October 29, 2008
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I’m reading Connie Willis‘s “Passage,” picked up (and signed!) at ComicCon, and it’s almost a textbook in how to build tension.
Willis is the author of one of my favorite short stories ever, “The Last of the Winnebagoes,” and a terrific time travel/British comedy novel, “To Say Nothing of the Dog.” I grabbed “Passage” at ComicCon because it was there and she was there (I also picked up “Bellwether,” because they were giving it away, but that was later). A full review will come later, but here are a few of the tricks I’ve noticed her using:
* The main character always, always goes into a scene wanting something. Either something as prosaic as food, or to get away, or to get a crucial piece of information.
* She often interrupts the back-and-forth of dialogue where something is being revealed to the character to insert a little description. Lets the reader pause and makes them wait before going on.
* She often interrupts conversations altogether. There are a couple characters in the book who are always trying to corner the main character to tell her something, but they never say it right away, and she always finds an excuse to get away. She’s convinced that they don’t have anything important to say, but as the reader, the interrupted conversation plants the seed of doubt. What if they DO have something important to say and it comes back later?
I am having serious trouble not reading this book whenever it’s around. I had to leave it at home because if I brought it to work I would be taking two-hour “coffee breaks” with it down at It’s A Grind. But I’m also trying to learn from it and admire what she’s doing and WHY I can’t put it down.
You want good writing? You want a great story? You want a lesson in how to build up your readers’ expectations, build tension, give them way more than they thought they were getting?
You want Gene Weingarten. You want the Great Zucchini.
(It’s a couple years old, but this is the first time I’ve seen it.)