American Idol And The Art of Suspense

American Idol kept its millions of viewers on the edge of their chairs for two hours to tell them that Taylor Hicks had won this year’s competition.  Two hours!  Considering the decision was an either/or situation for the two finalists, taking two hours to say, “Yeah, that guy won,” was a master class in the art of suspense.  Bravo!

Well, not really.

American Idol was a master class in how not to keep your audience in suspense.  The show committed a cardinal sin by cheating the audience.  They stretched the show into two hours when it didn’t have to be two hours long.  Worse still, a viewer, like me, could circumvent the whole spectacle and switch on two minutes from the end to see the unveiling of the winner.  Can you say lost advertising revenue?

So how did American Idol break the rules of suspense?

I’m glad you asked.  I’ll tell you.

A ticking clock makes for good suspense (see the TV show, 24) and the faster it ticks the better, but American Idol slowed that ticking clock down.  They recapped information the audience already knew.  They replayed what everyone had already seen.  When you’re trying to create a climax, you don’t go for flashbacks that add nothing to the drama.

Suspense relies on a fast, slick narrative, so don’t bring back unnecessary characters to clog up that narrative.  Americans spent three months voting off a bunch people they didn’t think where good enough, so why bring them back to remind us why they were voted off in the first place?  The show was down to a head-to-head between the last two participants.  It was fight to the death time—a duel between the best of the best.  Not, jeez, that kid was really geeky looking.  How did he make it to the final twelve?

Good suspense is fueled by complication, not distraction.  When Jack Bauer is having a bad day at the office in 24, he has to juggle half a dozen crises at once, each one getting in the way of his ultimate objectives.  So what does American Idol do?  It brings on guest stars to sing songs and do duets.  They aren’t racking up the tension—they’re stealing the finalist’s thunder.

Suspense is supposed to put the reader or viewer on edge.  American Idol is a bad example of suspense because it dangled a carrot in front of the audience’s nose and kept pulling it away.  Instead of filling of the show with content that built to a climax, it recycled and padded out its time slot.  A suspense writer can never cheat their audience with these techniques and survive.  You might get away with it once, but not twice. 

American Idol does get a couple of things right.  They do have high stakes.  Only one person can win the jackpot recording contract and all the cash and prizes that go with it.  And they have a bloody good villain in the shape of Simon Cowell.  So it’s not all bad. 

If I were judging American Idol, I’d have to say, “Nah, nah, nah, dog, you know I’m a big fan, but that didn’t work for me.  I’ve seen more suspense at a wrestling bout.  You’re gonna have to try a lot of harder next time.  But you looked nice, A.I.”

Simon Wood

PS: I’ll be San Francisco Mystery Bookstore on Saturday afternoon.  If you’re in town, say hi—or better still, say hi and buy a book.  🙂

7 thoughts on “American Idol And The Art of Suspense

  1. Pari

    Simon,Thank you for this clear comparison of what to do and NOT to do re: suspense.

    As to A.I., I figure I can learn the news the day after, so why waste two good hours that I could be reading a book — plus, no commercials.

  2. simon

    While American Idol does the wrong things to create suspense, people can learn just as much, if not more, from a bad works as they can from good.

  3. Carstairs38

    That was great. And using 24 as a good example was sure the way to catch my attention.

    Don’t watch American Idol, but I have the same complaint with Dancing with the Stars. I have to record it and fast forward through half to watch the parts I actually care about.

    Of course, it leaves me more time to read.



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