Gift wrapping, “chillingly close” & suspense

As I wrapped the last of the Christmas gifts yesterday…okay, full disclosure, as I wrapped all of the Christmas gifts yesterday, I started thinking about…writing.

How does that work? you may wonder.  How are those things connected?

Funny you should ask.

As I struggled and fought (and mostly lost) against covering up my purchases with brightly-coloured paper, doing my best to disguise the easily-guessed items (an example would be a DVD…I mean, come on, even in wrapping paper, it’s either a DVD or a video game), I thought about suspense.

I mention this in my Creative Writing course, and I think it’s an appropriate example.

Why do we wrap Christmas gifts?  Or birthday gifts?  Why do we go to all the trouble of doing elaborate shenanigans to fog, mystify or throw off the guesses of the gift receiver?

Suspense, that’s why.

What fun would it be on Christmas morning (and yes, I’m an open-your-presents-Christmas-morning-not-Christmas-Eve kinda guy) to have your spouse reach under the tree, grab a plainly visible watch out and hand it to you.  “I got you a watch.”

Then you reach under the tree and hand her the plainly visible and easily discernable Ginsu knife set.  “I got you the Ginsu knife set,” you say.

Pretty freaking boring, right?

Instead, we thrive on the anticipation of it all, the mystery, and yes, even the trepidation.  Is Grandma going to get me yet another pair of slippers this year?

Looking up suspense, I got three basic definitions:

  1. The condition of being physically suspended.
  2. The state or quality of being undecided, uncertain, or doubtful, or; Pleasurable excitement and anticipation regarding an outcome, such as the ending of a mystery novel.
  3. Anxiety or apprehension resulting from an uncertain, undecided, or mysterious situation.

I think, unless your Christmas morning is way different from mine, that we can toss out the first one.  I may become physically suspended while hanging the Christmas lights on the house, but I haven’t yet experienced that during gift giving.

So looking at the two parts of the second definition and the third one–which, really, is just the second one with a more negative tone–you start to understand the reason for wrapping gifts.  It’s the pleasurable excitement and anticipation regarding an outcome.  Or, in the case of Grandma’s slipper gifts, anxiety or apprehension resulting from an uncertain, or doubtful situation.  And maybe the same feeling if her dentures tend to slip while she’s giving you a kiss or something (yes, there’s a reason I write horror).

Anyway, that pleasurable excitement, or even that apprehension we feel, well, that’s the fun part, isn’t it?  It’s the reason we also go on rollercoasters, go watch thrillers and horror movies, and look around at who else is shopping at the local Wal-Mart.

And it’s also why we read.  If there’s no suspense, or very little, then it’s just not a fun ride.

This is why I don’t like to watch romantic comedies.  Anything starring Richard Gere and Julia Roberts and her three hundred teeth hold no suspense for me.  Why?  Because, no matter what happens in the first one hour and 45 minutes, I know, in that last 15 minutes, they’re going to get together and live happily ever after.


I constantly rant against the horrid writing of Dan Brown.  No, really.  Want a taste?  Okay, just remember you asked for it.

A voice spoke, chillingly close. “Do not move.”

On his hands and knees, the curator froze, turning his head slowly.

Only fifteen feet away, outside the sealed gate, the mountainous silhouette of his attacker stared through the iron bars. He was broad and tall, with ghost-pale skin and thinning white hair. His irises were pink with dark red pupils.

Okay, let’s count the errors in these roughly 60 words, shall we?

  1. Voices don’t speak.  Characters do.
  2. A voice that’s “chillingly close” isn’t fifteen feet away.  It’s whispering in your ear.
  3. If the curator froze, how can he turn his head.
  4. Pretty impressive that he could pick out those pink irises with dark red pupils of a friggin’ silhouette.

Okay, so, established, shitty writer.  But the one thing I’ll give him (about the only thing I’ll give him) is that he was a master at setting up a situation, then leaving you hanging at the end of virtually every chapter of The Da Vinci Code.  I’ll admit I didn’t give a flying crap about how it came out, because he totally lost me by the first chapter (I only kept reading because I’d been told by so many people how good it was…lying bastards), and I didn’t like the characters and their pretty much non-existent motivations, but when he set up a situation, he was good at leaving you hanging.

Maybe that’s why everyone bought the book.  Because the only other explanation is that everyone is simply lemmings and once the stampede starts, you’re along for the ride, even if it takes you off that cliff.

Think of your absolute favourite movie, book, or episode of a television show.  Now think about why that was your favourite.  Sure, you probably loved the characters.  You likely fell in love with the story as well.  Maybe location, or personal interest in some aspect of it held your attention as well.

But I bet there’s this absolutely nagging sense of Oh! My! God! I need to find out what happens!

That’s suspense, baby.

It’s crucial.

And it’s found in all the best movies, books, events, television shows…and gifts.

As opposed to the aforementioned Richard Gere/Julia Roberts rom-com, which is just a poorly wrapped DVD or video game that can be guessed at from twenty paces.

Sorry, forty paces.  Twenty paces would be “chillingly close.”

7 thoughts on “Gift wrapping, “chillingly close” & suspense

  1. Tobin,
    Great post with many meaningful tie-ins. From now on I’ll think of suspense at the end of a chapter like Christmas gifts wrapped in papery disguises, adding mystery – and anticipation to the receiver.

    So to follow the imagery, the first scene of the next chapter might be a scene about the circumstances of the receiver’s horror, or elation at what is unwrapped.

    When we were kids, we had a coal furnace beside a dusty coal bin. It was easy for my dad to drop a chunk of coal in the toe of our Christmas stockings every year. Predictable, yes. Until the first Christmas at the new gas-heated house. Would there still be coal for my sisters and me? Were we too old to expect coal (teens)? Did Dad forget to locate coal, which was increasingly obsolete? Mystery and anticipation.

    Next chapter: no coal. Petulant teen begrudging the loss of a family tradition, which in her heart had turned coal into diamonds.

  2. Ok…for the record, you wrap for one person “ME” and even then you have to be told multiple times. You want suspense…suspense it not knowing if you remember what the wrapping paper looks like from year to year. Wrapped all the Christmas gifts…please!!!

  3. 1. Never, ever diss THE MAN (Richard Gere.) He’s all that and then some and frankly I could watch a movie of him washing dishes.
    2. Given Karen a set of knives for Christmas and you are dead.
    3. Suspense? Frankly I’ll be glad when it’s all over and I get back to being a recluse.

    • 1. I’ll diss the man all I want (though he has made some kick ass movies over the years). I’ll never forgive him for Pretty Woman. Or the hamsters…or gerbil…or whatever.
      2. Gotta agree with ya on that one.
      3. Me too neither.

  4. Pingback: Suspense | Able 2 Read

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