Favourite examples of foreboding or suspense in literature?
July 17, 2013 8:46 AM   Subscribe

What are your favourite examples of building tension or suspense in literature? Ideally these are brief moments, single paragraphs or small scenes, compelling the reader to continue on, worried about what will follow.

The seed for this question comes from a writing exercise in John Gardner's The Art of Fiction.

Write the paragraph that would appear in a piece of fiction just before the discovery of a body. You might perhaps describe the character's approach to the body he will find, or the location, or both. The purpose of the exercise is to develop the technique of at once attracting the reader toward the paragraph to follow, making him want to skip ahead, and holding him on this paragraph by virtue of its interest. Without the ability to write such foreplay paragraphs, one can never achieve real suspense.
posted by swrittenb to Writing & Language (22 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
Whenever Raskolnikov's being interrogated by Porfiry in Crime and Punishment. It's pretty intense.
posted by duvatney at 8:48 AM on July 17, 2013 [2 favorites]

Stephen King has a technique he uses where he demonstrates the quick slipping of a narrator in and out of lucidity. 1408 is a great study in this. The Shining also does it quite well in long and short periods. The end in particular. As you watch them struggle to maintain or regain their sanity, it's very compelling.

Dostoevsky was also great at this technique. The Brothers Karamazov scene where one brother talks to the Devil would be right up your alley.

Prey by Richard Matheson too.
posted by OnTheLastCastle at 8:50 AM on July 17, 2013

You always assume that the hero of the story is going to make it through ok. Set it up in a way that makes the readers think, "oh my god, they may actually kill off the hero."

I don't have any examples at hand to point to, but the only times a book really gets me to think that is if they've spent the preceding couple chapters really building up the supporting character, to the point where he'd be compelling enough to follow on his own. Once you start seeing the secondary person as a fully formed character, it becomes believable that the hero could die and the book could still carry on.

And then you have suspense.
posted by phunniemee at 8:51 AM on July 17, 2013 [1 favorite]

Roald Dahl's short stories do this pretty well. Also "It's a Good Life" by Jerome Bixby..

I like short stories for this because they often build but do not resolve the suspense.
posted by cubby at 8:53 AM on July 17, 2013

The scene where Richard Mason has been attacked by Bertha, and Mr. Rochester goes to fetch a surgeon, and Jane is stuck with this bleeding man, with only a door to separate her from the lunatic.

Very Gothic, very suspenseful.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 8:53 AM on July 17, 2013

Crime and Punishment, definitely. Faulkner does some of this, too.
posted by anotheraccount at 9:00 AM on July 17, 2013

I haven't read it, but I heard The Davinci Code was good at this despite being horrible otherwise.
posted by nooneyouknow at 9:05 AM on July 17, 2013

Stuff arrives when you are in the bathtub, for example:

William Faulkner's, The Bear. Our young hero comes upon a single paw print, Old Three Toes' of course, and Faulkner leads the reader's awareness ahead of our hero's when he observes that the track is slowly filling with water from the (aforementioned) drizzle that has made the boy's hunting trip even more tedious and uncomfortable than he'd anticipated. We observe our hero being suddenly faced with the realization that the track is but minutes old....
posted by mule98J at 9:45 AM on July 17, 2013

In Conrad's Victory, virtually every scene featuring the "three desperadoes" is suspenseful, especially when they (Mr. Jones specifically) is dropping casual hints that he might kill Schomberg, but also once the three turn up on the island where the protagonist Heyst has fled.
"Oh, I wasn't thinking of that," said plain Mr. Jones, while Schomberg, dumb and planted heavily in his chair looked from one to the other, leaning forward a little. "Of course I am that; but Ricardo attaches too much importance to a social advantage. What I mean, for instance, is that he, quiet and inoffensive as you see him sitting here, would think nothing of setting fire to this house of entertainment of yours. It would blaze like a box of matches. Think of that! It wouldn't advance your affairs much, would it?--whatever happened to us."

"Come, come gentlemen," remonstrated Schomberg, in a murmur. "This is very wild talk!"
And so on.
posted by seemoreglass at 10:08 AM on July 17, 2013

Stephen King comes most readily to mind, because he uses a particular device very effectively to build that sense of foreboding and suspense. The thing he does is, at the end of a scene or chapter, he'll drop in a sentence that's a quick, shocking flash-forward – "the next time he saw her, she was dead." Or something like, "I didn't know it yet, but things were about to get much, much worse."

You see this kind of device a lot nowadays, I guess because it's so effective. On TV, the thing you see a lot is a scene where something shocking happens, with no context, then cut to "SIX WEEKS EARLIER" and the following events lead up to that shocking event. Giving the audience information that the characters don't yet know is a classic Hitchcockian method of building anticipation and suspense.

