How Jean Hanff Korelitz Learned to Create Tension and Suspense on the Page
In Conversation with Mitzi Rapkin on the First Draft Podcast
First Draft: A Dialogue of Writing is a weekly show featuring in-depth interviews with fiction, nonfiction, essay writers, and poets, highlighting the voices of writers as they discuss their work, their craft, and the literary arts. Hosted by Mitzi Rapkin, First Draft celebrates creative writing and the individuals who are dedicated to bringing their carefully chosen words to print as well as the impact writers have on the world we live in.
In this episode, Mitzi talks to Jean Hanff Korelitz about her latest novel, The Plot.
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From the episode:
Mitzi Rapkin: When you were writing this, how have you learned—maybe through experience, or instinct, maybe it’s having a therapist mother—to modulate tension and suspense?
Jean Hanff Korelitz: I think it’s almost a process of elimination. If you find yourself revealing something that doesn’t need to be revealed, you have to go back and do it again. You don’t want it to be too easy, you don’t want it to be too obvious. But it can’t be too obscure, and it can’t be crazy at the same time. I don’t know how you learn that, although I can offer the example of what I’ve got on my bookshelf right here.
I had a cousin named Helene Hanff who wrote 84, Charing Cross Road, which is a book that is beloved by book people. But she also wrote a memoir about her failure as a theatre writer in the 40s and 50s in New York City. She’d gone to New York to be a great playwright and had failed, and she wrote this memoir called Underfoot in Show Business about her failure in theatre. At one point while she was failing as a playwright, she took a job in television, which was brand new, and she found herself writing the Ellery Queen mysteries.
The Ellery Queen mysteries in the 1950s were filmed live, and TV was not yet what it became, and it was an underfunded medium. She had to churn out these scripts every week in which she was only allowed to have five characters. One of the characters was Ellery Queen, one was his father, one was the victim—but she called it the corpse—and then there were two other characters. Out of those two characters, she had to create a mystery every week. And what she learned by doing this over and over again were all of the ways to do that without being obvious—which sounds like an incredibly, almost an impossible task. But she basically had to solve the same problem every week. She said doing it taught her more than Aristotle and Stanislavski had ever been able to teach her about creating tension and suspense.
So, I piggybacked on that lesson a little bit. And I think the translation is, you can’t have too many characters. You can’t cheat by making somebody a long-lost twin or a clone or split personality. It has to make sense, and it can’t be obvious. Somehow you just figure it out. I mean people have guessed the big twist in The Plot. They love to tell you that they guessed. They love to tell you what page they were on when they guessed. But a lot of people don’t guess, and I think it’s because I don’t insult their intelligence. I hope that’s why anyway.
Jean Hanff Korelitz was born and raised in New York City and educated at Dartmouth College and Clare College, Cambridge. She is the author of the novels: The Plot, You Should Have Known (Adapted for HBO as “The Undoing”), Admission (adapted as the 2013 film of the same name), The Devil and Webster, The White Rose, The Sabbathday River and A Jury of Her Peers, as well as a middle-grade reader, Interference Powder, and a collection of poetry, The Properties of Breath. A new novel, The Latecomer, will be published by Celadon Books on May 31, 2022.