Friday, June 24, 2011

The road ahead...

My family has been a bit obsessed with Laura Ingalls Wilder lately.  That's not the point of this post.  But seriously, we seem to be experiencing some Laura-immersion lately, as we read aloud from The Long Winter, look at our photos from the museum in Walnut Grove, and now, we've begun watching the first season of the Little House TV show.  The boys are transfixed.

In the episode we just watched, Pa had to walk a hundred miles to find work, along with many other farmers in the area, after a catastrophic hail storm ruined the wheat crop. On his way, he meets up with another farmer--a man we have just seen in an emotional parting shot with his wife and his son.  The wife begged him not to go; she says he's going to get himself killed.  The parting with the young son is poignant, with the whole, You're the man while I'm gone, so take care of the farm and take care of your mother thing going on.  He's a "powder monkey", we later find out, the guy who sets off the dynamite inside the holes that Pa and another farmer are going to drill in the rocks of the quarry.

I'm sorry to spoil the episode for you, but the thing is, from the moment we see this goofy tough guy with the heart of gold dancing around in mock fisticuffs with his little guy, who declares his father the best powder monkey in the whole country...the moment you see the love in his wife's eyes--her desperation nearly hidden by her playful teasing--you know the dude is going to blow himself up.

Or anyway, you know once you've seen this strategy used a few times.  Just like Keek says in the book I'm currently devouring reading, And Then Things Fall Apart, by Arlaina Tibensky (this quote is from the ARC, so it may differ from the final book), "In movies when there is a dog, I always kind of brace myself for the moment when the dog will eat poison, get shot, get run over, drown, etc.  And then when the dog dies (they always do; that is their function in the film, to die), I weep...."

We start to recognize the signs of impending narrative tragedy: a dog, a cute kid told he has to take care of his mother, a stoic but heartbroken wife, a warning gone unheeded.  We prepare ourselves, emotionally.  And then, even though we know it's coming, still we weep.  We feel sadness, but we aren't completely shocked and horrified by the awful event.  It doesn't actually traumatize us because we knew it was coming.

Laura's writing desk, Walnut Grove, MN
Unless you're a little kid, still learning how to recognize these cues, like Monkey, who was paying attention to the television the way he pays attention to everything--by seeming like he is completely ignoring it.  Suddenly, he's on my lap, weeping, his little bottom lip all stuck out and his eyes gigantic and terrified, watching the smoke from the deadly explosion rise up into the blue television sky.  It's my job, then, to keep him from being traumatized, to hold him and explain about how it's not real life and help him see how brave the little boy is in the end and how Pa promises to check on him and his mother in the future.

This is a confession, though not a secret:  when a book really has me hooked, when I am completely wrapped up in the characters and their lives and their conflicts, when I truly believe in them...when the foreshadowing is subtle but deep, and the suspense builds in the book so that I can't stop turning pages even though I fear to turn another page...

...usually at about the halfway point, when it becomes too much to bear, and I feel myself on the edge of being traumatized, I'll flip quickly to the end of the book and glance at the pages--not to read, but just to sort of reassure myself that life goes on, in the end.  And after that moment, when I get my little reminder that yes, the story will go on, and probably it will be resolved (I don't need a happy ending, but I guess I'm looking to make sure that the rest of the pages aren't empty and blood-stained or something?), then I can keep reading.  And weeping.

And those books stick with me, much more than the ones that I can continue straight through without ever needing to flip ahead to check and make sure my heart won't explode in a few pages. do I write a book like this, that makes a reader so incredibly invested that they think they might be traumatized if something catastrophic happens in the next fifty pages?

One way, of course, is to write characters that are so three-dimensional and real that I actually can't bear to see their hopes and dreams crushed.  I have to care about them deeply in order for any of this to matter.  But it shouldn't be easy to see what will happen (for example, the "powder monkey" saying good-bye to his wife and child, recklessly he's stuffing those dynamite sticks into his pockets, that moment when everyone seems truly happy and like it all is going to turn out fine...that's too easy.  But that's also a short television show from many years ago and a minor character!).

I can compare it to something else that makes me anxious--driving.  When we were on our trip last week, we climbed up into the Black Hills, to a campground near Deerfield Lake.  The roads there were all steep and winding, breath-takingly beautiful and horribly dangerous.  Snaking around the curves, headed into the setting sun, both David and I leaned forward, squinting through the bug-splattered windshield, trying to figure out which way the road was going to veer next--and sometimes completely surprised at the direction it takes!

But what a satisfying thing, to finally pull into that campsite in one smile at each other and say, wow, that was a beautiful ride, and we made it to the end!  And how thankful we are that we get to drive back down with the sun at our backs. :)

So how do you build suspense in your writing? What suspense methods do you think work really well?  What authors do it best? What books make you want to flip ahead and make sure the world doesn't end?

1 comment:

Kristan said...

Very rarely do I have to skip ahead to reassure/calm myself. (Usually if I have to skip ahead, it's to check to see if a book gets better... :/)

BUT I totally know what you mean about feeling anxious for characters, and about how suspense comes from emotional investment rather than clever plots sometimes.

I think I'm writing that type of a book -- where the story moves well and is interesting in its own right, but what matters isn't really the twists or surprises, because what keeps you moving is your attachment to the protagonist (and her family). At least, that's what I'm aiming for, lol.

While my book is more adventurous in nature, I think "quiet" books can be this way too. Like If I Stay by Gayle Forman, or Hold Still by Nina LaCour. Those protagonists are not battling any bad guys or racing through obstacles -- but they are so viivd and compelling that you feel the same kind of tension.