Dramatic tension does not always come from violent action. Sometimes it is born and grows in the heart of the ordinary.
I’ve just finished reading Nevil Shute’s On the Beach, a post-apocalyptical novel published in 1957. But if you are thinking a rag-tag band of survivors battling robots or zombies or bands of roving animals through the rubble and ruin of once-proud cities, it isn’t that at all. [Spoiler alert.] Everybody behaves very civilly. And everybody dies. As in everybody dies, the entire human race.
The story takes place in and around Melbourne, Australia, one of the most Southerly cities in the world. An exchange of cobalt bombs has blanketed the Northern hemisphere with radioactive dust, which is slowly making its way south. The characters all know that it is coming and that there is no escaping from it. They are all going to die. They know this from the beginning of the book.
What do they do? As far as they can, they go about their normal lives. In the opening chapter, Peter Holmes, an Australian naval officer, goes to a farm to get milk for his baby. It is not what you would think of as a high drama kind of opening. But for me it illustrates something important about the kind of tension that drives a story. This is what we learn in the opening chapter:
our hero has a wife and a newborn baby
they all, the family and the human race, have a few months left to live
he goes to the farmer on his bicycle to fetch the milk and asks the farmer if he can deliver the milk when he is away as he expects to be called up for naval duty soon
The drama here lies not in some dramatic thing that the hero does or is done to him. Rather, it lies in the ordinariness of what he does. Most books depend on the tension created by the contrast of extraordinary events happening in an ordinary world. Shute creates the inverse tension: ordinary events happening in an extraordinary world. And it certainly does create tension. One watches the characters going through their ordinary routines constantly wondering when someone will snap. Every party, every regatta, every trip to the shops, is infused with the expectation that someone will suddenly burst into tears. Indeed, the characters themselves are constantly worrying that their guests or their friends will suddenly start to cry, which will be embarrassing for everyone and spoil the party.
I think one could do a pretty good job of illustrating dramatic tension by blowing up a balloon. At first there is nothing terribly alarming about it, though one does know, in the back of ones mind, that if it gets blown up beyond the limits of the material, it will go off pop and startle everyone. With each puff, the balloon grows bigger and the danger of bursting increases.
Pacing is key to the tension, though. The sound of a balloon popping, by itself, causes little more than a startle. If is happens behind you, if you do not witness each breath straining it more and more, you might not startle at all. But if you sit and watch as someone inflates it one breath as a time, as the rubber grows ever thinner and more taught, as the color fades from dark to light, from opaque to translucent, the tension mounts until you cringe in terror at the thought of that small pop. Bring a candle or a pincushion into the room and you may torture your guests to the point of apoplexy. But this is all for naught if the pacing is wrong. If the balloon is blown up too fast, there is no time for the tension to build. If it happens too slowly, people will lose interest.
But the most important thing in this analogy is that when the balloon finally goes pop, that releases the tension. It is not the bang that creates tension, but the anticipation of the bang. A good writer creates that tension and then maintains and grows it slowly over time. Within the scope of that tension, the writer creates the room to do all the other things they want to do in the novel.
Writers who open their stories with a burst of furious action followed by thirty pages of history are missing this fundamental point. They begin by bursting a balloon on the first page, startling no one, and are then left with only limp fragments of rubber. There is nothing to hold the reader through the exposition that follows.
Shute does something else again. The biggest of all balloons has already burst before the book begins. But this is revealed slowly. We begin with only the smallest hints that something is wrong. “[I]n the circumstances of the time he had almost given up hope of working again.” “They had a small car in the garage but since the short war had ended a year previously, it had remained unused.” There is no gasoline for the car anymore so Peter must take the bicycle to fetch milk. His conversation with the farmer hints that they are living on borrowed time. “‘After all, from what they say on the wireless, there’s not so long to go.’” The full extent of it is only revealed slowly. But the subtle signs of it begin on page one, giving us a faint whiff of tension that draws us on. “He woke happy, and it was some time before his conscious senses realized and pinned down the origin of this happiness.” Why, we are forced to wonder, was it so exceptional to wake happy, or to have to struggle to recall the origin of that happiness? With this small question, the first breath enters the balloon and begins to inflate it.
We are, of course, waiting for a balloon to pop. We are waiting for each of the characters in turn to lose their composure. But that is not exactly what happens. Rather, Shute shows us a growing dissonance in each of the characters. The American submarine commander buys a fishing rod and a pogo stick for his son and daughter back in Mystic, Connecticut, even though he knows his family are all dead. As the book progresses, each of the characters acts as if they did not know that the end is nigh, even as the acknowledge that it is, and even as they puzzle to see other characters also making plans for days that they will never see. This dissonance creates a second and deeper level of tension in the novel.