The example of this that I'm thinking about a lot right now is the current (final) season of Breaking Bad, which opened with a brief, mysterious flash-forward with Walter White in a diner, then jumped back to the present. Breaking Bad fans have spent the past year obsessively speculating about the events leading up to that scene. Cruel, but brilliant!
posted by Mo' Money Moe Bandy at 10:23 AM on July 17, 2013

For all his faults, Dan Brown is really good at this, and he does it by a combination of REALLY short chapters, and multiple storylines that he switches between. So, he'll have a cliffhanger almost at the end of every chapter, then switch to another story, then another cliffhanger, and eventually revisit and pay them off 4-5 chapters later. It feels like a trick, but I can't deny that it's effective.
posted by jbickers at 10:24 AM on July 17, 2013

The thousand injuries of Fortunato I had borne as I best could, but when he ventured upon insult, I vowed revenge.
-- EA Poe, opening line of The Cask of Amontillado.

IMO, the subtle distinction between injury and insult alerts the reader to a most dangerous psyche. And that is borne out.
posted by LonnieK at 10:44 AM on July 17, 2013 [2 favorites]

There's a remarkable scene in Haruki Murakami's The Wind-up Bird Chronicle in which one character witnesses a colleague being told he will undergo torture, then tortured. It is told from the point of view of the first character. It is riveting.
posted by googly at 10:47 AM on July 17, 2013 [1 favorite]

The entire novel of Cormac McCarthy's The Road is like this. I picked it up at about 10 PM one night, feel asleep at an indeterminate hour, woke up and finished it. HAD to find out what happened next.
posted by cnc at 11:12 AM on July 17, 2013 [3 favorites]

Peter Straub's "The Throat" had a moment sort of like this, although it was the payoff more than the buildup -- but without the buildup it wouldn't have worked. Sorry, no direct quotes.

The protagonist, a (police detective?) was dealing with a murderer in a (small town?) He'd investigated enough of the murderer's MO that he was able to tell a neighbor, If this happens or that happens, turn off the lights in your house and lock the doors.

Many, many pages later, this same neighbor idly mentions on the phone something that had happened.

The detective immediately replies, "Turn off the lights in your house and lock the doors."

As you may have observed, I've forgotten much of the book. I'll never forget the shock of that moment, though.

Straub has a way of bringing the story right into your living room that I've never seen elsewhere.
posted by Infinity_8 at 11:18 AM on July 17, 2013

Just thinking about Robert Cormier's I am the Cheese gives me goosebumps and makes the hairs on the back of my neck prickle. I read the entire book in one feverish sitiing, in a state of such alarm and suspense that I felt physically unable to put the book down.
posted by lemerle at 11:26 AM on July 17, 2013 [1 favorite]

Oh boy, the entirety of Flannery O'Connor's short story A Good Man is Hard to Find is like this. Here's the full text, it's a quick read.
posted by cairdeas at 12:14 PM on July 17, 2013 [2 favorites]

I think House of Leaves did an incredible job of building up the suspension visually with the text and word placement. Obviously this is very subjective as a lot of people hated it but I thought it was incredibly effective. I don't think the book would have had the same effect on me (causing a feeling of dread and terror) had the words been written on the page in a normal way.

Here's an interview with the author where he talks a little about design in writing.
posted by triggerfinger at 2:15 PM on July 17, 2013 [2 favorites]

There's a description in The Wasp Factory of a learning-disabled child. Which is very creepy, and is intended as foreshadowing?
posted by glasseyes at 2:39 PM on July 17, 2013

Stephen King, in The Stand if I recall correctly, started out a chapter talking about a .45 caliber bullet -- how much it weighs, how fast it travels when shot out of a .45 automatic, what happens as the bullet gets close to the person, what happens when the bullet hits a person, one increment at a time: first the skin experiences the heat preceding the bullet, then the weight of the hot bullet on their skin, then the bullet pushing the skin against the jawbone, then the shock of the bullet exploding through the jawbone, the bullet expanding as it hits the bone to deliver that shock more effectively, etc and etc.

And then he tells you who got shot, by who.

posted by dancestoblue at 4:05 PM on July 17, 2013

There is a section in Iain Banks's Dead Air involving someone having to break into a house to erase an incriminating recorded phone message. This house is owned by an extremely unpleasant gangster. Banks winds up the suspense and tension until it's almost unbearable. I damned near chewed my nails down to the wrist.
posted by Decani at 4:30 AM on July 18, 2013

Response by poster: These are all great, thank you!
Just acknowledging The Road and House of Leaves, both of which I read as if addicted.
posted by swrittenb at 7:19 AM on July 18, 2013

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