How it Happened – Literary Analysis

“How it happened” is a short story written by renowned author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, a master of the detective genre, famous for his works of Sherlock Holmes where he masterfully creates suspense in the detective genre.
“How it happened” is a first person narrative where the narrator narrates a series of events beginning from his arrival to a railway station in London and ending with a violent car crash and a shocking revelation in the end.
The author makes use of the narrative format to control the pace at which the events unfold and he continuously reveals fragments of information to the reader. This continuous progression of events as seen in each paragraph keeps the reader in the dark about the upcoming events and makes them wonder “what happens next”. The reader is eager to know what will take place next as each event links in with the next event as result the reader is “hooked” reading in order to learn of the final outcome
What intrigues the reader in to keep on reading is the author’s effective usage of narrative hooks. The author uses this literary device to intrigue the reader, by either revealing only some information or by leaving an event incomplete to pique the readers’ curiosity. For example “clapped on both breaks … they gave way” reveals crucial information about the danger they were in. This is done to induce tension amongst the readers. A broken brake on such terrain is perilous and this makes the readers ask as to what may happen next. By this point it is clear that they are in danger of crashing and this creates suspense in the reader as to whether they will be saved or killed.
This narrative hook leads into a central conflict further responsible for creating suspense – man v/s technology. The narrator has recently acquired a new car with a different gear system that he is not familiar with. “It was foolish no doubt to begin learning a new system in the dark” foreshadows problems that will be caused by the car which will have serious consequences. Later in the story several problems arise with the car. “She got stuck between gears” and “the side brake lever clanged to its full limit without a catch” shows conflict between man and technology. This creates apprehension among the reader as they know that this may lead to a major mishap.
The suspense created by the conflict of man and technology is further reinforced with the variation of sentence structure and the diction the author uses. The complications in the machine and the gradual build-up of suspense (rising action) take place at the same time. The author varies sentence length to create suspense and uncertainty in the mind of the reader. Long continuous sentences such as “ I didn’t mind so much when I felt my footbrake snap but when I put my full weight on the side brake and the lever clanged to its full limit without a catch it brought a cold sweat out of me”, are used to gradually build up suspense and the tempo of the story. This contributes to the rising action of the story.
The steady but steep build-up of the rising action adds suspense to the story as there is a steady build-up of problems that occur and the consequences that they may lead to become more evident. The failure of the brakes, the car not steering properly, the “winding slopes” all contribute to the rising action which creates suspense by adding to he fear of the audience.
As one approaches the climax however the sentence structure changes. “We shot out of lane.”, “I saw the open gate to the left” are used to describe events that take place in rapid progression hence increasing the tempo making the reader race across the paragraph. This contributes to the build-up of suspense.
To further contribute to this, the author uses several action verbs to increase the tempo as well as describe in detail the uncontrolled pace of the car and makes the reader visualize what is taking place. This adds to the reader’s nervousness as to what will happen next. There is a lot of emphasis through verbs upon the speed at which the car is moving and how dangerous the scenario looks like.
The story takes place late in the night in the English countryside Night being associated with mystery and death, foreshadows a terrible event however the reader does not know what it is. The winding hills provide the cause of conflict and cause the reader to become nervous when the car gets out of control.
The tempo of the story runs parallel to its events as it too slows down drastically when the car finally crashes. The author uses a narrative hook to link the climax of the story to the falling action. “And then – and then “ is an incomplete sentence that leaves the author in complete suspense as the narrator has not declared what happened next and starts narrating after he has regained consciousness. Thus the reader presumes that he is fine. However they are still wondering what happened to him as there is a break in the series, a certain part has not been told. This also distinguishes the story as a thriller or a suspense genre.
The author then directs attention away from the crash and towards another character– Stanley. He makes use of a red herring in order to take the reader’s focus off the crash. Suspense is created in the readers mind as a previously unknown character is introduced in the story
The narrator then returns to the subject of the crash and describes the scenario around him. A narrative hook is used, “bending over something which lay in front of the car.” The reader does not have an idea as to what that is and is kept in the dark again. This adds to the tension as there has been an accident with several people gathering around and something was lying in front of the car. Neither does the narrator nor the reader have an idea who it is until the narrator has a realisation that Stanley is dead. This is a sub climax in the story, right at the end that serves as a twist in the tale. There is a great amount of suspense and tension in the reader as they now know that Stanley is dead but the narrator can still interact with him. Stanley is seen as an eerie character who is a ghost and this adds to the culmination of suspense in the reader.
It is then revealed at the end that even the Narrator had died in the crash and the “something that lay in front of the car” was his body. The author makes use of verbal as well as situational irony when he said “Stanley, You are dead”, as the narrator himself has died. The twist in the tale is given right at the end, which is not conclusive and is left ambiguous. The fragment of information the narrator gives throughout the story is made sense of when this crucial detail is given. The narrator’s moment of realisation is also the reader’s moment of realisation.
To further hint at the idea of someone’s death is the sentence “we were just a great, roaring death”. The use of the word “death” in this paragraph further describes the pace of the car and makes the tone of the story sound bleaker.
The narrator himself plays an integral part in creating suspense in the story. The author makes use of effective characterisation to portray the narrator as an extravagant and rich person with a carefree attitude towards life. The narrator is reckless, seen by the fact that he acknowledges that “IT was foolish no doubt to begin learning … not always pay the full price of them. This is further ironic (situational irony) as he eventually did pay for what he did. His recklessness serves as the trigger for conflict in the story and drives the action.
Thus using several effective techniques the author tactfully influences the reader and creates tension and suspense amongst the readers. When I read this story I was urged on to read further by the impressive setting the author created and how he used characterisation and the setting to drive the plot further. The style of writing is intriguing as the narrator is leading us through the events but does not seem to know the next event. The dangerous setting along with the reckless nature of the narrator made me think that something unfortunate would befall but I wanted to know what exactly would happen and this made it a good read.



Abhay Nainan IX - B