The ability of Donna Tartt to generate suspense is one of the reasons she has as much popular success as she does critical acclaim. Writers can study her use of this element to see how she deploys it to turn her literary novels into page turners that exemplify the art of suspense.
Donna Tartt: A brief publishing history
Donna Tartt has achieved an enviable status as a writer. Most writers who achieve a measure of success are generally critically acclaimed or sell a lot of books; to be both a critical and a commercial success is much rarer.
Tartt burst on the scene in 1992 with her novel The Secret History about classics students at an elite college in the northeastern United States who form a close, dysfunctional group and then hide the murder of one of their members. The novel inspired the devotion many associate with cult novels, but the book saw huge mainstream popularity as well. Ten years later, her second novel, The Little Friend, was released. This one concerned the effects of a child’s unsolved murder on his family in the American South of the 1970s. The novel was nominated for an Orange Prize for Fiction and won the W.H. Smith Literary Award.
Her fans had to wait nearly a dozen years for her third novel, The Goldfinch. The third time proved to be the charm from an awards point of view. Tartt took home the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction as well as the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction. In addition, the novel was shortlisted for the Bailey Women’s Prize for Fiction and the National Book Critics Circle Award.
Most readers, however, are more concerned with their own responses to a novel than how many awards it wins. Based on Tartt’s sales, readers respond to her as well. In fact, she inspires a fierce devotion among many of her fans considering she has written a mere three novels, and many of the same qualities that readers love about her books are key in creating suspense so effectively.
Before suspenseful situations are created, it is necessary to draw the reader fully into the world of the novel, and Tartt lays the groundwork for this beautifully.
Donna Tartt’s characters and their lessons
In their rush to make sure their novels are exciting and suspenseful, one thing many beginning writers may miss is the development of characters. The reason this is so important is that readers don’t just need exciting events. They need to be able to connect emotionally to those events, and this is done through the characters.
When readers are connected to characters, anything that matters to a character can create suspense. The fate of worlds does not have to hang in the balance; readers who identify with the characters they are reading about can become passionately concerned about the outcome of a single conversation.
Tartt does not skimp on the development of the three protagonists in each of her novels. Richard, Harriet and Theo are all vivid and fully drawn. Part of this involves the creation of characters who are also heavily flawed. Each of the characters is sympathetic but imperfect, and this makes them seem more real.
Tartt and paying attention to detail
In addition to her attention to character, Tartt creates worlds that are vivid and believable. Each of her settings is as memorable as her plot and characters. This includes the exclusive Vermont college attended by Richard in The Secret History; the fully-realised 1970s Mississippi setting of The Little Friend; and the streets of New York City, the suburban wastelands of Las Vegas, and the chilly Amsterdam of The Goldfinch. As with character, attention paid to building a complete world grounds the reader and makes the action of the story more believable. This builds suspense.
Tartt and playing with genre
One of the reasons for Tartt’s popularity is that her novels, while unmistakeably literary, are also firmly rooted in familiar and popular genres. Drawing elements from genres as disparate as mystery, family stories and young adult fiction, Tartt borrows the techniques of suspense from those genres as well to create novels with strong narrative drive and a considerable amount of suspense. The suspense in her novels arises from posing questions at their core that resemble popular fiction more than literary fiction:
In The Secret History, the questions include why Bunny was murdered and whether they will get away with the murder.
In The Little Friend, the main question is who murdered Harriet’s brother. The Goldfinch revolves, in part, around the questions of whether Theo will be found out for the art theft.
Tartt’s unconventional mysteries
This is the heart of what drives the suspense in Tartt’s novels. The above questions are all mysteries, and Tartt keeps the reader turning the pages to find out the answers will be.
However, the mysteries are structured in an unconventional way. We find out about Bunny’s murder at the beginning of The Secret History. We know who did it; what we don’t know is the events that led up to it, and the book keeps the reader turning pages to find out.
In The Little Friend, Harriet, a baby when her brother died, has grown up with the lore of his murder and is determined to solve the mystery herself. Tartt manages to take this mystery and make it about the journey and not the destination, and the journey is so compelling that the reader can’t put the book down.
The Goldfinch is a sprawling, picaresque novel that some reviewers compared to Charles Dickens, but the one narrative thread driving the novel is the question of the painting that Theo has stolen, almost inadvertently, from a museum. The protagonist is the criminal, and the reader is anxious for the protagonist to get away with the crime. Tartt’s novels employ the mystery writer’s art of suspense in diverse ways.
Rate (and sequence) of information in Tartt’s novel
How and when a writer releases information to the reader is key to building suspense. Information that is released too soon kills suspense; information that is withheld for too long may lead to frustration or confusion. Furthermore, the information has to be released in a way that is believable and effective. Finally, the author has to anticipate what the reader will find compelling.
In each of her books, Tartt takes a risk that pays off. Where a conventional murder mystery has the reader turning pages to find out who did the crime, The Secret History has the reader wondering why the crime happened and how it affected those at its centre. The protagonist, Richard, is partly in the dark as well despite being part of the close-knit group at the core of the novel, and as Richard learns more, the reader does as well.
The Little Friend is full of false leads. It’s the only novel that Tartt has written from multiple points of view, and so readers get information not only from Harriet but from other characters and scenes as well. The interesting effect this has is that the resolution of its mystery is the most open-ended of all of Tartt’s novels. This perhaps reflects the ways in which each person sees the truth in a different way.
Finally, in The Goldfinch, the art thief is the protagonist. The information that we get from Theo is released through the point of view of a rootless child watching the adults around him. By opening the book with a terrorist attack, Tartt signals to us that Theo’s world is one of chaos in which anything might happen, and this creates an atmosphere of tension that she sustains for its duration.
Nostalgia and elements of YA
Tartt hit the scene before the young adult genre exploded, but her books capitalise on many of the same elements that make that genre nearly as popular with adults as it is with children and teens. In fact, all three of her books feature protagonists that might have stepped from the pages of young adult novels: they are orphans or they have distant parents, they become embroiled with crime in some fashion.
Some reviewers have both favourably and unfavourably described both The Little Friend and The Goldfinch as being like YA novels for grown-ups. There is something nostalgic and thus familiar in Tartt’s approach, and readers are lulled into a false sense of security. Tartt builds tension by destroying that security as situations for her characters become darker and more convoluted.
Ultimately, what makes Tartt so extraordinary is that she is unlike anyone else, but it is possible to piece together some of the elements that make up her successful novels. With fully realised characters and settings and unconventional approaches to familiar tropes and genres, she shows a masterful grasp of the art of creating suspense.
What technique of Donna Tartt’s have you observed that effectively creates suspense for her readers?
5 replies on “The art of suspense: Donna Tartt”
The creation and sustainability of tension was skipped in this essay on suspense. Tension doesn’t require suspense, but suspense must have tension.
Hi Dennis. Tension is in fact dealt with here: ‘Tartt signals to us that Theo’s world is one of chaos in which anything might happen, and this creates an atmosphere of tension that she sustains for its duration’ and here: ‘…and readers are lulled into a false sense of security. Tartt builds tension by destroying that security as situations for her characters become darker and more convoluted.’
If you want a post that deals with tension more extensively, you might prefer this post: https://www.nownovel.com/blog/suspense-writing-7-hacks/. Thanks for the feedback.
I meant to say the requirement of tension to create suspense wasn’t mentioned. I don’t think I can create suspense without first creating tension that leads to it. BTW I’ve read all three of Tartt’s books and can’t adequately describe here my admiration for her.
Great links. Thanks again.
It’s a pleasure, Dennis.