Conflict and Suspense
Good fiction writers know that to hold their readers’ interest they must create conflict and suspense in their stories. These two elements, which are closely linked, are often what keep readers turning the pages to find out what happens next. This is true in most stories, not just those that are overly dramatic or involve physical violence. Some of the best stories are based on subtle conflicts, such as the example offered in Wetherell’s story. Here the narrator’s struggle is internal. He has developed emotions that conflict with each other. He desires both Sheila and the bass, but he fears he will lose Sheila if he makes his passion for the bass known to her. So his love of fishing conflicts with his fear of losing Sheila. Though the reader knows that the narrator is fighting two different forces internally, Sheila is completely unaware that a conflict is occurring. This story demonstrates that not much outward action has to be created in order to have a substantial conflict present.
There are two types of conflict: internal and external. Internal conflict occurs inside a person, such as the emotional conflict of Wetherell’s narrator. External conflict can occur between two or more people and also includes struggles that occur between a person and some external force, as in the novel Moby-Dick, in which Captain Ahab fights the great white whale. When conflicts are classified according to type, they are often listed as person versus person, person versus circumstance, person versus society, and person versus self.
The purpose of having conflict in a story is not just to make the story more interesting as a result of the actions the protagonist, or central character, is forced to take. Behind conflict lies the power of suspense. In Wetherell’s story, the suspense that is created is that of waiting for the young boy to make a decision. Readers want to know what decision the narrator is going to make as he struggles with his inner conflicts. Is he going to stand up in the canoe and reel the bass in? Or is he going to cut it loose, sacrificing it in hopes of winning Sheila? If his conflict and struggle to arrive at a decision were not present, the story would not only have less action but might even prove to be boring.
In a good piece of writing conflict moves toward a crisis. Crisis is the point that readers have been waiting for, the event that the conflict has set in motion. In ‘‘The Bass, the River, and Sheila Mant,’’ the crisis occurs almost at the very end of the story. As he approaches the dock where he and Sheila must get out of the canoe, the narrator is forced to make a decision. He either has to stand up and pull the bass into the boat, thereby revealing to Sheila that he is a fisherman, or he has to release the bass without her suspecting anything.
Ever since the narrator felt the bass tugging on his line, readers have known that he has to make this decision at some point in the story. All the discussion that occurs before the crisis is provided so that readers come to know the narrator better and to empathize with his dilemma. Yet in the back of readers’ minds is the awareness that this dilemma will have to be faced. The only question is when. The point of crisis is that moment. This is where the author answers the question: What will the narrator do? After a crisis is reached, the story usually ends suddenly. Most of the energy of the story is based on moving toward and resolving the crisis. Once the crisis is resolved, there is little left to say.
Sara Constantakis, Thomas E. Barden – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 28 (2010) – W. D. Wetherell – Published by Gale Cengage Learning.