Look at the famous passage below and identify the x3 ambiguous signs, the protagonist’s x3 failed attempts to rationalise, and then ‘the monstrous reveal’!
He must have slept soundly for an hour or more, when a sudden clatter shook him up in a most unwelcome manner. In a moment he realized what had happened: his carefully-constructed screen had given way, and a very bright frosty moon was shining directly on his face. This was highly annoying. Could he possibly get up and reconstruct the screen? Or could he manage to sleep if he did not?
For some minutes he lay and pondered over the possibilities: then he turned over sharply, and with all his eyes open lay breathlessly listening. There had been a movement, he was sure, in the empty bed on the opposite side of the room. Tomorrow he would have it moved, for there must be rats or something playing about in it. It was quiet now. No! the commotion began again. There was a rustling and shaking: surely more than any rat could cause.
I can figure to myself something of the Professor’s bewilderment and horror, for I have in a dream thirty years back seen the same thing happen; but the reader will hardly, perhaps, imagine how dreadful it was to him to see a figure suddenly sit up in what he had known was an empty bed.
[from ‘Oh Whistle and I’ll Come to You, My Lad’, M.R. James]
Answer: the ambiguous signs are the strange fall of the ‘screen’, the ‘movement’ and ‘the commotion’; the failed attempts to rationalise are the moonlight causing the screen to fall(?!), the ‘rats’ and then the gibberish related to the ‘dream’;… all leading to the ghostly figure suddenly sitting up in what had previously been an empty bed! Argh!
And there you have the classic shape of suspense as a narrative device or even a plot-shape. You’ll notice, therefore, that the suspense and horror genres use a very different plot-shape compared to the fantasy and science fiction genres (‘The Hero’s Journey’, described in mini-lesson no.7).
M.R. James was one of the UK’s most famous ghost-writers. Indeed, his short stories are still regularly dramatized by the BBC every Christmas. James knew his craft.
You will notice in the passage above how the prose shifts between Anglo-Saxon (phrases made up of shorter words) when the protagonist is caught up in moments of emotion (fear) and Latin (longer words) when the protagonist is rationally/objectively trying to get to grips with what is going on. It’s extremely effective writing, employing enactment (mini-lesson no.5)!
Finally, you will notice that the third paragraph of the passage above is just one overlong sentence. It’s confusing, and hard to follow both in terms of grammar and meaning. It struggles for coherence. It is all but an incoherent gabble or ‘stream of consciousness’. Indeed, it represents the psychological fragmentation and loss of rationality of the protagonist, and so we have another example of enactment. Oh, yes, James certainly knew his craft.
Write a short scene that involves one of the following:
- Someone hiding in a wooden shack from an ‘unnatural’ storm
- A stuffed animal that is out of place/moving
- A pub where there is a ‘strange’ atmosphere
- An attic that might or might not be haunted
If you’d like me to look at how successful your attempt is, please do feel free to email me (Adam): adz_d2003 @ yahoo.co.uk – deleting the two spaces either side of the @ sign.
I’ll be posting a new lesson every day (Monday-Friday), to help people who are stuck at home because of the coronavirus situation. These mini-lessons will give you a useful daily routine, and might just keep you sane! Stay safe.
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