Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Minor details

I'm having a good day today, but according to The Writer's Almanac, it's a disastrous day in history.

Abraham Lincoln was assassinated 144 years ago today. The Almanac had this to say:
"On this day in 1865, President Abraham Lincoln was shot at Ford's Theatre in Washington, D.C. It was the first presidential assassination in American history. Lincoln was shot and killed by a 26-year-old actor named John Wilkes Booth. Lincoln's bodyguard had gone next door to the saloon for a drink."

Oh, and the Titanic sank 47 years later:
"Shortly before midnight on this date in 1912, the RMS Titanic struck an iceberg in the North Atlantic. The ship was on its maiden voyage from Southampton to New York. More than 1,500 people drowned in the 30-degree water. The passengers on the lifeboats were close enough to hear people in the water crying out for help, but only two lifeboats returned to rescue drowning people. The others feared getting pulled in by the suction created by the sinking ship. The liner Californian, less than 20 miles away, could have saved most of the passengers had its radio operator been on duty to hear the distress calls."

The emphases are mine. A preventable tragedy is one of those awful-fascinating events that we go back to again and again.

If only.

If only Lincoln's body guard wasn't an idiot. He'd probably done the same thing a dozen times, but that one time it changed history. If only the lifeboats had gone back, or the radio operator hadn't been off having a smoke with his buddy, maybe more than 1,000 people could have been saved. Maybe all of them.

It's a horrible thing to happen in real life, but it's a smash-bang awesome plot device when you're trying to build suspense. You make it so that little things, inconsequential at the time, keep cropping up in your story. On their own, they're not so bad. Maybe someone takes a walk after supper instead of plopping down in front of the TV like usual. But added to certain circumstances, the little things equal tragedy, death, destruction.

Which is bad in real life, good in novel life.

The central mystery in my next novel will be much more subtle than the last, and I'm hoping to build suspense through the little things. Have any of you ever used this in a novel you wrote?

7 comments:

Justus M. Bowman said...

Interesting post. I enjoy subtleties.

Eric said...

Nice post. These type of things are really fun to read, and its even better when it works out okay in your writing. I didn't know that about the Titanic though, so thanks for the info. That was interesting.

Lenore said...

There is a bit in the movie version of Benjamin Button where they show small choices all adding up to cause a tragedy. Did you see it? I thought that part was very well done.

Jenna said...

Oh, wow, I didn't know that those were *both* this day in history!

Great post. Thanks for sharing.

beth said...

Cool post! And, like Jenna, I'd not realized that they were both on the same day!

I've not done that in a novel yet, but it's a cool idea, and one I do like to read about.

Crimogenic said...

Yikes, I never really think about what happened in history on normal (non holiday) days...

Kimberley Griffiths Little said...

That's a very cool way to look at the *little* things that can make HUGE differences - or should I say "plot twists" - in a story. Great post!