Quiet Tension: An Alternative Approach to Narrative Drive

The Wall by Marlen HaushoferI recently read Marlen Haushofer stunning novel The Wall.

What struck me most about this novel is the quiet tension that existed within the pages.

Let me explain …

The Wall is about a woman (we never learn her name) whose companions leave her behind at their cabin in the woods while they go into town to run errands. They never return. The next morning the woman discovers that a transparent, solid dome has appeared overnight trapping her, the farm’s dog, cat and cow, inside it.

The novel is about 230 pages long and the woman’s story is one of basic domestic survival. She must find a way to provide shelter, food, and physical care for herself and the animals. That’s it. That’s the whole book. And. It. Is. Wonderful.

So, the reader in me started wondering, why am I so fascinated by this story about a woman, a cabin, and some animals? And the writer in me was left wondering, how is Haushofer managing to keep my attention?

Those questions are connected, yet slightly different. One is about my experience as a consumer, and the other is an attempt to analyse that experience so that I can recreate it in my own work.

Like I said, the novel is about a woman trapped inside a dome with three animals.

In another author’s hands this novel would be about a woman escaping her imprisonment. From here, the natural progression would be for the woman’s to uncover who created the dome and why.

But for Haushofer, The Wall is not about government conspiracy. Instead, it is an attempt to answer a series of philosophic questions like, what would you be willing to do in order to survive? How would this situation change you? Who would you become if the conveniences of modern life were stripped away? How would you spend your time and what would you think about if you existed in solitude?

Now, these may not sound like page turning questions to you, and for many people they may not be, so how did Haushofer remedied this issue? Simple, by foreshadowing disaster. Not a larger than life disaster, like a tornado or earthquake, but a small-scale, personal disaster.

Interestingly, it was the question of what happened? rather than where did the dome come from, by whom and why? That keeps you turning the pages.

Cos here’s the thing, The Wall is not about an invisible dome trapping a woman on a farm. The dome is merely a device to put this character in a certain situation so that the author could explore/answer a series of specific questions.

The novel is a little bit climate change-y as all modern convinces are stripped away and the woman no longer has to worry about bills, social commitments, work, or even family dramas – and she really doesn’t have to worry about large scale issues involving economy, social norms, culture or politics.

The most gripping question at the heart of The Wall is: when everything that makes you you is taken away, who do you become?

Let’s be honest, our personality is in part formed by our family, friends, our work, culture, and society. When those things are removed and the only thing we have to worry about is food and shelter, how would our perceived identity change?

The great irony within The Wall is that when Western people become overwhelmed by life they often say, ‘I just want to disappear to a cabin in the woods.’

Here, the woman has disappeared to a cabin in the woods, but there’s nothing easy or freeing about it.

In fact, she hates to be idle.

Whenever she takes a break from her self-created chores, she thinks about all that she has lost (at least in the beginning), but as time goes on this attitude changes slightly. While she longs to rest when tending to her vegetable fields, any respite is short-lived as she feel compelled to keep moving — her survival depends on it.

As it turns out, life on the land isn’t easy either.

The novel is structured as one long uninterrupted diary entry. In this way, we get an immediate sense of the woman’s internal dialogue, observations and reflections and the conversational, non-fiction like structure helps distant us from the standard questions that come with most dystopian novels. Why is the world the way it is? Who is to blame? Who is responsible for fixing it?

I’ve been reading a lot of cli-fi as part of my research, and much of it is depressing, and while the ending of The Wall is not hopeful in the traditional sense, the elegance of the writing and the balance of warmth and despair make it feel more real than most.

If/when environmental disaster hits, I don’t have the chops to invent something to fix it (Clade by James Bradley) or to create a new religion (Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler), but I could probably find some small way to survive for a while.

And that’s what makes this novel so compelling because most of us can’t (alone) fix our current ecological problems, but we all know that we could plant a vegetable garden, cut wood, and take basic care of ourselves and others.

You don’t need to inject an asteroid hurtling towards earth in order to create meaningful tension within your work, you just need to figure out what your character needs most to survive and then take it away from them. A loved one. A job. An identity. A knife.

There’s more than one way to create gripping, refreshing, tension. Give it a try. And while you’re at it, order a copy of The Wall here.


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