One thing a writer must do (perhaps the writer’s primary responsibility) is convince the reader to keep reading. There are numerous ways this can be accomplished, but one sure method is to create a sense of unease about how the events of a story might turn out. Some would call it suspense, but I think it’s more complicated than that. A ticking bomb in the trunk of a car can create suspense. But rather than relying on mere physical threat, a good story attempts to generate unease by entwining character and event. We want a character’s interior life and outer actions to both create and embody the narrative unease. How did we get here and where are we going? Those are the questions a reader should have throughout a story.
For example, I recently came upon this opening paragraph from Donald Antrim’s story ‘The Emerald Light in the Air.”
In less than a year, he’d lost his mother, his father, and, as he’d once and sometimes still felt Julia to be, the love of his life; and during this year, or, he should say, during its suicidal aftermath, he’d twice admitted himself to the psychiatric ward at the University Hospital in Charlottesville, where, each stay, one in the fall and one the following summer, three mornings a week, Monday, Wednesday, Friday, he’d climbed onto an operating table and wept at the ceiling while doctors set the pulse, stuck electrodes to his forehead, put the oxygen meter on his finger, and then pushed a needle into his arm and instructed him, as the machines beeped and the anesthetic dripped down the pipette toward his vein, to count backward from a hundred; and now, another year later, he was on his way to the dump to throw out the drawings and paintings that Julia had made in the months when she was sneaking off to sleep with the man she finally left him to marry, along with the comic-book collection — it wasn’t a collections so much as a big box stuffed with comics — that he’d kept since he was a boy. He had long ago forgotten his old comics; and then, a few days before, he’d come across them on a dusty shelf at the back of the garage, while looking for a carton of ammo.
A person clearly suffering. We wonder, especially after reading that phrase “carton of ammo,” if his trip to the dump is a new start at life, or the final, defiant act of a man before he does something horrible. Even putting aside that killer first sentence, don’t you want to keep reading? I did, and I wasn’t disappointed.
“The Emerald Light in the Air” first appeared in The New Yorker and can also be found in Antrim’s short story collection of the same title.