But You Just Keep Me Hanging on Again*

Building Tension Without GoreI think most of us would agree that a high-quality crime novel builds tension and suspense without resorting to a lot of gore and gratuitous violence. Everyone’s idea of what ‘counts’ as ‘too much’ or ‘gratuitous’ violence is likely to be a little different. But all of us have our limit. And there are ways to keep people turning and swiping pages without a bloodbath.

How, exactly, does a crime writer go about that, though? How can an author keep the tension strong in other ways? Here are just a few of my ideas. I’m sure you’ll have your own, too, and I’d love to learn from them.


Creepy Settings

Eerie settings can take on a life of their own, as the saying goes. When they’re depicted well, they can add quite a lot of suspense to a story. For instance, Arthur Conan Doyle uses Baskerville Hall to good effect in The Hound of the Baskervilles. In that novel, Sherlock Holmes sends Dr. Watson to Baskerville Hall on Dartmoor to help investigate the recent death of Sir Charles Baskerville. Legend has it that the Baskerville family is cursed by a phantom hound, and that’s the reason for his death. Holmes isn’t sure that’s true, though. In any case, family friend Dr. Mortimer wants to prevent a similar fate for the new heir, Sir Henry Baskerville. As you can imagine, Sir Charles’ death has a much more prosaic explanation than a curse. One interesting thing about this story is that there isn’t a lot of violence in it. The tension and suspense aren’t built that way. The setting, though, is eerie. First, there’s the bleak moor, which at night is not exactly a warm, welcoming place. There’s the house itself, too, which

‘…was a heavy block of building from which a porch projected. The whole front was draped in ivy, with a patch clipped bare here and there where a window or coat-of-arms broke through the dark veil. From this central block rose the twin towers, ancient, crenelated, and pierced with many loopholes.’

It’s certainly not a cheerful, bright place.

Neither is the eponymous lodging that features in Daphne’s du Maurier’s Jamaica Inn. Also located on Dartmoor (hmm……), it’s owned by Joss Merlyn and his wife Patience. Their niece, Mary Yellan, goes to stay with them when her mother dies. Before she even arrives, she’s warned about the place; and when she arrives, she finds that the warnings have been more than justified:

‘She [Mary] went out of the room and into the dark passage, bumping against the settle in the hall, and so upstairs, feeling her way with her hands, judging her whereabouts by turning round and facing the stairs again. Her uncle had told her the room over the porch, and she crept across the dark landing, which was unlit, past two doors on either side – guest rooms, she imagined, waiting for those travelers who never came nowadays, nor sought shelter beneath the roof of Jamaica Inn – and then stumbled against another door and turned the handle, and saw by the flickering flame of her candle that this was her room, for her trunk lay on the floor.

Not the sort of place that suggests a happy, warm story. Like The Hound of the Baskervilles, the violence is more implied than depicted in detail (although there is more of it in this story). The setting builds the tension as much as anything else does.


The Elements


Along with physical setting, authors can also use the elements to build tension without getting gory. In Nevada Barr’s Firestorm, for instance, US National Park Service Ranger Anna Pigeon has been sent to Northern California’s Lassen Volcanic National Park. She’s to serve as a medic for those fighting a wildfire – the Jackson fire – in the area. Weather predictions are for colder air and snow to move in, so the hope is that the firefighters will soon be able to leave the area. Pigeon and a small group remain behind, though, to help an injured comrade. That’s when a freak thunderstorm forms and changes everything. A firestorm is whipped up, and all of the team dives for cover in individual shelters. When the storm passes, the firefighters check on each other only to find that one of them has been murdered. Now, Pigeon has to help the other exhausted firefighters, and at the same time find out who the killer is. This novel uses the quickly-changing and dangerous elements to add suspense to the story, rather than a very high ‘body count,’ or a lot of brutal gore.

That’s also true of Craig Johnson’s The Cold Dish, which introduces his sleuth, Sheriff Walt Longmire. In this novel, Longmire and his deputy, Victoria ‘Vic’ Moretti investigate two murders, both of young men who were involved in a previous rape. There are a number of possibilities, including that the family of the rape victim has exacted vengeance. Although the story has some dark elements, it’s not a really gory novel. And the violence that there is, is not extended. Part of what builds the tension here is a snowstorm that moves in during a trek that Longmire and his friend Henry Standing Bear make to try to prevent a third murder. The weather is brutal, and the two men are at serious risk. That’s what adds to the suspense, rather than a lot of violence.


Psychological Tension


Authors can also use the buildup of psychological tension to invite readers to stay engaged in a story. That’s what Agatha Christie does in And Then There Were None. In that novel, ten people visit Indian Island, off the Devon Coast. They’re all there for different reasons, but as we learn early on, they’ve all been deliberately brought to the island. After dinner on the first night, each is accused of having caused the death of at least one other person. Shortly afterwards, one of them suddenly dies of what turns out to be poison. Later that night, another dies. Soon enough, it’s clear that someone is trying to kill all of them. The survivors have to find out who that person is, and stay alive themselves. Admittedly, there’s a higher ‘body count’ here than there is in some of Christie’s other work. But the deaths are not described in ugly, gory detail. The real tension lies in the growing paranoia and the knowledge that someone in the same house is a killer.

