Well, whilst I was watching the first season of a “this is hilariously silly, but I’ll watch just one more episode…” American TV series called “Nikita” on DVD, I realised something about the suspense genre – subtle suspense is important.
The interesting thing about this show is that the earlier episodes of the first season of “Nikita” focus on two main plot threads involving a rogue government agency who takes prisoners from death row in order to turn then into assassins.
One plot threat is about an escaped assassin called Nikita who has advanced training and is waging war on the rogue agency. Needless to say, she gets involved in a lot of dramatic gunfights, fist fights, car chases etc…
The other plot thread is about a nineteen year old character called Alex who has teamed up with Nikita. By staging a botched robbery, she has been able to gain admission to the agency’s harsh training program in order to spy on the agency for Nikita. Apart from the occasional boxing bout, she doesn’t really do that much fighting – instead, she has to sneak around the base occasionally to spy for Nikita, she has to communicate with Nikita secretly and she has to try to deflect any suspicions from her fellow trainees (and, occasionally, her evil instructors).
On paper the first plot thread sounds like it would be the most suspenseful and dramatic of the two. But, in reality, the second one is mostly likely to have you on the edge of your seat, biting your nails and almost afraid to watch more.
Why? Because, despite the contrived premise of the story, Alex’s storyline still seems marginally more “realistic”. It seems at least a tiny bit closer to the suspenseful situations that we’ve all been in throughout our lives.
Whether it was blagging your way into a horror movie at the cinema when you were underage, whether it was trying to think of an excuse for something or whether it was finding a way out of an awkward social situation, we’ve all had suspenseful moments in our lives. And they don’t involve things like car chases, gun fights etc…
Although melodramatic suspense can be extremely fun to watch or read, it’s often highly unrealistic. Not to mention that the characters involved in it often seem more superhuman than anything else. Ironically, there’s actually less suspense because we know that these characters will always know what to do in any situation and that they will (probably) survive and win.
Subtle, realistic suspense on the other hand may not look as good but it tends to have a lot more dramatic power for the simple reason that it’s easier for the audience to relate to.
Of course, many things in the suspense genre tend to include a blend of both melodramatic suspense and subtle suspense. The presence of one helps to make the other one seem more exciting, dangerous and/or nerve-wracking, and vice versa.
Still, if you’re making something in the suspense and/or thriller genre, then never underestimate how important or useful subtle suspense can be.
Sorry for the short article, but I hope it was useful 🙂