Monday, October 29, 2007

True Suspense

Sunday’s Washington Post Arts section had a short piece about a video playing at the Hirshhorn Museum called “Deeparture,” in which artist Mircea Cantor put a wolf and a deer into a small, all-white room and filmed their interaction. I’m not sure what PETA would make of that (well, yes I am), but the result is fascinating—no bloody messes, but the two animals seem hyper-aware of each other as they sniff and stare and edge about the small space.

The Post asked the artist why the wolf didn’t eat the deer and he said, “I don’t know how to answer! I was not even interested in that. For me it was a matter of the tension in the image….We all know that deer and wolves never live together. So what is beautiful is to keep this tension—as though you had a bow, and you kept bending it.”

I was reminded of one of my favorite quotations about suspense and tension, from another visual master of tension, movie director Alfred Hitchcock, which is explained here:

“In dramatizing this fear, Hitchcock employs a technique he calls the "Bomb Theory." This scenario runs as follows: Two men are sitting at a table discussing baseball. They talk for about five minutes, when suddenly, there is a huge explosion, which gives the audience a terrible shock, which lasts for about fifteen seconds. According to Hitchcock's Bomb Theory, when the scene opens, you show the audience that there is a bomb under the table, which is set to go off in five minutes. While the men are sitting casually discussing baseball, the audience is squirming in their seats, thinking Don't sit there talking about baseball... there's a bomb under the table! Get rid of it! The audience is overwhelmed with the sense to warn the characters of the danger which they perceive, and which the characters are not aware of. Hitchcock's method transfers the menace from the screen to the minds of the audience, until it becomes unbearable - at which point there is a climax. An important footnote to this theory: You must never let the bomb go off and kill anybody. Otherwise, the audience will be very mad at you.”

The theory applies to writing, too: giving information to the reader often results in greater suspense and tension than withholding it.

To watch the video of “Deeparture,” go here.

And apropos of nothing, there was a charming photo the Post ran in the Sunday print edition (that I can’t find online) of the Three Stooges with Moe Howard’s little girl. Who could imagine having a Stooge as a father?! Talk about an interesting premise for a novel! (Most amusing bit from the article, which was prompted by the release of the Stooges on DVD: “While major gags were scripted, the Stooges’ face-slapping and eye-poking were not. For such scenes, says [daughter] Joan Howard Maurer, “you know what the script says? ‘The Stooges do their stuff.’”) Stooges fans can read more here.

Finally--yay, Red Sox!!!! Sometimes you just want the great outcome without the suspense of a seven-game series!


DC-area author Leslie Pietrzyk explores the creative process and all things literary.