I was reading Tolstoy's novella, Hadji Murad, when I stumbled upon a scene that was similar to Levin's wheat harvesting scene from Anna Karenina that I mention above.
In chapter 2 of H. M., a group of soldiers carrying arms are moving to their new position where they are preparing to ambush their enemy. They have walked a ways down the road, and then turned off into the forest. This is the conversation they had:
"A good job it's dry," said the non-commissioned officer, Panov, bringing down his long gun and bayonet with a clang from his shoulder, and placing it against the plane tree. The three soldiers did the same.
"Sure enough, I've lost it!" crossly muttered Panov. "Must have left it behind, or I've dropped it on the way."
"What are you looking for?" asked one of the soldiers in a bright, cheerful voice.
"The bowl of my pipe. Where the devil has it got to?"
"Have you the stem?" asked the cheerful voice.
"Here's the stem."
"Then why not stick it straight into the ground?"
"Not worth bothering!"
"We'll manage that in a minute."
Did I mention that they were supposed to be preparing an ambush?
Two things are going on here. First, in the actual scene, there is a small amount of tension. A man has lost something, and the group is trying to figure out a solution. So, on a technical level, this is already working. Second, the entire time I'm reading this, my internal voice is screaming, "Get serious! You're at war! You're at war!" Over the small tension, a much bigger tension has been created.
That's the trick. Tolstoy is giving us the irony of the soldier's mental state. The entire time I'm reading what's on the page, I'm thinking about what's NOT on the page. Tolstoy decides not to stay focused on the story so that the power of the story becomes that much more powerful.
I've mentioned before that I have always wanted to create counterpoint in my writing the way music creates counterpoint with two different melodic lines. For me, the sort of irony that Tolstoy is creating serves that purpose. Though he only writes about one story, he's making me think about two, thereby keeping me distracted and doubly entertained.
I've been trying to do this in my own story about the cannibal. In a new scene, I wrote about a woman, Victoria, waking up and going to get a manicure. The entire description feels rather trivial to me, but I hope that the triviality gives the scene power when we learn that she is actually the victim's wife, and she has no idea what is about to happen to her husband.
Beyond making sure that our prose is smooth and clear, I think it's fun to think about how different scenes can play off on each other to create even more drama. Do you guys do this in your own writing? If you haven't tried it before, are there places you can think of where this might help you out?