Writing suspense

I finished up that Dean Koontz book and have since moved on to a suspense novel by an author named Tami Hoag. There’s a refreshing difference between her relatively lightweight and digestible sentences compared to Koontz’s dense verbal monstrosities.

Both novels have got me thinking about a characteristic particular to the novel as a narrative form. Other forms — movies, plays, operas — have multiple means to project the drama of the scene. They can use music, perhaps lighting, and of course the dialogue and narrative itself. Movies have an advantage in that they can show a relatively benign scene (a girl walking in the park for example), but imply suspense using the music or wild camera angles. Books can only describe what’s happening. But that gives them a certain advantage, in suspense novels in particular. Let me pen a sample paragraph to illustrate.

Jenny was happy to see Fred, her old neighbor from Beacon Street. While he helped her with her grocery bags, they exchanged pleasantries and got each other up-to-date. Then Fred pulled a pen out of his pocket and jammed it into Jenny’s eye, instantly killing her.

Didn’t see that coming to you? Since all words appear relatively equal on a page, there is no sense of this impending horrific event. It just… happens.

But I want to rethink what I said above about written narratives having no way of implying drama other than standard description. One thing I did notice in the Koontz book is that during the initial dramatic scene, he broke the chapters up into small units — some probably no more than 500 words. The result was a sense of many things happening at once. So, an author can use the structure of his writing to imply drama, in the same way a filmmaker might speed up the camera work, or insert dramatic music. The most rudimentary example of this would be capitalization. For example: “I’d like to eat your brain.” versus “I’d like to eat YOUR BRAIN.”

4 Responses to “Writing suspense”


  1. John Saleeby

    Jamming a pen into someone’s eye would not instantly kill them. Your stupid example is probably going to get some budding young psycho killer into a lot of trouble this weekend.

  2. Wil

    I think it would if you jammed it through the back of their eyesocket, into their brain and then out of their head.
    Good luck budding psycho!

  3. Larwence

    Brains don’t taste very good.

  4. John Saleeby

    I think we’re hearing from our “budding psycho” with that last post there. Forget about brains, Larwence – What body parts DO taste good?