“A good sermon should be like a woman’s skirt: short enough to arouse interest but long enough to cover the essentials.” – Ronald Knox (English priest, theologian and author of detective stories)
In writing, there is a technique to heighten a story’s tension (and as a writer, you almost always want to maintain interest). You physically trap your mild mannered characters in a situation that they can’t readily escape in order to spark their extremes. If you do this right, you force them to confront something unpleasant.
Movies do this.
Never say: “It could be worse.”
Remember Hans Solo, Luke Skywalker, cutie Chewbacca and Princess Leia in the trash compactor? They duck into what they think is just an ordinary room. First the bullets ricochet because the room’s magnetic, then a snake gets Luke and as if that’s not enough, without warning, the walls start moving inwards. Hans Solo, our nonchalant hero remarks, “One thing’s for sure. We’re all gonna be a lot thinner!” How can Princess Leia resist? Again, Harrison Ford, but this time as Indiana Jones, forced to confront his aversion to snakes by being dropped into a pit of vipers in “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” “Snakes, why’d it have to be snakes?” Or speaking of snakes, how about that classic action thriller of 2006 – “Snakes on a Plane” — in which hundreds of snakes are released on a passenger plane in an attempt to kill a trial witness? Or Will Smith in “I am Legend” trapped in NYC with a bunch of feisty zombies. You get the idea. Trap the character in a place he or she can’t get out of and force them to confront something annoying. That builds tension.
Likewise, this past week, I was happily making my way after work to meet a friend for dinner when I realized I was running a bit late. So I decided to break away from my preferred modus operandi of transportation in Vienna’s first district (per pedes), and take the D-Tram to make a quick round along the Ringstraße. Don’t get me wrong, I love Vienna’s Bims – particularly if you manage to get just the right seat in winter when the stinging Siberian winds mercilessly snip at all pedestrians wandering the sidewalks. If you get that seat, you find yourself growing toasty within seconds from the heater just below your wooden bench.
So there I am, happy little me looking forward to some good wine and good food with a good friend, as I board what I think is just a simple old ordinary D Tram in the middle of evening rush hour with every seat and the aisle completely full. This left me nowhere to stand but in the area at the door beside a seemingly harmless well dressed, grey-haired gentleman.
At first from the way he was leaning toward the rest of those seated, I thought he looked like some kind of tour guide for a senior citizens’ group out to see the city. Or perhaps it was the typed notes complete with after-thoughts scribbled in blue and black ink in the margins or maybe just his air of authority, but I definitely sized up the situation wrong and should have taken better heed of the stunned expressions of the fellow passengers.
No sooner had the doors closed and the old tram inched its way forward, that I realized my predicament. I had not joined fellow passengers, I had joined fellow audience members. Did I say audience? Well, I meant to say congregation.
What he lacked in a pulpit, altar and choir, he made up for in gusto, conviction and tenacity.
“Pre-martial sex leads to those who engage in its evil ways to be struck with the HIV virus. Yes ladies, and gentleman, you need to turn your back from the evil ways and stop sinning and engaging in per-martial sex. A young woman, 22 years old who engaged in per-marital sex was brutally murdered by her partner. Murdered! Her young body dead…”
He then bowed and mumbled in a sing-song tone a two minute prayer for all our sins which he abruptly broke off to quickly dive back into a sermon about per-marital sex and AIDs.
I kid you not, when I say that just a day or two before I had been discussing Socrates with someone studying philosophy. Apparently Socrates spent his days going to the market stalls in Athens to spout off his notions of life and living. And not everyone was so convinced of his philosophical pursuits. His wife, Xanthippe, for example, often fetched him and no doubt dragged him back home by the ear, all the while complaining that he should find a real job like his friend Crito and spend his time doing useful things like cutting stone or herding sheep. This might explain why Socrates once said, “My advice to you is, get married. If you find a good wife, you’ll be happy; if not, you’ll become a philosopher.”
The Vienna D-Tram had no philosopher’s wife but definitely some doubting Thomases.
By the time the tram had arrived at the next stop, the well-dressed university student sitting caddy corner to us merely three feet away, butt in.
“Could you please stop your preaching?” He asked rather politely, I thought, considering we were all rather trapped. “No one here is interested in what you have to say.”
Though I have to admit, I was certainly curious how crazy Mr. Streetcar-Sermon-Man would get and had even put my cell phone on record to better take note of his lecture. So to claim that no one was interested wasn’t exactly true. But there was no need for me to stand up and argue. The portly gentleman in the aisle next to the student, who looked like he was on his way from his construction job to the next Beisl, raised his voice in rebuttal.
“I do. I want to hear what he has to say.”
The stunned student turned to the fellow D-Tram traveler breaking rank. “Then go on over there next to him and have a conversation,” the student replied. “He’s disturbing me. Not everyone here agrees with him and not everyone should have to listen to him.”
Undeterred, the construction worker replied, “A bit of morality would do everyone here some good.”
I eyed the folks clutching their backpacks, texting on iPhones and fiddling with their city maps. Just minutes before they all looked so harmless. Was Mr. Constructor Workerman on to something?
Quite unexpectedly, a young lady from the back of the tram, closer to the spontaneous preacher, piped up, “Not all people who are HIV positive get it from AIDs and married women are often murdered by their spouses.”
Things were just getting interesting when, unfortunately, we arrived at Volkstheater and a good two thirds of the passengers stood up and started moving towards the doors. Obviously Preacherman’s stop as well. He grabbed his grocery dolly but before allowing anyone to pass by him to get through the door, he turned to his D-tram flock, raised his hand and waited for a bit of quiet. Then he announced our homework assignment: “Go home and read the Bible every day for an hour.”
Then he was gone. The doors closed and the D-Tram inched forward once again in an all too disappointingly ordinary manner.
Star Wars, Trash Compactor Scene – and you thought you were having a bad day!