Over Sea, Under Stone By Susan Cooper – Great Expectations: Techniques for Building Suspense

Synopsis: On holiday in Cornwall, the three Drew children discover an ancient map in the attic of the house that they are staying in. They know immediately that it is special. It is even more than that — the key to finding a grail, a source of power to fight the forces of evil known as the Dark. And in searching for it themselves, the Drews put their very lives in peril. This is the first volume of Susan Cooper’s brilliant and absorbing fantasy sequence known as The Dark Is Rising.



For the Writer: There are a great many books that I have missed reading, The Dark is Rising series among them. So, I come to the work of Susan Cooper late, but not too late to enjoy the treats of a well-known fantasy author.

As an exceptionally talented and skilled writer, Susan Cooper has a lot to offer. Her books are plump with tasty treats for the aspiring writer. I could have addressed her adroit handling of dialogue and her powerful descriptive passages, but I will save those for the second book in the series. For the sake of space, I will confine this discussion to the techniques Cooper uses to create suspense in Over Sea, Under Stone, the first book of the series.

I must admit that when I first picked up Over Sea, Under Stone, I nearly laid it down again, so dreary and long were the opening foundational chapters. I have become accustomed to have things cracking from the first chapter. But Over Sea, Under Stone is not a mere fantasy; it is a fantasy detective thriller and quest pressed into one. Cooper knew what she was doing. In the opening chapters Cooper established the setting and each of the characters one by one without moving the plot ahead, or not much at any rate. She was let things stew, letting us drift in a boat on a summer day, dropping but hints of the approaching storm.

That is the first suspensive technique she employed. Make them wait for it. Every reader knows something is going to happen; it’s a book! Just drop enough hints and teasers to hook the reader in. It’s kind of like sticking one’s toe in the shallow end before the plunge.

Here’s an example:

Our three protagonists, Simon, Jane and Barney meet Mr. Withers, who invites everyone to a day at sea aboard his yacht.

“Of course I realize we’re descending on you out of the blue,” Mr Withers said soothingly.

Said soothingly is the verbal construction that supplies the pinch of suspense. Ignoring an argument for using strong verbs instead of flimsy adverbs of manner, which I debate in Lauren Oliver’s The Spindlers, Cooper’s choice of adverb is what tells. Cooper could have substituted warmly, brightly, or politely to throw her readers off the scent of things to come, but she doesn’t. Soothingly supplies just enough of an off-smelling manner of speaking to give the reader a poke up the suggestive nostrils. For nine to twelve-year-old readers this may be subtle enough to miss, depending of course on how the word is read. But it is suggestive enough to introduce a possible threat.

There are several other suspensive techniques that Cooper uses to inject dread into reader’s blood streams.

He inclined his head gravely as he shook Jane’s hand, with a strange archaic gesture that reminded her suddenly of Mr. Withers when he left the Grey House. But this, she thought, seemed more genuine, as if it were something which Mr. Withers had been trying to imitate.

We already have been given a hint of up-to-no-good in Mr. Withers; now we have been let in on a possible association between two characters presenting a threat and that the first, Mr. Withers, pales by comparison.

Up to this point the threat has been distant, even debatable. In Chapter Five Cooper changes tack. She raises the stakes and delivers a palpable thump to the chest. While our protagonists are sleeping, while they are most vulnerable, someone breaks into their house. The suspense that has been lingering in vague doubts and a general feeling of apprehension has been ratcheted up to an imminent threat. While relieving the reader with answers to one or two the protagonist’s questions, Cooper burdens her heroes and readers with a situation in which answers must needs come if the protagonists are to avoid dire consequences.

Lead on, Ghost of things to come; lead on. What does Susan Cooper know about writing suspense?

Cooper knows that if readers have properly identified with the protagonists, if they become apprehensive, so will the reader.

Cooper knows that when circumstances separate characters, who should be sticking together lest bad things come their way, that something bad is going to happen.

Cooper knows that when a dependable character, a pet dog in this case, disappears, something has gone terribly wrong.

Cooper knows that when established dependable characters start acting out-of-character, reader’s suspensive antennae quiver.

Cooper knows that when something unexpected happens, the reader must accommodate a whole new tributary of possibility to the already wide and deep river of suspense.

Cooper knows that literary devices, such as foreshadowing, create suspense.
In this example walls of rock seem to talk to Barney: Who are you to intrude here, the voice seemed to whisper; one small boy, prying into something that is so much bigger than you can understand, that has remained undisturbed for so many years.

Though the book has a slow beginning, which I believe is intentional, the reader soon finds himself, thanks to the techniques mentioned above, much like drifting down a lazy river, engulfed in an inescapable whirlpool of suspense.

Permit me to briefly draw attention to another skill of Susan Cooper’s, though its presence may pass unappreciated in younger readers, an ability that is often reserved for adult literary fiction.

The big square grey house, its windows empty and lifeless, seemed to dare her to disturb it.

He glanced down at the manuscript in his hand and gave it a conspiratorial squeeze.

Mr. [my omission], slight and stooping a little, darting his head about like a weasel; the boy [omitted], walking wary and belligerent in his bright shirt; and towering over them both, the tall menacing figure in black, a dark gash across the heat-wavering summer day.

Such descriptive passages not only add to the suspensive character of the novel, they make it a delight to read.



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