Bewildering Stories

Challenge 147

Please read Sean Hower’s “Breaking Up, Breaking Down” first.

Get Ready for a Shock...

Two of the stories in this issue make particularly effective use of suspense and surprise. And the key is in the minor details. Let’s see how it works.

But first, what is suspense? It’s our state of mind as readers when we realize that a story can proceed in any number of directions. In a sense, it’s a point where the story reaches a crossroads; and there may be none, one, or many. Suspense is not a “given”; it’s a dramatic device. In fact, it may be culture-bound. French has no word for it. English borrowed “suspense” from French, but French has had to borrow it back as le suspens in order to convey the meaning that English has added to it.

Nobody talked about suspense before the Romantic era. You know Oedipus is doomed once the Delphic oracle sets the plot in motion. You know a messenger will arrive or somebody will play a trick at the end of Molière’s plays to sort out the mess the characters are in. And nobody expects that Racine’s Phèdre will live happily ever after with her stepson, Hippolyte: that’s never an option; she’s been cursed by Venus to suffer unrequited love. In a tragedy, you die; in a comedy, you get married. Them’s the rules, and try not to confuse the two.

Now that we’ve had some fun with suspense in general, let’s consider a special case of it: surprise. If suspense means that the story has reached a point where a number of things may happen, then surprise — also known as a “twist” — is a conclusion or event that follows logically from previous events but is not what the reader has been led to expect.

  1. What clues does Sean Hower give us in “Breaking Up, Breaking Down” that “Carrie” might be a personification rather than a real person?

    1. Those clues are precious few: Carrie is dressed in a white suit and hat and is sitting on the edge of Doug’s nightstand. Carrie’s attire is very formal for morning wear, and the nightstand must be unusually solid for a person to sit on it. Those details must mean something, but at the outset we don’t know what it is. We file them and continue... until they take on an unexpected meaning at the end.

    2. Consider the basic rules of comedy and tragedy. “Breaking Up, Breaking Down” is not exactly a tragedy... yet. Doug may still shake his drug addiction before it kills him. But if we interpret Carrie as a real woman to whom Doug is literally married, does that make the story a comedy or a tragi-comedy?

    Obviously the rule about comedy and tragedy states extremes on a spectrum. The corollary is that comedy and tragedy differ in degree, not in kind: between marriage and death there’s a lot in between that’s happy, funny, serious or sad or all of them at once.

  2. Tala Bar’s Sacrifice has now gone through four chapters as of this issue. By all appearances it is a pastoral idyll in which the main theme is peace and reconciliation between two tribes that are as culturally different as can be. The romance of Tamar and Eitan bridges the two cultures: the Water Maiden and the chieftain’s son are deeply in love and appear to be made for each other.

    So far, Sacrifice sounds like a scenario for a 17th-century soap opera: practically soporific. It’s anything but that! I won’t give away the conclusion of the story, which is scheduled to appear in issue 148, but I will forewarn you: Tala Bar has written a minor masterpiece, and we, the readers, have been completely hoodwinked.

    It’s all in the point of view. We see things from Tamar’s perspective. To her and her fellow villagers, the desert nomads are a very strange and alien culture. We accept her point of view; whose else do we have? But remember two things:

    1. There are entirely too many points of conflict between the villagers and the nomads: their cultures are practically mirror images of each other; everything is reversed.
    2. The Village of the Three Faces of the Moon is as alien to us readers as the nomads are to the villagers.

    Everything in the first four chapters would seem to point to the classic definition of comedy: the two lovers will get married and live happily ever after. But we have been lulled into complacency. What details can you find in the first four chapters of Sacrifice that may portend a surprise reversal? You have one week in which to guess what might happen.

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