Some of the most significant events in a literary work are mental or psychological (e.g., including awakenings, discoveries and changes in consciousness). Describe how the author manages to give these internal events the sense of excitement, suspense, and climax usually associated with external action. Do not merely summarize the plot.
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This is a pretty detailed question for this short space. Steinbeck uses a character driven narrative to do all the things you mentioned. The characters embody the themes of the book so any action driven events are channelled through Steinbeck's attention to character detail. Steinbeck also spends time with tone and mood: this further adds suspense to the story.