Charles Baxter, in Burning Down the House, Essays on Fiction, devotes an entire chapter to a principle he calls “Stillness.” To paraphrase a rather lengthy and well documented argument, he proposes that stillness, a moment in fiction where action subsides and characters/narrators focus on the minutiae of their surroundings, “is an intensifier—that it strengthens whatever stands on either side of it.” His argument is much deeper, and much more complex. And, while I don’t agree with everything he says, the fundamental issue remains: Stillness is a very useful tool in fiction.
Let’s contrast stillness with action. Action, of course, is necessary to keep a fiction narrative moving forward. It is indispensible, and often garners the most attention. Baxter argues, however, to a certain extent, that an over-inundation of action has desensitized us to it. We’re not shocked by it anymore. If anything, he says, we are addicted to it—that is we require it, crave it, need it. We don’t think much about the action. We expect it. How then, do we write effective action scenes? Memorable scenes?
If we’re thinking in the context of film, imagine the slow motion scene just before chaos breaks loose. There is a divine moment when action seems to stop. We notice small details—the smell of popcorn in the air at the carnival, the particular way the sun warms your skin while the breeze cools it, the exact baby blue shirt your wife is wearing, and the feel of your son’s sweaty hand in yours. When we slow the action and develop our exposition, it allows the reader to better experience the scene. Then, whatever follows this divine stillness, is carries a heavier weight. Perhaps this is the moment your wife chooses to tell you that she’s leaving you, or that her mother is dying. Maybe this is the day someone kidnapped your son. Or, less tragically, the day your teenage daughter announces her engagement to her boyfriend (for better or worse). Whatever follows this moment of stillness will carry an added emotional weight because of the stillness that precedes it.
The same can be accomplished if you’re writing more of a thriller. Think of the moment preceding the shoot out at the O.K. Corral, or, as Baxter points out, the moments of extended talking between gun battles in Pulp Fiction. Think of the seconds before the general calls “Charge” from the perspective of a soldier in the front lines.
Whatever the case, very little shocks us these days. Constant bombardment of action in our media has conditioned us to ignore action unless it’s remarkable in some way. One of the ways to make your action remarkable is to slow down the moments before the action, before the chaos, before the other shoe drops.