By Lawrence C. Connolly
Copyright © 2014 by Lawrence C. Connolly
In his well-known and often quoted poem “Musée des Beaux Arts,” W. H. Auden writes about the place of suffering in the world, “how it takes place / While someone else is eating or opening a window or just / walking dully along.”
Writers do well to keep this relationship in mind, not only when writing about suffering, but also when attempting to build and sustain narrative tension.
The relationship between Auden’s poems and the art of building and sustaining tension occurred to me recently while rereading Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Road. One scene in particular illustrates the connection. It occurs late in the book, after the boy and his father near the end of their post-apocalyptic journey. They reach the coast and come across a ship lilting 100 feet offshore. The vessel likely holds needed supplies, which means that the father must swim out to investigate while the boy remains on shore. This device of people separating in a threatening environment is a standard device in horror, but what McCarthy does with it is remarkable. The scene that follows plays out entirely from the father’s point of view, presenting the things that he sees and does while away from the boy. Much of it reads like this:
He found a can of olive oil and some cans of milk. Tea in a rusted metal caddy. A plastic container of some sort of meal that he did not recognize. A half empty can of coffee. He went methodically through the shelves in the locker, sorting what to take from what to leave. When he had carried everything into the saloon and stacked it against the companionway he went back into the galley and opened the toolbox and set about removing one of the burners from the little gimballed stove. It runs nearly ten pages, approximately 2,500 words, much of it conveying the minutia of the father’s search, the simple step-by-step things that he does while exploring the ship, and through it all one concern dominates the reader’s minds: What’s happening to the kid?
If you haven’t read the book, you really owe it to yourself to do so. In many ways, the narrative illustrates the importance of appealing to the readers’ imaginations, of giving people the chance to wonder and fret over things happening offstage. Used properly, the technique can be more effective than dramatizing the horror itself.
In Danse Macabre, Stephen King writes about The Changeling, a film starring George C. Scott and Trish Van Devere. In particular, King describes a tense, lingering scene in which Van Devere climbs a darkened staircase, reaches the top, enters a mysterious room, and then runs for her life from what turns out to be a maniacal wheelchair. A wheelchair? Chances are, you can imagine something more frightening. And that’s just the point, for as King tells it: “the real scare [. . .] comes as the camera dwells on those long, shadowy staircases, as we try to imagine walking up those stairs toward some as-yet-unseen horror waiting to happen.”
Thus, it’s the things we don’t see that sustain tension, the things we do see that release it. By focusing on the minutia of life and allowing our readers to wonder about what lurks at the top of the stairs or on a shore just beyond our reach, we can build the kind of anxious anticipation that keeps readers turning pages. As Auden might have said, tension is what happens when “someone else is just walking along.”
Lawrence C. Connolly’s contemporary fantasy series The Veins Cycle concludes this winter with the release of Vortex. The first two books in the series, Veins and Vipers, have just been reissued in both print and ebook form. This week (September 5-10), the ebook edition of Veins is on sale for 99 cents at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, and Fantasist Enterprises. Fasten your seat belts, and enjoy the ride!