As the book progresses, the American Captain’s talk of going home to Mystic changes from a kind of madness to a kind of metaphoric acceptance. As the end nears, he takes his submarine out into international waters to scuttle it, obedient to US policy of not abandoning any vessel in a foreign port — this though he is the last surviving US military officer in the world and the US and all its people are dead. He refuses the offer of a tug to bring him back to shore after sinking the ship, saying he is going home to Mystic. The same phrase that once spoke of incipient madness now speaks of acceptance, and even a kind of hope.
What I take from this is that the balloon never actually has to pop. It is the tension created by the possibility of it popping that matters, that sustains the reader and shapes the novel. In the right hands, a resolution in which the balloon never does pop, in which the tension is released as slowly as it was built, can be profoundly exciting and profoundly moving.
Another thing I find of note about On the Beach is that, despite my describing it as such above, it is not really a post-apocalyptic novel. It is not a novel about nuclear war. It is not even an anti-war novel. Two characters do have a brief conversation about the folly of the war at one point, but this is not the author intruding to give a speech. It is simply two characters doing what people would do in that situation — what they do in the face of disasters and disappointments of all kinds — complain that those in charge are fools and should have known better. But the book is not about any of that. The book is about how human beings face the certain prospect of death. And that is a universal. We all face the certain prospect of death. Most of the time, we try not to think about it, and most of the time we succeed.
The genius of On the Beach is that the advancing radiation cloud means that everyone is facing the prospect of immanent death at the same time. This makes it much harder for them to ignore, both in their private thoughts and in their conversations. And yet, the characters of On the Beach do manage to ignore it, to a large degree. Peter’s wife, Mary, plants a garden that she will never see grow, chatting about eating its produce that they will never live to harvest. Peter goes on with his naval career. The shops stay open. People carry on as best they can, as normally as they can, planning and working for a future that they know neither they nor anyone else will live to see.
This stubbornness to acknowledge death, combined with a general decency and desire to carry on, seems very human. Nothing is easier nor more human than to sympathize with the apparent madness of the characters of On the Beach. One reads their story with a kind of horror, and yet also with a kind of recognition that we would not be unlike them, and, at least, we hope that we would, like them, remain civilized to the end.
I will admit to disappointment the the characters resort to suicide at the end, rather than suffer through the final effects of radiation poisoning. As a Catholic, I have a principled objection to suicide as a way out of suffering. And yet, as a novelist, recognizing that the novelist’s task is to portray humanity as it is, not as we would wish it to be, I have to acknowledge that the end that Shute’s characters choose is likely one that many would choose. And I’m not sure that I would be up to describing — or reading — the death scenes of those who chose otherwise.
Some have criticized On the Beach for getting technical details of nuclear war wrong. But this is to miss the point entirely. The war is just a prop. The book is about something much more intimate, much more personal. It is a book about the immanence and inevitability of death, and how we live with these certainties, and on these subjects is strikes me as profoundly true. And in this, Shute deploys the techniques of literary tension to explore the fundamental tension of all our lives. And this, of course, is exactly what makes literary tension work — the way in which it parallels the tensions of our lives. But if art is to successfully imitate life, in this regard, we must pay attention to how we inflate the balloon, and how we plant in the reader’s mind the growing anticipation of its bursting.
Speaking of books that do not fit the conventional mold, I want to recommend you take a look at Elle Griffin’s serialized novel Obscurity. Most serialized novels these days seem to be either fantasy, sci-fi, or romance, and to adopt a fairly conventional literary style. My The Wistful and the Good is something different, both in subject matter and in style. Elle Griffin’s Obscurity is, similarly, very different, in style, in genre, and in substance. If you are enjoying The Wistful and the Good, you might also enjoy Obscurity, not because they are similar, for they are nothing alike, but because, they are both, in their own very distinct ways, different from our ever-more homogenous literary culture. Start with the prolog, which will give you a great taste of its distinctive style and substance.
Hi, Mark, playing a little catch up on my blog reading. I really enjoy your reviews and literary analysis. "On The Beach" sounds like an interesting read. I keep thinking of how the characters in Australia waiting for the end could be an analogy with our current world situation: climate change and other existential threats such as war in the Ukraine. Not to be bleak, but it's like, in a sense, all of us are those characters in Australia, waiting for the end. Well, not exactly waiting, thank God. The end is not determined and we keep doing what we can to make the world a better place. Thanks for your clear prose and insight as usual. Your journey and work are inspiring.