Most recommendations on how to improve your craft include the dictum that writers should read. However, that reading is not all play. The best reading is done with an eye for what works or sparkles in a particular work and then an analysis of the craft the author used to evoke that effect. This series, possibly irregular, will explore a particular aspect of craft in a work (short story, flash, character from a novel or chapter). I don't claim that my analysis will be correct, but I'm going to try to write it as if it is because it'll be more interesting to read. If you disagree, please let me know in the comments or add your own blog entry describing this craft and I'll link to it.
This week's subject is Roger Zelazny's short story "The Sleeper" published in George R. R. Martin's shared world anthology Wildcards. Warning, the discussion below may include spoilers. If you haven't read the story and plan on reading the story, you should stop here.
I am not a huge fan of tension. Part of this may be because I too often read stories where I feel tension is used poorly. One example was a book I read told from multiple viewpoints where each chapter always ended at the height of conflict as it built tension through the chapter and then it switched to a different viewpoint so it never allowed that tension to resolve. Therefore, I wanted to analyze this story which struck me because the tension worked perfectly and although it's a short story is resolve the tension somewhat but still left me wanting to know more about what happens next.
The star of the story is Croyd, a child, who through a virus becomes a superhero whose powers change every time he sleeps (and his naps can take months before he awakes). The story is set up well because although Croyd quickly becomes a thief, it's mostly for the right reasons to try and support his family. And, it's mostly because of the friends he makes. Therefore, it builds sympathy for the character and that is useful in the next stage as the reader begins to see the clues that something is going to go wrong.
Tension begins to build in a scene where Croyd meets with Dr. Tachyon to find a way to end his changes or at least postpone them. The doctor tells him he could use coffee to get him a little extra time to get home. Croyd asks if there isn't anything more powerful, and the doctor tells him there is, but it's dangerous. It's this foreshadowing that begins to create the tension where we have enough of an idea about Croyd that we know he's going to try these amphetamines and the doctor has told us a little bit about the danger that they will create.
The next scenes increase the tension as they show Croyd taking the amphetamines and becoming delusional as he tries to postpone his changes. He becomes more careful in the future, but and this is key, in the last sequence his sister is going get married that weekend and Croyd can't afford to go to sleep because he would sleep weeks or months and miss the wedding.
This is the point where everything starts to go wrong. Croyd finds his skin begins to itch and atyppically has no superpowers. He starts to fall asleep. He's learned some and tries to take a lot of coffee to combat it but the sleepiness is starting too early and the reader knows that it's only going to get worse. During all of this, he starts to have a lot of pain as well related to the itching and begins to take painkillers. When he meets with the doctor again, the doctor tells him that he's hurting himself and should let himself go back to sleep and that ignoring his body could result in his death. Effectively, more and more hurdles are being added to Croyd's goal to see his sister married. And the danger has been dialed up. There is a side plot that appears be added to increase tension by delaying and making obvious how long Croyd is trying to stay awake to make his sister's wedding. During all this, he gets diarrhea which causes complications in him acquiring the disguise that he planned to wear so that he would not ruin his sister's wedding with his inhuman appearance. On the drive over for the finale, he's looking worse and worse but instead of letting his brother drive him home so he can sleep and recover, he pushes it yet further.
The tension in this story is created well through an understanding of Croyd and also you see him successfully begin to counter some of his problems (the amphetamine addiction) and then you see him put in a situation where he needs to take it and then it's amped up to increase the danger. And then, the pacing pulls the scene out to milk it for all that it's worth.