John Krissilas / Writer, Thinker, Storyteller
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Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Tension, Mr. Bond!

Write Like Fleming Series #3

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One of the hardest things to do as a writer is develop tension.

You know, that spine-crawling itch that makes your reader shift and squirm. That 'tick tick', 'tick tick' at the door that fills them with dread. That tongue-biting, fist-clenching sense of anticipation, of anxiety, of... you get the idea.

Fleming is a master of it.


For this, post 003 in the Write Like Fleming series, in which I delve into the writing style of one of my favourite authors, Ian Fleming, I have a treat for you. Yes, yes — a spine-crawling treat, a fist-clenching treat!

"The Centipede Scene"

Everyone who's read Doctor No immediately knows what I'm talking about. Now, Doctor No packs a slew of tropical horrors for Bond — a sadistic survival course, a giant squid (!!!!), scuttling, flesh-eating crabs. But none of these monstrosities fills Bond (and us!) with as much tension and anxiety as the centipede, in its own, cruel way. I'm shuddering now, just thinkin' of it!


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Like I said, Fleming's a master.

He draws the experience out — taking one quick moment in time and drawing it out over several pages. He alternates beautifully between action (the centipede slowly working its way up Bond's naked body), description (Bond's many metaphors for how the little monster feels and sounds), and of course, Bond's own, terrified, increasingly desperate thoughts. Whew!


Of course, in the film version of Doctor No, we get a tarantula.
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But enough talk. Take a deep breath (I know I am), clench your teeth, and behold!

The next thing Bond knew was that it was three o'clock in the morning. He knew it was three o'clock because the luminous dial of his watch was close to his face. He lay absolutely still. There was not a sound in the room. He strained his ears. Outside, too, it was deathly quiet. Far in the distance a dog started to bark. Other dogs joined in and there was a brief hysterical chorus which stopped as suddenly as it had begun. Then it was quite quiet again. The moon coming through the slats in the jalousies threw black and white bars across the corner of the room next to his bed. It was as if he was lying in a cage. What had woken him up? Bond moved softly, preparing to slip out of bed.

Bond stopped moving. He stopped as dead as a live man can.

Something had stirred on his right ankle. Now it was moving up the inside of his shin. Bond could feel the hairs on his leg being parted. It was an insect of some sort. A very big one. It was long, five or six inches — as long as his hand. He could feel dozens of tiny feet lightly touching his skin. What was it?

Then Bond heard something he had never heard before — the sound of the hair on his head rasping up on the pillow. Bond analysed the noise. It couldn't be! It simply couldn't! Yes, his hair was standing on end. Bond could even feel the cool air reaching his scalp between the hairs. How extraordinary! How very extraordinary! He had always thought it was a figure of speech. But why? Why was it happening to him?

The thing on his leg moved. Suddenly Bond realized that he was afraid, terrified. His instincts, even before they had communicated with his brain, had told his body that he had a centipede on him.

Bond lay frozen. He had once seen a tropical centipede in a bottle of spirit on the shelf in a museum. It had been pale brown and very flat and five or six inches long — about the length of this one. On either side of the blunt head there had been curved poison claws. The label on the bottle had said that its poison was mortal if it hit an artery. Bond had looked curiously at the corkscrew of dead cuticle and had moved on.

The centipede had reached his knee. It was starting up his thigh. Whatever happened he mustn't move, mustn't even tremble. Bond's whole consciousness had drained down to the two rows of softly creeping feet. Now they had reached his flank. God, it was turning down towards his groin! Bond set his teeth! Supposing it liked the warmth there! Supposing it tried to crawl into the crevices! Could he stand it? Supposing it chose that place to bite? Bond could feel it questing amongst the first hairs. It tickled. The skin on Bond's belly fluttered. There was nothing he could do to control it. But now the thing was turning up and along his stomach. Its feet were gripping tighter to prevent it falling. Now it was at his heart. If it bit there, surely it would kill him. The centipede trampled steadily on through the thin hairs on Bond's right breast up to his collar bone. It stopped. What was it doing? Bond could feel the blunt head questing blindly to and fro. What was it looking for? Was there room between his skin and the sheet for it to get through? Dare he lift the sheet an inch to help it. No. Never! The animal was at the base of his jugular. Perhaps it was intrigued by the heavy pulse there. Christ, if only he could control the pumping of his blood. Damn you! Bond tried to communicate with the centipede. It's nothing. It's not dangerous, that pulse. It means you no harm. Get on out into the fresh air!

As if the beast had heard, it moved on up the column of the neck and into the stubble on Bond's chin. Now it was at the corner of his mouth, tickling madly. On it went, up along the nose. Now he could feel its whole weight and length. Softly Bond closed his eyes. Two by two the pairs of feet, moving alternately, trampled across his right eyelid. When it got off his eye, should he take a chance and shake it off — rely on its feet slipping in his sweat? No, for God's sake! The grip of the feet was endless. He might shake one lot off, but not the rest.

With incredible deliberation the huge insect ambled across Bond's forehead. It stopped below the hair. What the hell was it doing now? Bond could feel it nuzzling at his skin. It was drinking! Drinking the beads of salt sweat. Bond was sure of it. For minutes it hardly moved. Bond felt weak with the tension. He could feel the sweat pouring off the rest of his body on to the sheet. In a second his limbs would start to tremble. He could feel it coming on. He would start to shake with an ague of fear. Could he control it, could he? Bond lay and waited, the breath coming softly through his open, snarling mouth.

The centipede started to move again. It walked into the forest of hair. Bond could feel the roots being pushed aside as it forced its way along. Would it like it there? Would it settle down? How did centipedes sleep? Curled up, or at full length? The tiny centipedes he had known as a child, the ones that always seemed to find their way up the plughole into the empty bath, curled up when you touched them. Now it had come to where his head lay against the sheet. Would it walk out on to the pillow or would it stay on in the warm forest? The centipede stopped. Out! OUT! Bond's nerves screamed at it.

The centipede stirred. Slowly it walked out of his hair on to the pillow.

Bond waited a second. Now he could hear the rows of feet picking softly at the cotton. It was a tiny scraping noise, like soft fingernails.

With a crash that shook the room Bond's body jackknifed out of bed and on to the floor.

*Releases my breath*

And that, my friend, is tension!


The Write Like Fleming Series:
#1 - Reflections in a Double Bourbon
#2 - From a View to a Kill
#3 - Tension, Mr. Bond!
#4 - Seascape with Figures
#5 - Interview with M
#6 - Dead Duck!
#7 - The Great Morass