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The simple truth behind suspenseful writing

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With simple words, suspenseful stories thrill and chill us

In Stephen King’s “The Shining,” there’s a heart-pounding moment when young Danny once again finds himself standing outside Room 217 of the Overlook Hotel.

Despite being warned not to enter, he puts a key into the lock. He turns the knob.

It’s enough to make my palms sweat.

Good suspenseful stories elicit strong emotions, even when we know what happens next. Now, a team of academics at Stanford University has identified what prompts those feelings. Surprisingly, it often comes down to the use of simple words and sentence patterns. So simple, in fact, that the team trained a computer program to accurately predict when a written passage will be suspenseful.

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“The general theory of suspense is that we don’t know what is going to happen, but we want something to happen and we don’t want other things to happen. That uncertainty leads to suspense,” says project leader Mark Algee-Hewitt, director of the Stanford Literary Lab.

But that theory of suspense, long discussed by academics, doesn’t explain why Mary Shelley can raise our hackles time and again, even when we already know what becomes of Victor Frankenstein and his monster.

To find out why a story continues to arouse suspense even if the reader knows the outcome, Algee-Hewitt and a group of graduate students dissected passages from hundreds of books and short stories. They rated paragraphs and chapters on their degree of suspense, then fed those passages into a computer.

By doing so, they identified common features of suspense. For example, suspenseful moments rely on simple words and contain shorter, choppier sentences, which pick up the pace of a story. Such moments are also more likely to include words related to physical pain and emotion, such as “trembling” and “hurt.”

Most notably, says Algee-Hewitt, suspenseful moments are able to create a state of anxiety with words that imply a character’s uncertainty about reality, such as “seemed,” “perceived,” and “as if.” The reader is likewise left in a state of, well, suspense.

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The team then trained a computer program to recognize suspenseful passages based on those features, and the program was able to identify passages as either suspenseful or non-suspenseful with 81 percent accuracy.

Algee-Hewitt plans to use the program to analyze patterns of suspense throughout longer novels in a variety of genres. But the implications of the analysis are relevant to more than just fiction, he notes. “We find these techniques in other kinds of writing that affect how we think and feel about different things, from political speeches to news stories,” he says.

So be warned. You never know who is playing with your emotions. They could be right in front of you.