Building suspense in a novel or non-fiction book is largely all about the meting out of information, telling the reader just enough to string her or him along without giving the plot away. The tendency – if our clients are anything to go by – is to tell too much. Novice writers sometimes think readers need to be pounded over the head to understand what is going on. This can be like pointing at what should be a plot subtlety and screaming, “HERE IT IS!” Bye-bye suspense. Usually.
Yet sometimes flat out telling the reader what happens next can build tension. We just ran across a good example of that in T.C. Boyle’s WHEN THE KILLING’S DONE. In this novel about the controversies that surround restoring native ecological habitat on islands off the California coast – a process that often involves the elimination of non-native species – Boyle does his usual excellent job of creating suspense. The reader rockets along understanding that all the various plot points are going to link up in some clever and surprising way. Then on page 356, Boyle takes what the reader on what seems to be a detour to a heretofore un-introduced freighter on its way to Long Beach with a load of Chinese-made textiles. The ship has encountered dense fog bringing Captain Nishizawa to the bridge of the seven-story high vessel to oversee its progress. Even in much better conditions, the captain would be unable to see a smaller craft below, Boyle writes. Nor could the Tokachi-maru be brought to a stop if it did.
Get it? Boyle is telling the reader that the 12,000 ton freighter is going to collide with another vessel:
Were there accidents? Of course there were. But in most cases the crew of a freighter or tanker never saw, felt or heard a thing when a small craft was unlucky enough to blunder across its path. Think of it this way: a heavyset woman, heavier even than Marta at the Cactus Café, a real monument of flesh and bone and live working juices, plods out to her car on aching feet after a double shift and can’t begin to know the devastation she wreaks on the world of the ant, the beetle and the grub.
(Since this is a book about the effects of humans on wildlife, the analogy of the heavy set woman tramping on bugs is not accidental.)
Boyle is wildly pointing to the accident-to-happen and yelling, “HERE IT IS,” and the reader is crazy to know what happens next (we were).