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Consider This: Creating Dread
And introducing unlikely knowledge
Here’s one of the easiest, most effective tricks to built tension in fiction
But first, a passage from one of my favorite stories by one of my favorite writers. It’s from the story This is Us, Excellent from the collection The Ice at the Bottom of the World by Mark Richard. Before you read this post — which contains spoilers — you should seek out the whole story. You’ll love it. Especially you, Kerri.
Now, here’s the passage:
You should tell him, whoever he is, every summer is different, about the way the clutch handle slips and breaks your arm. Usually it happens into the summer when the ride has been pretty good ridden and the handle starts to click like one of those piano clocks, back and forth, back and forth, until one night the handle wants to lie down flat against the place where the men running the ride like to rest their arm, waiting for the ride to run. Every summer someone different has it happen, it’s just always the same kind of cast over the same kind of arms, arms like with amusement-type tattoos that look deeper blue in winter when you see them doing some job else, like taking out resturant trash or reaching for cigarettes through bars in the windows of the jail downtown.
The first couple hundred times I read this passage my impression was that Mark Richard had botched the description. The narrator is a small boy. How would a small boy know how arms in jail windows looked? While the rest of the story sings. It’s truly magnificent, that moment of description seemed… lousy.
The boy is beaten relentlessly, him and his brother and mother are all beaten. Eventually a carnie who runs a squirrel cages-type ride in a beach-front amusement park traps the abusive husband/father on the ride. Then the carnie allows the ride to run faster and faster until it begins to fall apart. The abuser is killed in this spectacular fashion while the carnie flees the scene.
It wasn’t until I’d read the story three hundred times that I recognized the author’s genius. What seemed like a clunky bit of description is actually a flash-forward. It’s telling us that long after the end of the story — weeks or months after — the grateful mother and her sons went to visit the heroic carnie where he’d been jailed.
Buried deep in the center of this story is a tiny glimpse of a redemptive future. And it is beautifully done.
Keep in mind
By their nature, all stories are told after the fact. The past, present, and future exist in each story. We’re fairly used to using flashbacks to visit the past. And we’re telling the moment-by-moment story in the present. But few writers venture to use this kind of flash-forward.
In the story Guts I wanted the swimming pool kid to have some technical knowledge about water pumps. But such knowledge wouldn’t be in character for a thirteen-year-old. Since he’s telling the story we know, more or less, that he survives, but not how he survives. So at one point he says, “Paramedics will tell you that a swimming pool pump pulls four hundred gallons of water every minute…”
This type of flash-forward allows my narrator to have some technical knowledge. And it suggests the gruesome rescue that eventually saves him. In fact, it allows me to skip the rescue scene altogether. Similar to how the Mark Richard flash-forward hints at sweet redemption, the Guts flash-forward builds dread by suggesting grim events to come.
This week I posted a Christmas story called Kingston. It describes a douchebag teenager who seems to find religion. It contains lines such as:
Last year’s Kingston got first shot at Leesa LaRey back before she got all tore up. Back then, even before everything she went through…
Even after what happened to Leesa LaRey, after she died, the old Kingston used to rally half the low-lifes to a keg party where they took turns spooging it on her headstone…
These casual little clauses suggest Leesa will meet a grim end, and that Kingston will be involved. They build dread so nicely that I don’t even have to show her being killed.
It’s a wonderful trick. Use it. Just don’t get caught using it.
So if you want to give a character unlikely knowledge, flash-forward for a beat to suggest where the detail came from. And if you want to tease the reader about things to come, again, use a flash-forward to suggest it. Remember: All stories are told after the fact.
Now if you haven’t read This is Us, Excellent, go read it. The story is a marvel.
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