Any hack with the smallest facility for plot can walk a character into a situation that cannot be escaped. But it takes skill and craft to make the reader feel the character’s desperation. This is exactly what Mark Slouka does in his story, “Crossing.” By the last paragraph, the tension is nearly unbearable. The ending is powerful: “There was nowhere to go. It didn’t matter. They had to go.”
To find out how Mark Slouka builds the tension so subtly and yet to such an incredible pitch, read “Crossing” at here at The Paris Review.
How “Crossing” Works
Slouka does two things at once in the story.
First, he takes the father back and forth across the river: with the backpacks and then with his son on his back, and then an identical set of return trips the next day. The first set of trips allows the story to show us the river and the care required to cross it. The details are not particularly subtle. For instance, the father remembers when he was a boy crossing the river with his own father and asking, “what do you do if you fall?” His father answered, “Don’t fuckin’ fall.” It becomes clear where this story is headed.
Yet we forget this inevitable end because of the second thing Slouka does. While the river takes a central place in the story, the focus is actually on the father’s memories and thoughts. In fact, the river doesn’t even appear until the fifth paragraph. The story opens in the house of the man’s ex-wife, where the man is picking up his son:
“He went inside, wiping his shoes and ducking his head like a visitor, and when the boy came running into the living room he threw him over his shoulder, careful not to hit his head on the corner of the TV, and at some point he saw her watching them, leaning against the kitchen counter in her bathrobe, and when he looked at her she shook her head and looked away and at that moment he thought, maybe—maybe he could make this right.”
Slouka uses this opening to set the stakes: the man is going to use this camping trip to make things right with his family. His thoughts circle this idea throughout the story, even as he’s crossing the river. And so he does not see a second set of story stakes appear. While the story starts out being about making this right with his family, it will end with both two lives in the balance.
The Writing Exercise
- Pick a place to which you have a strong emotional connection.
- Ask yourself: What is dangerous about that place? Or, what danger could the place pose to someone who feels about it the same as you do? The danger could be literal (drowning) or emotional (the end of a relationship). For instance, if I choose my current back yard, where I’m landscaping, the danger might be that a character such as myself spends so much time thinking about what trees to plant that he misses something more important (kids, spouse, etc.). The danger could also be literal: cutting off a finger with a saw.
- Create a character who will face the danger.
- Finally outline how he or she will end up facing the dangerous situation. What details are crucial to establishing the danger? Why doesn’t the character avoid the situation? You must decide where the story begins. Doing so will give you a timeframe and help determine how quickly or slowly to dole out information.
Many writers will feel reluctant to plan out a story this way or will be unable to stick to the outline once they begin writing. That’s okay. The point of this exercise is to develop a feel for how to parcel out information in order to create suspense.