The Science Behind Suspense - OZY | A Modern Media Company

The Science Behind Suspense

The Science Behind Suspense

By Libby Coleman


Because we all feel the same way, at least sometimes.

By Libby Coleman

All of a sudden, her pulse quickens, her hands shake, her pupils dilate. She has to know what happens next. She turns the page.

We’re talking about suspense novels, not Fifty Shades of Grey. It’s a given that books can produce powerful emotional responses in all of us nerds who still read, and it turns out there’s a science to it all, according to Mark Algee-Hewitt, an assistant professor of English at Stanford University. 

Suspenseful passages are characterized by words relating to the imagination (e.g., “thought”), the senses (“saw”) and topics (“assault,” “guns,” “crime”).

Although it’s not entirely clear why Algee-Hewitt is right, the results are significant. For one, he can predict, with a high degree of accuracy, whether or not a passage will evoke suspense. Imagine if the formula were used by literary agents and publishers to select books that would be the most successful at spooking readers. Suspense writers could rejoice! The study found that while people ranked certain passages as more relatively suspenseful than others, there was broad agreement on which parts were more or less suspenseful.

So what scares us? Algee-Hewitt and his team looked at novels — mainly in the crime, horror, experimental, Gothic and sci-fi genres — and studied readers’ responses: Where were they most likely to want to turn the page, anticipating what happened next? “We all imagined suspense was something to do with action, verbs, movement. That’s not where it is. It’s really in the setup to that,” Algee-Hewitt explains. One theory for the revelation, he says, is that certain patterns in novels might “put us in a cognitive state that simulates uncertainty.” Thus, even if you’ve read a book before, you can still experience that feeling of suspense. That’s why movies that rely on keeping the audience in suspense aren’t ruined by spoilers, as UC San Diego researchers found.

Suspense novelists are nodding along to Algee-Hewitt’s findings. Suspense, according to author Lisa Preston, is about “apprehension.” Thrillers are about trying to locate a bomb, while suspense is about knowing a bomb is under the table. Other researchers have taken a crack at the brain to determine different reasons for why we feel suspense. According to researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology, when suspense is most strongly felt, our brain activity shifts to the gray matter region that increases processing of critical information and blocks out everything else.

Suspense writing is still more art than science. Author Paul Pen focuses on writing short sentences, weeding out adjectives and forgoing narration for dialogue. “Descriptions of place can be tricky and real action killers,” Pen says, though Stanford’s researchers would say otherwise.

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