The writer Ron Carlson once began a story workshop by listing the things that we, as writers, would love to be told—but would never hear—in a workshop. Number one was, “If you stop writing, I’ll die.” The truth is that we’ll never receive the praise we truly want. No one’s life hinges on our work. Our readers won’t die if we hang up our writing shoes.
But that doesn’t mean we can’t make them curious—maybe even make them sweat.
Manuel Gonzales’s new story, “Farewell, Africa,” rivals any potboiler for its ability to create suspense. By the end of the first sentence, we want to know something very badly, and we’ll read until we find it out. “Farewell, Africa” is included in the new story collection The Miniature Wife and was also recently published by Guernica. You can read it here.
How the Story Works
Kenneth Burke, in his essay “Psychology and Form,” explains the relationship between writer and audience. To create suspense in the reader’s mind, Burke claims, requires “the creation of an appetite in the mind of the [reader], and the adequate satisfying of that appetite.” To create the appetite, the writer first dangles a prize in front of the reader—saying, in effect, “You know you want this, reader.” Once the appetite is created, the writer delays handing over the prize as long as possible, introducing, as Burke writes, “a temporary set of frustrations.”
Let’s look at how “Farewell, Africa” creates and then delays the satisfaction of an appetite.
The story begins this way: “No one, apparently, had thought to test the pool before the party to see that it worked.” Immediately the reader wonders what went wrong. Or even, more basically, how can a pool not work? The statement is so unexpected and odd that we naturally want to know more.
But the story withholds the answer for several paragraphs. It shifts gears, explaining the pool’s size and architect and the fact that it “had been commissioned as a memorial installation for the Memorial Museum of Continents Lost.” Now we’re really intrigued. What continents were lost? What is this world we’ve entered? In effect, the story has pulled a bit of sleight of hand, replacing the initial prize that we wanted with something else that we also want. We want to know why the pool didn’t work, but we’re distracted with the sheer strangeness of a world with disappearing continents. When, at the end of Part I, the story finally returns to the pool, it’s with a savage, understated rush that catches us by surprise: “’The damn thing’s not working.’ Then he took a sip of champagne and said, ‘Too bad this didn’t happen with the real Africa.’”
As readers, once we’re hooked so firmly, we’ll follow the story wherever it goes.
The Writing Exercise
- Begin a scene by selecting a place (i.e. kitchen) and at least two characters (man, woman).
- In the first sentence of the paragraph, tell the reader what will happen in the scene (man will propose, woman will reveal she’s pregnant). There are many different ways to approach this first sentence, but, for now, simply tell the reader the information, either in third person (The man practiced his marriage proposal as he walked into the kitchen) or in first person (I didn’t want to tell him I was pregnant right away, so when he came into the kitchen, I asked if he’d picked up take-out).
- In the second sentence, introduce a diversion—or, as Burke calls it, a frustration. The diversion can be anything (take-out or the lack of). The idea is to get the reader interested and distracted by this new piece of information.
- Follow the diversion for as long as you can (argument about take-out).
- Then, surprise the reader by coming back to the info promised by the first sentence (Oh, by the way, Honey, we’re having a baby).
In short, promise the reader something, delay delivering on the promise for as long as possible, and then deliver. That’s one way to create suspense.
To learn more, look for an interview with Manuel Gonzales on Thursday.