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The Suspenseful Sentence


In creative writing workshops, we often talk about the degree of tension or suspense in the short story or novel chapter. But you can reenact on the microscopic level of the sentence that same degree of tension. By writing sentences that in some way postpone the most important information, you create a moment of suspense that can engage the reader more fully, especially if the sentence is long.

How do you do this? There are loads of ways. Here's a partial list:

1. Use modifiers to delay the main clause until the very end.

For instance,

"Even when the East excited me most, even when I was most keenly aware of its superiority to the bored, sprawling, swollen towns beyond Ohio, with their interminable inquisitions which spared only the children and the very old-even then it had always for me a quality of distortion." The Great Gatsby

Fitzgerald uses three dependent clauses ("Even when..."; "even when..."; "even then...") to delay the main (base) clause, "It had always for me a quality of distortion." He also builds in more suspense by ending with the surprising and unexpected word, "distortion."

2.       Split the subject from the verb with modifiers

"And thus by degrees was lit, half-way down the spine, which is the seat of the soul, not that hard little electric light which we call brilliance, as it pops in and out upon our lips, but the more profound, subtle, and subterranean glow which is the rich yellow flame of rational discourse." A Room of One's Own, Virginia Woolf

Woolf starts with her verb ("was lit"). The reader has to wait, reading through modifiers, to understand what was lit by degrees. Finally, at the end we get the subject, "rational discourse."

Here's another one, by Michael Chabon, from The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, which opens with modifiers and introduces its subject about midway through the sentence, but then delays the direct object of the verb, "liked." (Sam Clay is the subject). We wait to find out what Sam liked to declare.

"In later years, holding forth to an interviewer or to an audience of aging fans at a comic book convention, Sam Clay liked to declare, apropos of his and Joe Kavalier's creation, that back when he was a boy, seated and hog-tied inside the airtight vessel known as Brooklyn, New York, he had been hunted by dreams of Harry Houdini."

3.   Open with a main clause, but use modifying phrases or subordinate clauses to refine, sharpen, and clarify, thereby delaying the most important information to the end.

"His relations with the Reverend and Mrs. Idwal were excellent until the minister started to give him testimonials by orthodox rabbis who had embraced the Christian faith." Saul Bellow, Herzog.

Here, Herzog opens with his main, independent clause, "His relations with the Reverend and Mrs. Idwal were excellent," then uses a subordinate clause "until the minister..." to delay the information about Christian faith.

Powerful suspenseful sentences can add a degree of tension to your story, beyond the tension provided by plot or character conflict. They also vary sentence rhythm and provide a reader with motivation to navigate her way through a longer sentence. If you've never tried writing one, if you've never consciously set out to delay the most important information of a sentence until the end, that final, culminating word, then here's a new technique to add to your practice of writing.