That Little Horrifying Moment...

One thing I love about story telling is the subtle sell. What I mean is when something eminent is about to happen, when you're sure the shit is going to splatter the fan but just before that moment all is peaceful and calm.

Think about times in Peter Benchley's Jaws - both the novel and the movie - when the serenity of the ocean, the calm of the waves lapping against the swimmers or the boats, is shattered but this great white eating machine tearing apart that precious moment. Peter writes in the opening scene, "The woman rose and walked to where the gentle surf washed over her ankles." Notice how he sets up the mood with the gentle surf. It evokes a calm, comforting emotion, a reminder of those times we played at the beach, enjoying the water lapping the sands and bodies. From there, he takes us out into the open ocean for an evening swim. The woman is clueless to the creature swimming below the surface. Benchley switches POV from her to the "fish" as it begins to sense her presence. This helps build the tension and yet nothing deadly has happened. The graceful yet aggressive fish moves in on the unsuspecting prey, closer and closer, until the initial attack.

"At first, the woman thought she had snagged her foot on a rock or piece of floating wood. There was no initial pain, only one violent tug on her right leg." From there she discovers that the tug removed most of her leg. There isn't any screaming or powerful words, just a moment of clarity before the truth sets in. The passage continues to elevate with her panic as it becomes clear to her that she is hundreds of feet from the shore and is about to be devoured by an unseen beast of great speed and ferocity circles below.

Another favorite of mine is the movie Equilibrium starring Christian Bale. It's about a dystopian society that has outlawed all forms of emotion and things that stimulate an emotional response. To maintain this each person is mandated to take Equilibrium, a powerful drug that keeps anyone from feeling. Bale plays a high-ranking Cleric; a deadly enforcer of the law that watches his sterile and sanitized world crumble around him as stops taking his drug and begins to feel for the first time in his life.

In this scene he is planning on assassinating the leader of the city-state Libria, known as Father, after meeting with the leaders of an underground resistance that wants to feel again. But to get close he must pass a polygraph test. Not an easy task when he has been experiencing emotions for some time. The filmmakers set up an outstanding calm before the storm that still blows me away.

This is a classic "oh shit" moment, complete with a character saying the obvious.

This kind of story telling has always attracted me. Having grew up in the Thing Lurking Behind the Shadows era, where the violence wasn't always splattered across the screen, I learned to appreciate the quiet moments before the storm. In the opening scene of my novel, Frenzy, I introduce a violent pedophile who is stalking his next victim. He sets up his plan as he wanders around an empty beach late one night. Like Benchley, I tried to use softer more supple words to set up the scene before this filthy bastard has the tables turned on him.

"A brisk wind rushed from the dark waters. It licked the shore, scattering sea-foam and tickling the tall reeds by his legs." As the scene progresses, the stalker learns that he isn't alone and that his plans are terminally hampered. "Half way to the van, he caught the clopping of boots moving in time with his own. Willy froze. The footfalls stopped. He resumed his march and the footfalls rejoined his, echoing him step after step."

"Willy whipped around, the knife ready for action. His jaw dropped when he saw a lone figure standing a short distance away. He was a broad shouldered man, maybe as tall as Willy or taller; it was difficult to tell in the darkness. He stood with his hands tucked into his jacket pockets, his head cocked to one side. Though shadows clung to his face his eyes burned brightly like roadside beacons."

It's not easy to capture those moments but they are often the most gratifying. Have any moments similar that you've read or written? Care to share? Please do!


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