Lighting Fuses: Dramatic Tension in Two Early Faulkner Stories

In short fiction the first few paragraphs are critical in establishing dramatic tension, because by the end of them the reader will decide whether or not to put the story down. Contrast this to the novel, where the reader may give the author the benefit of the doubt for a chapter or two. I usually go at least fifty pages before I consider putting down a novel that I've chosen to pick up.

At the outset I should say that Faulkner’s early short stories are not the most rip-roaring page-turners I’ve ever read. Nevertheless, they are artful in the way they create tension from the outset. To paraphrase my friend and teacher, the great Wilton Barnhardt, these story openings “light fuses” that compel the reader to go on. 

In “Hand Upon the Waters,” Faulkner begins with two unnamed men following a path along a river to a shack where we learn that two other men, Joe and Lonnie, are accustomed to fishing.  The scene is described in concrete visual detail.  The men are gone. Their boat’s gone.  Hmm—sort of a mystery.  All of a sudden Joe, who is deaf, dumb, and possibly retarded, comes busting out of the bushes, making urgent whimpering sounds.  Something’s wrong.  One of the unnamed men, a youth less than twenty, discovers that there’s a fish dragging on Joe and Lonnie’s cross-river fishing line, and, surprise: “It’s as big as a man!”

There are a number of fuses in this opening, an escalating progression of details that increase the dramatic tension and eventually lead the reader to conclude that a murder has taken place: the mystery of where the men have gone, the question as to why Joe is upset, and, finally, the discovery of what may be a corpse attached to a fishing line dragging in a river.  The reader, unless he absolutely hates Faulkner, can’t help but read on to find out what happened.

In another story, “Tomorrow,” Faulkner is both more blunt and subtler.  More blunt, because he comes right out with a murder. Subtler, because he has to hook the reader in other ways.  We’re told who the murderer is, so there’s no mystery surrounding what actually happened the way there is in “Hand Upon the Waters.” The dramatic tension comes from trying to plumb the motivations of the characters involved.

“Tomorrow” begins in a quiet way, with the narrator remembering his Uncle Gavin’s legal career.  Before he became a County Attorney, we’re told, he only tried one case, but it was an important one to him, because it was the only case he ever tried wherein he was convinced right and justice were on his side, and lost. 

For the reader a fuse is lit, though it is a rather slow-burning one.  We’re curious about the lost case. What was the injustice? Why did Uncle Gavin lose? But we have little stake in the characters, so our curiosity is mild.  The story, we’re told, is old and unoriginal: a rebellious girl elopes with a young rabble-rouser. The girl’s father, Bookwright, is incensed. But then Faulkner dispenses with fuses and explodes a bomb when Bookwright hands over his pistol to the justice of the peace and says,
“I have come to surrender.  I killed Thorpe two hours ago.”
At this point the reader may be tempted to close the book, because the bomb already went off. We know who the murderer is.  What more can we possibly learn?

The answer, of course, has to do with that other, slower-burning fuse. We’re still curious about Gavin’s lost case and why the result was unjust.  Moreover, there’s more at stake now, because we know a murder was involved.  Could it be a false confession?  Is Bookwright innocent?  What, we want to know, is the full story?

So in "Tomorrow" there is a murder recounted at the beginning, and the reader spends the rest of the story piecing together exactly what happened and why.  It’s a familiar narrative structure, a variation of one used quite often in the murder-mystery genre.  But Faulkner uses it to hook the reader into a story that ends up going beyond the typical genre payoff to issues of good and evil, familial love and loyalty, and “justice” vs. what’s “right.”   He’s able to get away with telling us who the murderer is because he begins by lighting a fuse of conflict attached not to the simple powder keg of a murder-mystery whodunit, but to little firecrackers of motivation, relationships, and ethics.  

I must admit that I personally prefer the more explosive opening of “Hand Upon the Waters.”   There’s nothing like a concretely described, detailed action scene, the big combustion of the story still in the future — a bright fuse burning merrily away — to endow a story with the rollicking spark of life.