There are always so many things I could be doing, I tell my students, other than reading their stories. I could eat a bagel. I could watch one of those haunted-castle shows on cable. Sweep out my garage. Fiddle with my Netflix queue. Grunt as I pick up large pieces of metal at the gym. So I encourage them to think of me not as a captive audience—a history or biology professor, say, who has to read their essay, their lab report—but instead as someone who might be browsing through a magazine and happen upon a story of theirs. How can they convince me to keep reading?
Suspense is what they need. Suspense is the engine that drags a story forward, that makes my eyes hungry for the next sentence, paragraph, page. But when I tell students that their stories need a greater sense of suspense, they often nod and say, “What if the husband sleeps with his sister-in-law?” or “What if the girl shoots her playmate?” They misunderstand suspense, believing that it hinges exclusively on plot points, rather than on human urgency.
True suspense is about both. It is about what is outside the characters (whatever intrudes on their lives) and what is inside the characters (whatever they desire that is just out of reach). When these two things come together, the writer has built the potential for something to happen.
If you know James Salter, you may know him from his 1967 novel, A Sport and a Pastime (proclaimed “a tour de force of erotic realism” by the New York Times), or from the guarded but brilliant memoir of his life as both a fighter pilot and a writer, Burning the Days. But Salter is also a formidable writer of short stories, as his collections Last Night and Dusk and Other Stories make plain. In the latter, and older, of these collections, recently reissued by the Modern Library, you’ll find an unlauded masterpiece, “Akhnilo.” At little more than two thousand words, the story is shorter than most, yet what it accomplishes in that space mesmerizes us.
The story is a case study on the mystery outside the character and the urgency within. Late at night there is a sound. The man feels a strong desire to climb onto the roof, to find the source of the sound, to follow it, eventually to capture the four unknown words he hears. He feels drawn desperately back to the house, trying to cage those slippery words in his skull.
There is the implication of failure, alcoholism, a family that has endured crises—there is the image of the man passed out in his driveway, or at the foot of his daughter’s bed—but the true pull of the story comes from the desire the man feels, the desire we feel alongside him, not judging, just feeling, wondering. The story is an intellectual puzzle after you complete it, but when you read it, the effect is visceral, a narrative that lives in our hearts, in our guts, primal and raw.
Would the story be more potent if the character were a murderer, or an alien waiting to return to his planet? You know the answer. The restraint Salter shows and the artful rather than tricky way he withholds information are what make the story so peculiar and mysterious and propulsive, as we wait for something awful to happen.