Patricia Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train also uses a solid buildup of psychological tension. The real action in that novel begins when Guy Haines travels across country by train to visit his estranged wife Miriam, from whom he’s hoping to get a divorce. While he’s en route, he meets Charles Anthony Bruno. The two men get to talking, and before very long, Bruno proposes that each man commit the other man’s murder. He will kill Haines’ wife if Haines kills his father. At first, Haines doesn’t take Bruno seriously. But then, Bruno actually kills Miriam, and demands that Haines fulfil his side of the bargain. Now Haines has a terrible dilemma. In this novel, the violence isn’t the main part of the story, really. It’s the buildup of psychological tension as we slowly see the kind of person Bruno really is, and as Haines tries desperately to get out of his situation.

There are a lot of other ways, too, to ramp up the suspense in a story without a bloodletting. Which keep your interest the most? If you’re a writer, how do you build suspense without gore?



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Hooters’ Hanging on a Heartbeat.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Craig Johnson, Daphne du Maurier, Nevada Barr, Patricia Highsmith

27 responses to “But You Just Keep Me Hanging on Again*

  1. Great examples! I actually think that gore takes away from the tension rather than creating it. It’s all about what might happen that works for me, rather than descriptions of what already did. In fact, sometimes when the gore element goes over the top, it can reach a point where it almost becomes funny, and that throws me right out of the story, reminding me that what I’m reading isn’t real. Whereas psychological tension can have my spine tingling just in fear of what might happen…

    • Thanks, FictionFan. And I couldn’t agree more with you about the gore factor. Real tension is much better built, I think, through suggestion. Our minds are quite capable of creating ‘dungeons in the air’ without any gratuitous gore. And as you say, when it gets to a certain point, it’s funny, and there goes the story.

  2. Col

    Great post. One scenario always gets me, last encountered in Paul Heald’s Death in Eden (though that had comic undertones). Someone enters a house or a hotel room, when the owner is away, searching for something – evidence or a forgotten possession and has to secrete themselves when the inevitable happens and the owner returns. The author has a choice of confrontation or deferral, allowing them to slip away. When it’s done well – my heart races!

    • Oh, that is a great scenario, Col, isn’t it? As a matter of fact, I could do a post on that topic in itself at some point, As you say, when it’s done well it can be pulse-pounding. And even when it has the comic touch, it can be a great plot point. Thanks for the inspiration! My mind is now buzzing.

  3. Margot, John D. MacDonald does an excellent job of building suspense without violence and bloodshed. I am keen to read a book or two by Daphne du Maurier.

  4. Burial Rites by Hannah Kent has fantastic page turning psychological tension as you want to know what really happened so that it may stop Agnes’ impending execution for a past murder we don’t see until later in the book. But the book is mostly an after the fact novel and is a fantastic crime read.

    • Now, that, Rebecca, is a great example of what I mean by building psychological suspense. Along with that, there’s also the ‘ticking clock’ element that adds to the tension in the novel (i.e. Will Agnes be saved?). And it doesn’t depend on gore or gratuitousness to tell the story.

  5. Author Michael Koryta does a wonderful job of building tension and suspense in his books. He uses elements, the psychological and the setting. Great examples, Margot.

  6. I like to have two converging lines of suspense if I can manage it. In my first novel I had my amateur sleuth go into premature labour when she is alone in an isolated house in the fog. Will the killer or the baby arrive first?

  7. I love psychological tension in a book – and in particular where the reader knows what is about to happen or the sees the “danger” ahead and the protagonist doesn’t and continues blindly on.

  8. Give me the weather any time – I think it’s a great way of building tension. I love the scene at the end of Dorothy L Sayers The Nine Tailors, where the flood waters are rising and rising. We learn how the local people cope with it, the bells ring out in warning, and they take refuge in the church on high ground. And then, Lord Peter finally works out the last piece of the jigsaw…

    • Yes! You’re absolutely right about the weather in The Nine Tailors, Moira!! It adds so much to the tension and to the suspense of the story, doesn’t it? In fact, I’d go so far as to say that it creates a very solid sub-plot. And weather in general can do that in a story.

  9. Another great topic! It’s a stretch, perhaps, but the creepy setting inspires me to invoke my favorite author, Raymond Chandler, once again. Certainly the greenhouse in The Big Sleep where he meets Gen. Sternwood [the mansion, for that matter], but I was thinking more of the Hadean overlay in his novels of an irretrievably corrupt Los Angeles, ca. 1940, and the way he depicts it, as a kind of creepy setting.

    • Thanks for the kind words, Bryan. And certainly the Sternwood mansion and greenhouse are creepy settings. They do reflect the kind of decay and corruption with which Chandler depicts the kind Los Angeles that Marlowe haunts. I’m glad you mentioned them.

  10. Great examples, Margot. I don’t care for creepy settings though.

  11. I’m not a fan of gore and too much violence or sex. Implied, cleverly and with skill, and I can be terrified with my pulse racing and my heart in my mouth. Too much and I want to giggle or stop reading.

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