Writing Temporary Blindness
“Padraic swings his flashlight beam over the tracks again and finds a pretty little music box with a hand crank on top. Padraic lifts the music box admiring the workmanship. They don’t make them like that anymore. He turns the crank on the cylinder. A song plinks out note by note. It’s one he’s heard before, and old song, but he can’t really remember it.
He considers taking the music box but puts it back. ‘Let’s see what other treasures are down here.’
Padraic swings the flashlight. The beam finds a skeletal foot.” ~Libba Bray, Lair of Dreams
Writing tension is a balancing act. The performance differs depending on the one writing the story, but all aim to achieve the same goal. To write tension is to entice, excite and unnerve the reader. Suspense increases the stakes characters face. It's the element of written craft that demands the age-old advice, "show don't tell." A piece of advice writers constantly hear when editing their drafts.
Writing effective suspense is a balance of two elements. The first involves withholding information for the sake of writing tension. The second involves divulging enough information to coax the reader's interest. It's one of the more difficult elements of writing to teach because no two writers will handle the element the same way. That is to say, every writer has their own rhythm when it comes to tension. Some authors focus on the environment around the character and the peril it has to offer. Other authors focus on the decline of the character's emotional state. Read any story by author Edgar Allen Poe for reference to the latter.
The above quote is part of a larger passage from author Libba Bray's book, Lair of Dreams. The passage focuses on a group of minors going to the depths of their mine to work their shift. One of the minors, amidst the pitch darkness of the mine's depths, discovers a music box. What is it doing there? This our first instance of withheld information. The author, in this case, shows us a discovery but doesn't tell us more than what a character is observing. It's an odd place to discover such an item but, then again, a music box can qualify as junk. Even in the 1920's. Would it be so shocking to see junk dumped in a mine? There isn't any other kind of junk lying around but...nothing else is a miss.
The minor fiddles with the object, discovering it's still in working condition. A song plunks out, one he vaguely recalls but can't place. A relatable feeling but this acts as our second instance of withheld information. Bray tells us outright; they don't make music boxes of this style anymore. We have yet to receive an explanation on how the box came to be here but are becoming more familiar with the item. The item is in good condition, so much so that the minor considers keeping it. This piece of information now generates further questions regarding the box's being here. Items qualified as "junk" tend to be things that are broken, or of no further use. There's a mystery surrounding this discovery that keeps building.
At the beginning of this passage, Padraic discovered the box in the depths of the mine. We can assume this setting isn't one that sees a lot of traffic of people carrying music boxes. Padraic proceeds to ask his fellow minors what other treasures they can discover. A reminder he discovered the music box alone. The passage before established that the mine tunnels are dark. The only source of light in the scene comes from the minor's flashlights. The beams of the flashlights are always finding the objects instead of Padraic's eyes. And then the beam of Padraic's flashlight finds a skeletal foot. The nature of the music box's discovery has changed. What began as the potential discovery of a dumping ground for antique junk, has transformed into something more sinister. Why is there a skeletal foot? What follows in the rest of this passage? What did Padraic find? What does the discovery of this music box now mean?
The answer to all those questions depends on you purchasing a copy of the book. The ability to pose such questions in your own writing may come easier in reading the rest of this blog post.
All joking aside, consider the following narrative terms:
Temporary Blindness: A method of building narrative suspense by withholding information and instead divulging context through the use of one or multiple reversals.
Reversals: A term for the disturbance to a holding pattern ; an incident that inspires further questions or need for explanation.
In the above example, temporary blindness and its use of reversals are all present in the quote.
The mine is dark and flashlight beams are the only source of light.
Padraic doesn't understand the box's sinister nature until his second discovery is made.
There is a music box, out of place, in the depth of a mine.
The character makes the observation that the music box is an antique.
This antique music box proves to be functional when it plays a tune familiar to the character.
The character establishes that the box was discovered alone, and proceeds to search for more treasures.
The character gets more than they bargained for when the beam of their flashlight finds a skeletal foot.
