The most terrifying scene I’ve ever read came from Cormac McCarthy’s Pulitzer Prize winner, The Road. Whenever I think of the book, I can still picture this scene. The Road is a postapocalyptic novel–not my first choice in genres, but it was one of the novels used by Donald Maass in his how-to, The Fire in Fiction, and I’ve been slowly making my way through each book he listed as an example of whatever he was demonstrating at the time.
In The Road, the two characters, known only as “the man” or “he” and “the boy,” are traveling through barrenness that could be anywhere. All the man knows is to go south. Along the way, they encounter a variety of dangers and never at any point know who to trust. Food is hard to come by, and they’re starving. At one point, they find a house that may have something to eat. After searching in and around the house to make sure it was safe, they prepare to enter the basement, hoping to find a store of canned goods.
Here’s an excerpt from the scene:
He started down the rough wooden steps. He ducked his head and then flicked the lighter and swung the flame out over the darkness like an offering. Coldness and damp. An ungodly stench. The boy clutched at his coat. He could see part of a stone wall. Clay floor. An old mattress darkly stained. He crouched and stepped down again and held out the light. Huddled against the back wall were naked people, male and female, all trying to hide, shielding their faces with their hands. On the mattress lay a man with his legs gone to the hips and the stumps of them blackened and burned. The smell was hideous.
Jesus, he whispered.
Then one by one they turned and blinked into the pitiful light. Help us, they whispered. Please help us.
Christ, he said. Oh Christ.
He turned and grabbed the boy. Hurry, he said. Hurry.
He dropped the lighter. No time to look. He pushed the boy up the stairs. Help us, they called.
A bearded face appeared at the foot of the stairs. Please, he called. Please.
Hurry. For God’s sake hurry.
He shoved the boy through the hatch and sent him sprawling. He stood and got hold of the door and swung it over and let it slam down and he turned to grab the boy but the boy had gotten up and was doing his little dance of terror. For the love of God will you come on, he hissed. But the boy was pointing out the window and when he looked he went cold all over. Coming across the field toward the house were four bearded men and two women. He grabbed the boy by the hand. Christ, he said. Run. Run.
Every time I read this, my heart pounds.
McCarthy doesn’t resort to artificial means in this scene. The descriptions he gives of the victims are just enough–he doesn’t get nearly as gory as he could have. He doesn’t rely on exclamation points to transmit a sense of urgency. His sole tools are word choice, sentence structure, and pace. Never once does he use the word “cannibalism”; why explain what is obvious?
He could’ve chosen to illustrate the cannibals in action–a lurid scene some authors enjoy writing and some fans enjoy reading. Instead, he shifted the focus to the impact the implied cannibalism had on the characters. This is a technique Christian authors of murder mysteries and thrillers could implement: Shift the focus away from the gore and toward the reaction. Just like Art Spikol said, “Say no more than the readers need to know; let their imagination work.” (“Avoiding Cliches,” Writers Digest, February 2011).
After awhile, readers get desensitized to the gory images the writer tries to burn into their minds. After years of reading books by Patricia Cornwell, Kathy Reichs, and others, I can’t remember a single scene that has remained in my memory like this one has.
Take a look at the scene with an analytical eye. Notice that there is no loss in urgency between the short, clipped sentences and those strung along between “ands.” Notice the descriptive words he used. Notice the simile: “swung the flame out over the darkness like an offering.” An offering for what? That they find food? That they not be killed? That he not find some terrifying scene in the darkness? Notice that last paragraph where the sentences are longer than even those in the first paragraph of this example. What mood do the two paragraphs present? What about all the lines in between?
Even if an author isn’t writing a scene as sensational as this, there is often something in the manuscript that requires her to illustrate an intense emotion. How much of McCarthy’s technique would be useful to you in your own writing?
Monday, I made “A Call for Guest Posts” and explained how I’d like to feature a guest each Friday who would write a post about the topic of the month. This month, the topic is “the most terrifying scene I’ve ever read.” I still have openings if anyone’s interested! Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.