Readers of crime are usually very sophisticated in the genre. This allows the author scope to raise expectations very easily. It is what I call the Jaws Effect. Everyone knows the Spielberg film. The suspense is almost palpable, and the way it is set up is so simple. Once the first shark attack has taken place, all the director needs to do is place someone in the water - preferably a lone woman or a child - and the audience are on the edge of their seats, wondering if this will be the next victim. Maybe a shark will attack and the character will die. Maybe there is no shark this time, and the character will survive. I don't know if this is true of everyone, but I find a shock can be heightened when I'm expecting it.
Think for a moment about some of the tropes used in other genres: the Gothic mansion in horror, the country house in cosies, the 'calm before the storm' in its many forms. Of course we tire of such hackneyed cliches, but they are not arbitrary. They send a signal to the reader, and serve a purpose. And they can provide a lot of fun for author and reader alike.
There are a number of pre-existing tropes that can be exploited to good effect when writing crime fiction. I use one myself in Cut Short. The situation has been set up so the reader knows there is a serial killer attacking women on the streets at night. Against this ominous background, a teenage girl leaves a party alone. Already nervous, she gets lost trying to find her bus stop. Then she hears footsteps. Someone is following her. Maybe she is being pursued by the killer and will die. Maybe whoever is following her is not the killer, and she will survive. There it is. The Jaws Effect.
As with any other technique, tropes must be used sparingly. Authors must invent their own ways to increase tension for readers, as well as using recognised patterns. But tropes can provide a useful means of signalling to readers that something terrible may be imminent. Films use music, as well as visual clues, to communicate to the audience. In the same way, authors can use tropes to raise tension speedily and effectively, like the shark theme in the Jaws soundtrack.
This post was first published on the CRA website.
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