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Oct 8, 2012

Sneaky Tricks To Create Micro-tension

I've mentioned before that literary writing tells stories about insignificant people doing uninteresting things--but in an interesting way. It shouldn't be thought that this means literary writing should be dull. Done well, it is not at all dull. It has to work hard to sparkle though, and those techniques are worth plundering even if you write in another genre.

As I was re-reading Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri, I was struck anew by how she could weave an ordinary event into a riveting story.

Take her short story, "A Question of Accommodations." [Spoiler Alert! You've been warned. You who read past this sentence are about to find out what happens!] Nothing much happens. A man and his wife attend the wedding of his old high school crush. And that's it. Seriously. "High Concept" it's not. Reading about this non-event should be as dull as paint drying...but not in the hands of Lahiri.

She begins with a straightforward account of the couple's arrival at a hotel:
From the outside the hotel looked promising, like an old ski lodge in the mountains: chocolate brown siding, a steeply pitched roof, red trim around the windows. But as soon as they entered the lobby of the Chawick Inn, Amit was disappointed: the place was without character, renovated in pastel colors, squiggly gray lines a part of the wallpaper's design, as if someone had repeatedly been testing the ink and ultimately had nothing to say.
This deceptively simple beginning offers tension right from the start: the outside looks promising but the interior (the truth) is disappointing. The unvoiced question is: what else in this story looked promising at first but turned out to be a disappointment? If this were a horror story, we might expect that the disconnect between appearances and truth would turn up a threat to the couple, but since this is character driven story, the most likely thing in danger is the couple's own relationship. Indeed, as the story proceeds and we learn that the husband has unresolved feelings for the bride, our suspicions are confirmed: "He had loved her, it was true, but because she'd never been his girlfriend there had been nothing to explain."

Lahiri lovingly paints the past of the protagonist, Amit, investing us in his happiness, so the threat to his marriage, which is basically a good one, gnaws away at us as the backstory unfolds and the story progresses. There is a great deal of backstory, and the main story line involves nothing more than the couple setting up in the hotel and making their way to the wedding. All along, however, Lahiri employs subtle tricks to hype up the tension.

Unlike in a plot driven story, there's no immediately obvious "goal" the hero is striving to achieve. There's no ticking bomb he has to defuse. Instead, Lahiri provides micro-goals to drive the story forward. For instance, early on the wife, Megan, discovers a hole in her skirt. How can she attend a wedding like that? The protagonist promises to stand by her side all evening.

This micro-goal is not the goal of the story, but when their pledge is mutually abandoned, this too moves the story forward:
She had moved closer to Ted, and her hand was playing with her diamond earring, a habit of hers when she was nervous. Could it be that Megan was flirting with Ted? Instead of being jealous Amit felt oddly liberated, relieved of his responsibility to Megan, to show her a good time. ...Then he saw that the hand by Megan's ear was the one that had been formally concealing her skirt. Now that she'd had a few drinks herself, she no longer cared, and Amit realized he was free of his duty to stand by her side.
In the context of a marriage, the positive emotions here are all threatening: "liberated," "no longer cared" and "free of his duty to stand by her side." Even the fact he is relieved rather than jealous that his wife (might) be flirting with another man is ominous in this context.

Fairly deep into the story the couple has been seated at a table with an engaged couple, Jared and Felicia. Felicia grills the protagonist about having children. This conversation is interrupted briefly:
A spoon clinked on the glass and they all turned their attention to the front of the tent, to the first round of toasts. They listened to friends of Pam's from prep school and then from college, a few of whom he vaguely remembered drinking with at the Marlin. They were followed by members of both families, and coworkers of Pam's and Ryan's.
Okaaaaaay. This is exactly like a thousand weddings I've been to. Listening to endless wedding toasts is boring even when you're there in person, with the consolation of cake, so it's not promising to be reading about it. But directly the passage continues:
Amit was distracted by a pale gray spider that crawled up the side of the tablecloth and then into the space between the cuff of Jared's shirt and jacket. He was tempted to say something, but Jared hadn't noticed; instead he sat there, the same faint smile still fixed on his face, no doubt anticipating the day people would stand up and offer toasts at his own wedding.

The entree was served, plates of prime rib with asparagus and potatoes.

"How was it going from one child to two?" Felicia inquired, picking up the conversation where they'd left it. "A friend of mine told me that one plus one equals three. Is it true? She sliced into her prime rib, causing blood from the meat to seep into the potatoes.

He considered it for a moment. "Actually, it was after the second that our marriage sort of"--he paused, searching for the right word--"disappeared."
In the flirting scene, Lahiri used innocuous, even positive images to evoke disquiet about the marriage. Here, however, she's tossed in subtle but much more frightening imagery. A spider; a (knife) slicing; blood. It not the Texas Chainsaw Massacre, but in such an understated scene, these images work like a giant robot flailing its pincher arms, bleeping, "Danger, Will Robinson! Danger!"


And sure enough, right after the spider and the slicing and the blood, Amit drunkenly blurts out that his marriage has "disappeared."

The micro-goal of concealing the hole has failed, but a new micro-goal now propels the protagonist to the climax of the story. He must, despite having had too much to drink, find a phone and call his daughters to check in on them for the night. Cell phones don't work, so he lurches about, determined... Spoiler Alert... he doesn't succeed at this either. But by the end, he does achieve the real goal of the story, which, belatedly, the reader realizes was stated in the first page of the story after all, as obvious as Gandalf telling Frodo to protect the One Ring.

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