man's feet dangling above a window outside a building

Contents of the Dead Man's Pocket

by Jack Finney
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How does the author build suspense in "Contents of the Dead Man's Pocket"?

In "Contents of the Dead Man's Pocket," the author builds suspense by taking the reader through every frightening detail of Tom's journey on the ledge outside his eleventh-story apartment. Finney increases the suspense by having Tom face unexpected and life-threatening obstacles as he moves, continually raising the ante.

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Author Jack Finney builds high suspense while Tom is out on the ledge retrieving his yellow paper. Finney achieves this by taking us through Tom's frightening experience on the ledge in excruciating detail, with we as readers not knowing if this character is going to live or die, especially when considering the title.

We find out as Tom steps out of his window that he is in a "slight breeze," eleven stories above a New York City street, standing on a narrow ledge outside his apartment. It is inherently scary to imagine ourselves up so high, as most humans are born with an instinctive fear of heights. We learn that Tom is facing the brick wall of his apartment, pressing himself against it as he inches his way toward the yellow paper. It is darker than he had thought, and the ledge is so narrow his heels hang out over the edge.

Once Tom achieves one frightening milestone, Finney builds more suspense by increasing the terror. For example, once Tom is straddling the corner of the wall where the paper is lying, he has to lower himself into a squat to get the paper—and then his fingers can't quite reach it. When they do, he captures a glimpse of the street far below and is so terrified that he begins to "tremble violently." Now readers are terrified that the trembling will make him fall. His "shuddering" becomes so violent that he is sure he is going to fall, and he can't move. Finally he does, and then, as Tom almost falls, his apartment window suddenly slams shut.

Again, readers are faced with suspense: Will Tom be able to break the window without falling?

By taking readers in almost slow motion through the experience of being on the ledge, while constantly creating new obstacles, Finney maintains great suspense as we wonder how Tom will deal with his worsening situation—and if he will survive.

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