Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Fear and tension pervade “The Sniper.” O’Flaherty, making full use of his tight unity of place, builds tension steadily and systematically in several ways. The reader is told that one can hear the thunder of ammunition exploding in the distance. In the immediate milieu that the author creates, bullets whiz by and every simple act, such as lighting a cigarette, must be weighed carefully for its potential danger. The sniper is essentially a schoolboy caught up in a situation over which he must gain control. If he fails, he dies.

O’Flaherty creates a feeling of tension by his skillful use of short, clipped sentences and simple, direct vocabulary. As the tension is built, each sentence reveals only one bare fact:The turret opened. A man’s head and shoulders appeared, looking towards the sniper. The sniper raised his rifle and fired. The head fell heavily on the turret wall. The woman darted toward the side street. The sniper fired again. The woman whirled around and fell with a shriek into the gutter.

The beat of these sentences is like the beating of one’s heart. To read a paragraph so tightly controlled and structured as this one is to have one’s breath taken away.

O’Flaherty, because he has to emphasize how totally on his own the young sniper is, cannot have dialogue in this story. The sniper must be on the roof alone. The omniscient observer must tell everything that happens without being intrusive. O’Flaherty thus keeps a tight rein on a story that is highly dramatic but whose dramatic impact must be made through understatement.