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Suspended Coherence


The stream-of-consciousness writer uses many techniques to capture the private, often incoherent nature of the mind, and, at the same time, bring coherency so the reader can understand. One of these techniques is suspended coherence, in which something in a character's mind is at first incomprehensible to the reader. The reader must remember previous passages or keep reading to make meaning. Suspended coherence can be used in other types of fiction, too, to create suspense.

In Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway, Clarissa meets up with Hugh Whitbread on the streets of London. He's a long time friend and his wife is ill again. Clarissa is sympathizing with Hugh and his wife, when, out of the blue, she worries about her hat. (To be more accurate Woolf uses a technique called free indirect style, which allows for more authorial intrusion into the writing, and, as a result, more coherency).

"...that his wife had some internal ailment, nothing serious, which, as an old friend, Clarissa Dalloway would quite understand without requiring him to specify. Ah yes, she did of course; what a nuisance; and felt very sisterly and oddly conscious at the same time of her hat. Not the right hat for the early morning, was that it?"

Why is she thinking about her hat at a time like this? We have to keep reading to understand: ..."she always felt a little skimpy beside Hugh; schoolgirlish; but attached to him, partly from having known him always, but she did think him a good sort in his own way..."

Other fiction writers use a form of suspended coherence not to capture the movements of the mind, but to create forward motion and narrative suspense. Amy Hempel is a very different writer from Woolf, rarely dipping into the interior of her characters. Yet there is an element of incoherency which is built into the narrative so the reader must keep reading to understand and make sense.

In Hempel's short story, Beg, SL, Tog, Inc, Cont, Rep, the narrator is knitting. "Learning to knit was the obvious thing."  Why is she knitting? Why is it the obvious thing? We have to wait to the next page to get some inkling of the answers. The narrator is spending time with her friend, who is pregnant. The narrator tells us, "I could be doing this, too. But I had had the procedure instead." Even then, the narrator remains abstract, not calling the procedure by a more specific name, an abortion.

Still much later in the story, we see the emotional effect of the procedure on the narrator. The narrator visits her friend in the hospital. "...I stopped at the nursery first. I saw the baby lying facedown. He wore yellow duck-print flannels. I saw that he was there-and then I went straight home."

The intense emotional effect of the abortion on the narrator is more starkly drawn, and the act of knitting, or subtextually, mending, begins to make sense. At the climax, her friend, now a mother, opens the narrator's knitting bag. "It was an excess of sweaters-a kind of precaution, a rehearsal against disaster." Then the narrator's friend turns to her and says, "Are you really okay?"

Since you, the writer, by the first draft know the story, the tendency is to give it all away in a rush. In the second draft, try withholding coherence. Let the reader wonder why.