The proximity between the music box and the skeletal foot associates the two together.
The above quote is not the end of the passage. It also isn't the end of the chapter. Even so, the quote addressed the most important questions regarding the music box. Why was there an antique music box in the tunnel of a mine? Why was such an object dumped if it still works? From what little I gave you, there was a body found not too far from the object. Indirectly, the question posed to the character and reader was answered. The antique but functional music box defied Padraic's expectation. The further questions this generated delayed the gratification of receiving any answers. When the answers finally came, they brought with them an answer sinister enough to transform the reader's perception of the scene. There's a bigger question now that involves both the music box and the body. The answer to that question depends upon the reader reading the rest of the novel.
How much time would you say passed in the scene we examined? Minutes? An hour at most? Every tense scenario in a scene should have its own time clock. There is a suggested agreement in a tense scene shared between the author and reader that it will end. If done well, the scene will come to a timely enough end to leave the reader reeling.
Think of a scenario where a character hears strange noises behind a door at the end of the hallway. The door prevents the character from seeing the source of the noise. The door stands in the way of the character being able to investigate the noise through sight alone. They've grabbed a knife from the kitchen. A lot happens during the endless time it takes for the character to creep down the hallway. The character becomes increasingly more afraid. They aren't the most well endowed or athletic individual. They begin to doubt if they can confront what they assume to be an intruder.
They consider turning back...only, they can't because what's behind the door is their room. Inside their room is their cellphone. There's no landline in the house because this is a guest house. In the middle of the woods. The character isn't familiar with the area. They don't want to risk getting lost in the woods. They also don't know how long they would have to run because their room is a small room with only one closet to search. The intruder will be done with this room soon. The character places their hand on the door knob and holds the knife close to their chest. Their last chance to debate their next move ends with a sudden silence beyond the door. The intruder is no longer searching. The time clock attached to the journey through the hallway ends. The time clock for the actual confrontation is about to begin.
Temporary blindness and the character's perception of time are mutually exclusive. Losing track of time is customary to anyone experiencing anxiety. It's the reason people glance at their watch or stare down the clock. The feeling of not knowing what time it is, or how much time is left, is a feeling everyone can relate to. The time clock of "temporary blindness" should be exclusive to the character's perception. Even if the character is hyper-focused on the time, because they're facing a countdown, only the author should know the exact time. The author should know exactly when the character will be discovered, or when the trigger will be pulled. The character shouldn't know at exactly what time they're going to be discovered or when the trigger is going to be pulled. Separating tension in the narrative from the character's reaction to the tension is key. Look at these two elements as separate entities when writing the scene. What the narrative (author) decides does not determine how Sally (character) will react.
A great example of this concept used well comes from the film, The Silence of the Lambs.
In the film, Clarice enters the home of Buffalo Bill and the killer turns out the lights. No matter how intense this scene is, when the lights first flickered out the audience knew two things. The first: this spells danger for Clarice. The second, at some point the lights are going to turn back on. The question is, is Clarice going to survive this literal darkness? Is Clarice going to survive the moment's time clock? These questions are all posed in the span of time Clarice spends in the literal dark. That is the intensity of delayed gratification. Clarice is blind and the audience witnesses this scene from Bill's night vision view of her in the dark. His hand reaches for her but doesn't touch. The audience can't read Bill's face or body language. The moment stretches as Clarice tries to find her way through the dark, unaware Bill is watching her. The narrative describes a hopeless scenario where the character can't see they're being confronted by danger. Clarice reacts by trying to find her way and find a way to locate her target. That is the intensity of temporary blindness.
It's all fine and good to define these concepts but let's put what we've learned to practice.
Expand upon the following prompt using what you've learned of temporary blindness. Employ three reversals as you go:
A character is asleep on the couch. Their eyes snap open but they don't know why.
There's a buzzing.
A reversal: There's an answer to the question. There's a phone buzzing on the table by the front door. The character discovers that it's not their phone. They answer it.