Conflict, Suspense, Terror: When Is Too Much Too Much?

Almost the first thing a budding writer learns is the importance of conflict—internal, external, situational, relational. Conflict is what creates story. As Donald Maass famously says, “The cat sat on the mat” isn’t a story. “The cat sat on the dog’s mat” is a story.

Suspense is created when the outcome of conflict is unknown or delayed. This is a gross simplification, of course, but if the tension on the page isn’t felt by the reader, the conflict falls flat. Suspense taken to the extreme creates terror.

I read once that out of all the living creatures on earth, human beings are the only ones who like to scare themselves. We pay money to watch horror films and buy books that scare the living daylights out of us. If you need an example, check out Emilya Naymark’s recent blog on påskekrim , Norway’s obsession with reading crime novels at Eastertime.

But when is too much too much?

Some years ago I discovered a thriller writer who will remain anonymous (well known, very skilled) and began reading her series featuring a female medical examiner. I knew I was reading scary stuff about violent crime and serial killers, but the writing was good and I thought I could handle it.

Turns out I couldn’t.

It was a steamy hot July at our cottage in northern Wisconsin when I began reading one of the books—the fourth or fifth if I remember correctly. I happened to be alone because my husband was away on business—something that usually doesn’t bother me. This time it did. The book was so terrifying, so vivid that I went to bed that night, taking every precaution I could:

Doors locked tight (we don’t usually bother up there)

Windows shut and locked; blinds drawn

Bedroom door locked; chair against the door

Cell phone on nightstand

Light on in the adjoining bathroom

Here I was, a grown woman, so completely freaked out I couldn’t sleep.

I threw the book away and haven’t picked up anything by this author since. There’s enough scary stuff going on in the world. I don’t need fictional terror on top of everything else.

This is a personal decision. People are different. Some can handle fictional terror—even seek it out. They can watch slasher movies, eat popcorn, and laugh. They can read stories about horrific crimes and serial killers and take it in their stride. No judgments here.

But for me, too much is too much. Conflict and suspense, yes. Terror, no.

Which side of the fence do you fall on? When is too much too much for you?

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5 thoughts on “Conflict, Suspense, Terror: When Is Too Much Too Much?

  1. I actually find that the older I get, the less I can handle horror and misery in fiction. As a child and young adult I loved horror and read everything in most genres. I read every Brett Easton Ellis book, sometimes multiple times.

    But I don’t think I can read American Psycho again, and although I will still read Stephen King, he’s a special case. I’m reading an award winning book right now that is so miserable, paints such a horrible view of life, that I won’t finish. I can’t!

    So yes! Sometimes too much is just too much.

  2. I don’t get too concerned about fictional crime, but when I read Michelle McNamara’s book about the Golden State Killer (I’ll See You in the Dark), I couldn’t sleep for quite some time. The killer was so brutal and the victims seemed so much like me, and it was true. I like thinking about why killers do what they do, but I don’t like visualizing how they do it.

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