Stringing out the tension

Peter D. wrote:

I like Terence Malick movies and he does this thing where you will be in the midst of a battle scene, and the camera will just look away to show a lizard or a crocodile or something.

So there is the idea. I like to use it to break up dialog. In the midst of the scene launch into a paragraph describing some element of the scene. It doesn’t have to be important to your story. It is just there to ground the scene in reality. To make it seem that your story is happening in a real world.

So what is my question? Does anyone else use this technique, and does it have a name, other than “The look away”.

And do you think it is a good idea?

It is a technique and one I’ve used (example below). I don’t know that it has a name, maybe postponing reader gratification, or maybe (better?) stringing out the tension.

Interesting that you point to Malick’s example of being in a battlefield, where (one assumes) tension would be high.

I think the fundamental of the technique is that when you have the reader really wriggling on the hook (“oh, my God, what’s going to happen?”), at that point you play the game of seeing how far away you can go and still keep the reader wriggling.

I was finished.

Flat on my back. My left arm hurt like hell where the slug had gone through my bicep. Gordo stood over me holding the .45 pointed at the middle of my chest, five feet away.

I had no way to get up, much less get up fast. And to get out of the way of a .45 slug coming at a thousand feet per second, when it’s only five feet away—no chance.

Gordo sneered. “You think you can be like the others, the straight people?” he said. “Doan make me laugh. You one of us, you on our side a the fence. You can’t go over that fence. It ain’t in you. You ain’t got it in you. You done too much shit over here to go try and clean up your act over there. It ain’t never going to happen, homey.”

The bastard. It sounded true, and I hated that it sounded true.

I sank back, let the tension go, felt my body mold itself into the damp earth beneath me. I gave up. Here I would end. Finito. Adios.

I could see Gordo’s big brown hand wrapped around the pistol’s grip, his big fat finger starting to tighten on the trigger.

I didn’t want to watch. And I sure didn’t want to think about what was probably happening to Taylor, left alone back there with that ugly pock-marked fucker called Facil. Yeah, he was easy, all right. Easy to hate.

I looked up. We were out in the orange grove. I saw the tops of the trees, the green leaves and beyond them blue sky. I could hear tires humming along the distant highway. I pictured the people in the car, a guy at the wheel, a pretty girl beside him, happy, laughing, cigarettes going, listening to music. No idea what was happening in the middle of that orchard over there.

A bird called out. A bird that didn’t have sense enough to get away from the shit going down in his neighborhood.

“Stupid fucking bird.”

I guess I said it out loud.

“Huh?” Gordo said.

One hell of a blast made me flinch like a girl, and I must have closed my eyes. The thought went thorough my head that’s it, I’m dead. Shit, it didn’t even hurt! And I can still think. Hell, this being dead, it’s not so bad.

So is he dead?

Well . . . then he couldn’t be narrating, could he?

The rest of the scene:

I opened my eyes and it was all in slow motion: Gordo standing there, except now where the .45 had been there was only a bloody stump on the end of his arm and there was a misty spray of blood settling out of the air.

Gordo’s eyes were open even wider than mine. He turned his head, took a half step and looked over to the side of clearing.

I looked, too, and there was Taylor, cradling a Winchester 12-gauge shotgun at hip level, a wisp of smoke rising from the barrel. She was naked to the waist, a skinny girl with a wild look in her eyes, blood on her cheeks and dripping from her chin, blood on her chest, her arms and hands. She jacked the action on the Winchester to put another shell in the chamber, and it made that serious steel-on-steel racking sound they make. She was holding it loose and low with the muzzle pointed right at my head and I froze in fright, even more scared than I’d been when I thought Gordo was about to off me. If she’d been squeezing the trigger when she jacked that shotgun, I wouldn’t be here telling you about it.

She swung it up and over on Gordo. He said “Fuck!” in that insulted and pissed-off way you say it if somebody spills coffee in your lap.

Taylor just looked at him for a second or two as he stood there, holding his stump of an arm up as if that might somehow stop the spurts of bright red blood shooting out of it.

Taylor pulled the trigger and there was another blast from the shotgun. I don’t know if she was aiming or just lucky, but this one caught Gordo right in the groin. The impact lifted him off his feet, knocked him back a couple steps and sat him right down in the dirt on his big fat ass.

He looked down to survey the damage and said “Jesus!” like you’d say to a kid look what you’ve done now.

Taylor took three quick, silent steps in her bare feet across the clearing and stood over Gordo like he’d been standing over me. She racked the Winchester again and held it right on Gordo’s fat gut and pulled the trigger. The shotgun clicked on an empty chamber.

She didn’t seem to notice. She kept racking it and pulling the trigger and the shotgun kept clicking on empty.

I stumbled to my feet and put my arm around her shoulders, pulled her against me and took the shotgun out of her hands. It made my arm ache like hell.

She relaxed into me.

I asked her, “Are you okay, are you cut?”

She looked down at the blood on her hands and arms, on her chest.

“It’s not mine,” she said. “It’s that guy’s.”

She looked up at me and got a weird half-smile on her face. “I bit off his dick,” she said. She made it sound like she’d brought home a report card with an A on it. “I bit off the end of it and spit it out in the dirt and he fell down and couldn’t get up. He couldn’t take his hands off it, holding his dick, trying to stop the bleeding. He couldn’t get up.”

“You did good,” I said. “Let’s get the fuck out of here.”

I tried to start her away, head back to the car, but she stopped me, pulled me around.

“We need to kill him,” she said, looking at Gordo.

He was sitting there, pasty-faced, his eyes a little glassy with the shock, holding his stump in the air, looking at us. His crotch was a mass of blood and flesh and shredded Levis. He was sitting in a widening black patch of blood-soaked dirt.

“He’s dead,” I said. “There’s a big artery that goes right from the heart down to Gordo’s particular problem area. He’s dead already.”

As I said it the air went out of Gordo. He slumped and then slowly keeled over on one side.

“Come on.” I pulled Taylor away and we walked slowly back through the orchard to my yellow Camaro.


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