WEEK TWO: Writing Suspenseful Violence with Cormac McCarthy

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Similar to Toni Morrison’s Beloved, the narrator in Cormac McCarthy‘s The Road considers killing his young son to save him from a worse fate; however, unlike Morrison’s novel, the narrator in The Road has not yet perpetrated the act. McCarthy presents a master scene in suspense as a father holds his son, both of them hiding from sadistic cannibals:

from The Road (2006) by Cormac McCarthy

They lay listening. Can you do it? When the time comes? When the time comes there will be not time. Now is the time. Curse God and die. What if it doesn’t fire? It has to fire. What is it doesn’t fire? Could you crush that beloved skull with a rock? Is there such a being within you of which you know nothing? Can there be? Hold him in your arms. Just so. The soul is quick. Pull him toward you. Kiss him. Quickly.

He waited. The small nickelplated revolver in his hand. He was going to cough. He put his whole mind to holding it back. he tried to listen but he could hear nothing. I wont leave you, he whispered. I wont ever leave you. Do you understand? He lay in the leaves holding the trembling child. Clutching the revolver. All through the long dusk and into the dark. Cold and starless. Blessed. He began to believe they had a chance. We just have to wait, he whispered. So cold. He tried to think but his mind swam. He was so weak. All his talk about running. He couldnt run. When it was truly black about them he unfastened the straps on the backpack and pulled out the blankets and spread them over the boy and soon the boy was sleeping.

In the night he heard hideous shrieks coming from the house and he tried to put his hands over the boy’s ears and after a while the screaming stopped. He lay listening. Coming through the canebrake into the road he’d seen a box. A thing like a child’s playhouse. He realized it was where they lay watching the road. Lying in wait and ringing the bell in the house for their companions to come. He dozed and woke. What is coming? Footsteps in the leaves. No. Just the wind. Nothing. He sat up and looked toward the house but he could see only darkness. he shook the boy awake. Come on, he said. We have to go. The boy didnt answer but he knew he was awake. He pulled the blankets free and strapped them onto the knapsack. come on, he whispered…. (115)

In the above excerpt, the narrator struggles with a moral question: does he kill his son and save him from a worse death? Let’s take a look at McCarthy’s master scene:

    • FOUNDATION: Earlier in the novel, the narrator shares the deep violence perpetrated in the novel’s apocalyptic world including cannibalism and rape. The father has pondered whether or not to kill his son before, saving him from a worse death. To drive the point further, immediately preceding this scene, both father and son discover a locked basement of “human cattle,” some of whom have been partially eaten, their wounds cauterized in order to keep the “meat” fresh over an extended time.
    • INTERNAL MONOLOGUE: The narrator, father, questions his ability to murder his son to save him from a worse death, drawing the reader into the same question. Could he do it? Could the reader do it?
    • RIGHTEOUSNESS: The moral implication of this violence is palpable. Would it be kinder to give the son a quick death? Or let his son suffer rape and cannibalism over an extended time?
    • JUDGEMENT: The narrator presents both the confessor and the judge in this master example. The father questions himself as he cradles his son and hides from the cannibals. Self-judgement is a fantastic way to draw the reader into the internal conflict of a character. 
    • SUSPENSE: One of the most powerful aspects of this scene is that the narrator suspends the violence. Even when the reader feels a cathartic release of emotion as the “coast is now clear,” the reader knows that in this world the father and son will meet this danger again. The father will ponder this horrific choice again. 

Writing Exercise: Suspenseful Judgement and Violence

Choose a character and scene from a narrative on which you are currently working. Open a separate document and copy paste the scene into this new document so that you keep your original words. Explore the violent scene with leveraging suspense and empathy using internal monologue, such as in McCarthy’s The Road.

Contributing Faculty

Rae BryantRae Bryant is the author of the short story collection, The Indefinite State of Imaginary Morals. Her fiction, prose-poetry and essays have appeared in print and online at The Paris Review, The Missouri Review, Diagram, StoryQuarterly, McSweeney’s, New World Writing, Gargoyle Magazine, and Redivider, among other publications and have been nominated for the Pen/Hemingway, Pen Emerging Writers, &NOW Award and Pushcart Prize. She has won awards in fiction from Whidbey Writers and The Johns Hopkins University. She earned a Masters in Writing from Hopkins where she continues to teach creative writing and is editor in chief of The Doctor T. J. Eckleburg Review. She has also taught in the International Writing Program at The University of Iowa. She is represented by Jennifer Carlson of Dunow, Carlson and Lerner.

One on One Creative Writing Workshop

If you would like to share your narrative, post it to the discussion board below and share it with your course peers. If you end up expanding this narrative into a fuller work and would like written, individualized feedback on it, we invite you to join us for a One on One Creative Writing Workshop.