Creating Suspense… Without Ominous Music

When something bad is about to happen in a movie, the music cues the audience to move to the edge of their seats. But until the Kindle makes use of sound chips, writers have to depend on tone to create suspense.

Tolkien used short sentences and low-toned sounds to get our hearts beating:

We cannot get out. We cannot get out. They have taken the Bridge and the second hall. [...] We cannot get out. The end comes, and then drums, drums in the deep. [...] They are coming.

Hawthorne relied on spooky description in The House of the Seven Gables:

His face was preternaturally pale; so deadly white, indeed, that, through all the glimmering indistinctness of the passage-way, Hepzibah could discern his features, as if a light fell on them alone.

Of course, there are also great cliches to be used: a strange noise, a “little did he know,” a sudden change of the weather. Please watch this hilarious Onion video for more exaples, and then tell me: How do your favorite authors create suspense?

cheryliconParker Peevyhouse

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7 Comments

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7 responses to “Creating Suspense… Without Ominous Music

  1. I think the ultimate suspense tool is a character the reader cares about. Then even turning the page creates suspense because you know there are X pages left in the book and SOMETHING is going to happen…

    A drawback to the Kindle for me is that you don’t have that almost subconscious reference to how much of the book is left. I mean, there’s probably a page total somewhere or “page x of y,” but it’s not the same as feeling the chunk of pages… or the few pages… in your right hand.

    • Parker Peevyhouse

      I know what you mean–I’m always checking my progress when I’m reading so I can guess how soon things will come to a climax.

  2. Joni makes a great point!

    I like white space with tension. When the author draws the scene out with short, staccato-like paragraphs, that makes the pages go faster, the reading go quicker, and the whole scene feel more tense.

  3. Great post. Loved the video!

    I’ve never read on a Kindle (having a hard time relinquishing my paper books,) but on the flip-side of Joni’s comment I can imagine that a Kindle might increase the suspense because you don’t know how much is left. With a paper book I think “okay, I know this is going to be resolved because there are a hundred pages left.” But what if I didn’t know that and in my mind there was the possibility that this could end with this scene?

  4. i think you’re right on about the sentence structure. It becomes quicker, the sentences shorter. There is way less internal thought going on during highly intense scenes. It’s the action and the not knowing.
    What a great post, Parker!

  5. Everyone is so spot on. The shorter sentences, the words used, the denotations and connotations behind them, even the way the words stick together – they all make a difference. It really is a fine, subtle art, but amazing when pulled off well. I think the Lord of the Rings example is an excellent one. :)

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