakes: A PRE-WRITING EXERCISE
We want to write interesting things, and one way to do this is to build tension into our texts.
Alfred Hitchcock writes that in order to please your audience with suspense (or, I would add, tension) “whenever possible the public must be informed.” I am struck by how the right information well relayed can hook our attention.
Fiction writers commonly introduce tension by:
1) Establishing stakes,
2) Complicating matters, and
3) Sharing the right information at the right time.
I believe it is possible to use information in our essays to achieve both.
Ask yourself: What information can you share that will raise the stakes or, in other words, clearly articulate a problem? What information can you share that will complicate things?
Your essay does not need do-or-die stakes to be interesting. Sometimes the stakes can be subtle, for example, in Khullar’s “The Trouble With Medicine’s Metaphors” the title generates enough energy to get us thinking.
When we talk about stakes, we talk about why something matters and how much it matters. Take a few minutes, a pen, and some paper to brainstorm the stakes of your essay.
Whether or not these sentences end up in your final draft does not determine their usefulness. Every effort you put toward engaging these ideas, these texts is useful toward your end goal: in this case a well-thought, polished essay.
And the Introductory Paragraph(s)
Now that you have the stakes beneath the proverbial table, let’s turn now to the introductory paragraph as a whole. You may prefer to save detailing what you believe to be at stake for your closing paragraph. That’s okay, the key is to have what’s at stake in mind from the very beginning–to allow the central problem, the so what, to influence your opening paragraph (or paragraphs).
What’s important is that your introduction orients your reader.
These beginning paragraphs should establish context for these stakes, a world with boundary and shape. In fact, as the writer, you should use these first moments to:
- acknowledge the immediate context
- i.e. What conversation are you entering? What are the large issues and whom do they affect? In other words, what do they say? Write 2-3 sentences describing the conversation at hand. (Make sure you have a strong handle on whom you mean when you use the word they. Please also make sure you take special care to accurately represent this they.)
- introduce your internal context
- i.e. What is your paper’s scope? What all does your paper cover, and to whom should your paper matter?
- set expectations
- i.e. What is your intent for this paper? What are you trying to prove? (It’s perfectly possible to prove the urgency of a question) What path will you choose to prove it?
As you build your scope, you will want to strive for balance. Don’t zoom too far out. For example, unless you are writing about the dawn of time, don’t start your essay: Since the dawn of time… Don’t zoom too far in, either. Don’t try to cram in too many details right away. Think about the kind of introduction you like to read.
The Exercise (To Review)
After you brainstorm, draft your introductory paragraph.
Your introductory paragraph should orient the reader, and it does this by establishing an internal context.
A strong introductory paragraph checklist:
- Have I introduced my topic?
- Have I clarified my paper’s scope, and is that scope appropriate to my position?
- Have I indicated the stakes and or hooked my reader? (You need not detail every hypothetical dystopian future–this is an introduction. Pointing out a problem or an affected population can be enough.)
- Do I communicate my intent (Sometimes just knowing your intent, is enough. It will show in your writing. Ask yourself: What is the purpose–the driving direction? Where do I want to take this paper?)
- Does my intro paragraph have a clearly identifiable position statement? A position statement that uses clear, specific language to set an achievable course for the rest of your paper?
(Your position statement (thesis) may contain elements of all of the above! That’s okay!)