Minoshka Narayan
How does the author use literary features to create suspense in ‘How it Happened’ by Arthur Conan Doyle?
‘How it happened’, a short story by author Arthur Conan Doyle is set in a genre of a mystery and a thriller, a style that is prominent in all of his works, including the immensely popular ‘Sherlock Holmes’ mysteries. In this short story, the narrator relates the story of his drive through a small town in London and how he ultimately met his death. There are specific words, phrases and features in the extract given that bring out a theme of suspense and foreboding in this story, including the late night setting, which adds an ominous tone to the story in the very beginning.
The landscape of the surroundings also contributes to the setting, as the treacherous and rough terrain provides a man v/s nature conflict, adding to the dramatic tension and building the pace of the story. The nature of the winding roads is described to be complex when the narrator refers to the ‘third corner’, hence indicating that manoeuvring the roads at this time of the night would be extremely difficult. This instils a sense of dread in the reader, who assumes that something bad is about to happen.
This sense of anxiety is further emphasised when the reader discovers that the narrator is incapable of driving the new car, and instead refers to what he would have done ‘if it had been the old car.’ The opening lines of this extract add suspense by bringing out the characterisation of the narrator and showing him to be reckless; the readers are hence wary of his actions as he has no experience with driving the new car and is unaware of its mechanics.
The car itself is personified in this story to bring out the strain that it is experiencing and the fact that it might quickly give in to the rough terrain, adding a sense of anticipation in the reader. Moreover, referring to the car as a person rather than an object allows readers to develop a sense of attachment to the text and increases the impact that the ending later makes on them. The ‘big body’ of the car is said to be ‘creaking and groaning’, which indicates that the car has reached its peak might easily malfunction, adding a formidable note. The adverbs ‘creaking’ and ‘groaning’ are often used to describe worn down and old objects, which is ironic in this case as the car is extremely new. The use of these adverbs, however, serves in implanting a sense of fear in the mind of the reader.
The narrator also describes death to add a note of finality. Using the triple structure ‘great, roaring, golden’ to describe death, the author piques the curiosity in the reader who is now eager to know whether this is the outcome of the final story, hence adding to the tension and pace of the story. The words used to describe death are also unusual, as something as gruesome as death is rarely described as ‘golden’ or ‘great’. Hence, the author’s diction is unexpected, which helps in increasing the sense of anticipation in the readers.
Additionally, the narrator describes the sight to be ‘awful and yet majestic’, hence providing an antithesis and showing that even though the sight of the car losing control would be extremely disturbing, it would also be accompanied by a sense of awe at the powerful car that was charging their way with the headlights on. The use of the word ‘majestic’ serves to instil hope in the reader, which is quashed by the use of the word ‘awful’. This makes the reader eager to know the ending as he is now aware of the possible alternate endings of this story.
The point of view used in this story also satisfies the aim of the author to aid readers in experiencing this story as it happens, hence done effectively by the use of a narrative (first person) point of view. This further intensifies the suspense as the reader gets the feel of this story as it happens and is unaware of its outcome till the end. After beginning in a flashback, this story continues in a linear progression, rather than a relation of disjointed events. This keeps the readers engaged in the text.
However, the story structure is more unconventional, as this adds to the mystery and keeps the reader absorbed in the developments of the plot. In this text, ‘the crash’ acts as the first climax, but instead of being followed immediately by a falling action and a resolution, there is another climax in the story as well, which startles the reader and heightens the sense of suspense. Moreover, the reader is left unaware of the pattern that the story is going to follow, hence allowing the author to experiment with literary techniques and keep the reader guessing and anticipating the outcome of the story until the very end.
The irregular story structure allows the author to use a twist in the tale to reveal the death of the narrator. Since this change is unexpected, the readers receive the full impact of the text as they read these lines. At the point where the narrator exclaims that ‘Stanley is dead’, the audience is aware of the outcome of the story, with the twist in the tale making the impact more hard-hitting. The twist helps the pace in getting built up through the text.
The pace is further accelerated by the sentence structure used in the story, as it seems to parallel the movements of the car just before the fatal crash. By using short sentences such as ‘the wheel did not turn easily’, the author enables the readers to take a pause to process the information, thus allowing it to sink in and to increase the trepidation in the reader. Moreover, using a string of short sentences gives the impression of brisk actions, which excites the reader, who is eager to know whether these actions will finally be futile. It also appears to increase the tempo of the story.
The use of action verbs like ‘whirled’ and ‘shot’ also complement the sentence structure in building up the pace of the story, as the make the story seem extremely dynamic. This builds up the expectations in the audience, who expect a dire ending to these dramatic actions. These action verbs are also found in the paragraph just before the first climax, which allows the rising action to reach the ultimate peak before the final crash, thus increasing the sense of suspense to a great extent.
The suspense is further prolonged by the use of a cliffhanger, where the readers are not aware of the outcome of the story. In this story, readers are left making their own assumptions about what happened after the narrator was ‘flying through the air’, which increases the desire to read about the ending, and keeps readers absorbed in the text, as they are curious about whether or not the narrator would have survived the impact of the crash. The cliffhanger also keeps the readers on the edge, as they are considering various scenarios and are eager to know the actual outcome.
The effective use of punctuation further increases the effect of the cliffhanger. The use of an exclamation mark in the phrase ‘and then--and then--!’ creates an impact on the reader who is now extremely curious to know the outcome of events and the reason for the abrupt change in events. Moreover, the exclamation mark creates a statement in the mind of the reader, and attracts the eye of the reader immediately, as it is quite unlike the other punctuation used. This heightens the sense of anticipation in the poem.
The author further uses narrative hooks to leave questions unanswered in the readers mind. This allows the reader to make their own assumptions and wonder about the true outcome, hence leading to a further rise in tension. In this story, readers are left exceeding intrigued by the ‘something which lay in front of the car’, as they are not, at that time aware that it is indeed a dead body. The use of this narrative hook builds a sense of suspicion in the mind of the reader, closely aligned with the feeling of putting together the story piece by piece, as a progressive realisation.
Additionally, the introduction of a new character after what initially seems like the climax also adds a sense of puzzlement in the readers mind, further peaking the curiosity and suspense in their minds. The arrival of Stanley and the surprise that the narrator feels on seeing him are over ruled by his ‘giddy and shaken’ feelings, a fact which further indicates that something is amiss in the situation. Stanley is described to be ‘sympathetic’ towards the narrator, something which is unexpected, and, on hindsight, fairly ironic.
The description of the scene is effectively done through dialogue instead of through prose. This helps the reader in experiencing the scene first hand and also adds a tone of excitement and anticipation. Additionally, it also provides a more subjective view of the situation, hence leaving the readers unaware and exceedingly curious about the true description of events.
The sudden realisation that Stanley ‘had surely died of enteric’ can be described as the pivotal point in the story for the readers, as this is the point where the suspense starts to unveil itself, and the reader become aware that the narrator might actually be dead. This is accompanied by a deep-seated sense of the situational irony, where it had earlier been assumed that the narrator was merely slightly injured.
‘How It Happened’ can be considered an extremely effective piece of literature as not only does it focus heavily on characterisation and setting, it also addresses a man v/s nature and man v/s technology conflict. Additionally, this extract also lays a major emphasis on the interpretation of the readers and uses a variety of techniques to successfully invoke a sense of suspense in the minds of the readers.