The Art of Suspenseful Marketing
A shadowy figure peers out from behind a column in a dark subway station. He leers malevolently at a young girl as she texts on her phone. Without arousing suspicion, he looks around and sees the last of the commuters head up the stairs. Without making a sound, he creeps around the backside of the column and positions himself behind the unsuspecting girl. The distant echoes of the rumbling train sound off to his right. He takes one last look around as the approaching cacophony of squeals, booms, and clacks grows louder. Just as the girl looks up, finally able to hear the approaching train over the music beating through her ear buds, the dark figure cocks his arms back and lunges forward.
Lee Child, author of the popular Jack Reacher novels, wrote an op-ed piece in the New York Times on creating suspense. In it, he mentioned that as a bestselling author, he is asked many times how to create suspense. His response was both insightful, and something every author, marketer, advertiser, and shoe salesman should pay attention to. The question is not “how do you bake a cake” but rather, “how do you make your family hungry.”
So did he push her? Did someone see him and at the last moment yell to stop him?
“Whodunit” has been a tactic used by authors of every generation not merely because of its time-tested nature, but because it taps into a basic human emotion-closure. As humans, we see everything in a finite scope. Birth-days, funerals, sun-rise, sun-set. We like everything in nice neat linear packages. So when we come across something that hasn’t found its inevitable close, somewhere in our lizard-brain a switch clicks on, and we become interested in seeing how it ends.
Talk with your friends and all of them can come up with a list of bad books, terrible movies, and dry TV series. Talk to them a little more and most of them read the entire tome, sat in the theater until the credits, and watched to the end of the season just to make sure it didn’t all of a sudden get good. Why? Because all of us like closure.
What made her the focus of his wrath? Why was she all alone in a dark subway station?
So what does closure have anything to do with marketing and serialization? Everything in fact. When you can delay closure, you create suspense. When you create suspense, even with bad characters, poor writing, and plot holes, people want to know how it ends. Does Luke turn to the Dark Side? Does Frodo destroy the ring? Does Bella end up with Edward or Jacob?
Back in the 1940s, the popular radio program Superman was masterfully done on a weekly basis. The Man of Steel would leap into a burning building despite protests of firefighters and concerned citizens. Just as they thought all hope was lost...tune in next week to see what happens. Now a message from our sponsor, Life Buoy soap.
Why did he not like the girl? Did he know her?
Because you had to wait a whole week to hear if Superman came out unscathed, something in your mind tagged that narrative as unfinished. There wasn’t a resolution yet. And while you knew your superhero would of course save the girl, the cat, and the day, you would still sit and listen...to find closure, to change that tag in your mind from unfinished to put right.
Did she know him? Was this his first attempt?
Likewise, good authors don’t go around rattling off ingredients for cakes, but rather, as Child puts it, they make their family wait four hours to eat dinner. Good authors create hunger. They dole out little bits and pieces of resolution, but always hold just enough back that the reader turns the page to the next chapter. In fact, brilliant authors can come out on page one, tell you who killed Roger Rabbit, and then explain that they don’t know why he was killed, and people will still read to the end to find out the killer’s motives. Jealousy, revenge, vengeance, the killer just doesn’t like cartoon characters. It doesn’t matter. Since the question was asked, folks want to know the answer.
Using Child’s concluding thoughts, “Trusting such a simple system feels cheap and meretricious while you’re doing it. But it works. It’s all you need... The basic narrative fuel is always the slow unveiling of the final answer. So don’t bake cakes. Make your family hungry instead.”
Did she die...or was she spared at the last moment. That’s what makes suspense such a valuable marketing tool.
Twitter- @ChrisSnelgroveFacebook- faceboook.com/ChrisSnelgrove
The House of Grey Series:
Amazon - http://amzn.to/zcVylCBarnes& Noble - http://bit.ly/OTDUaf
Kobo - http://bit.ly/QW3Ojk
The Harmonics Series:
Amazon - http://bit.ly/PA6ZGQBarnes& Noble - http://bit.ly/LJSGh7
Kobo - http://bit.ly/KqvqV