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The wriggle of life

An editorial colleague of mine here at Jericho Writers likes to tell writers that their first job as a novelist – literally the first thing their narrative needs to accomplish – is to get readers into the story. Before your story-train even starts to chuff out of the station, you need your readers on board, hats off, gloves folded, sandwiches at the ready.

And that act of engagement by the reader requires one thing above all from you. It requires you to foster belief in your world and belief in your characters. Yes, if there’s a tickle of story-excitement too, that’s really great, but the tickle is the second thing, not the first.

Your first job is to engender that belief: to create the shimmering surface of life.

Knowing that, some writers make the wrong call. Here are three classic ways it can go wrong:

The Error Impatient

With this one, writers get worried that they need to reveal character emphatically and early. It’s as though they’re thinking, “I need to establish Character X briskly and decisively, so readers know who they’re dealing with.”

The result: they bustle off to the Emporium of Cliché, credit card in hand. The salespeople there know their customers very well. “Suave super-spy, sir? Of course. Attractive to the women? A perfect shot? Excellent suits? Knows his wine? Of course, madam. May I also offer you a chiselled jaw? A piercing gaze? We’re giving away two free super-cars with every spy, sir, so this would be an excellent moment to make your purchase.”

And the result of that ill-advised spending spree: readers aren’t engaged. Yes, they ‘get’ the character you have so swiftly constructed, but they’re not really interested. Their view is from a distance, all ready to walk away. (If you need help on developing character, then I recommend you go get our Amazing Character Development Tool.)

The Error Accurate

Some writers therefore choose to glue themselves close to a recognisable reality. A woman like you. A musical reference to some currently fashionable artist. Maybe a brand mention, but almost certainly something to do with clothing. A familiar setting (a bedroom usually, or a late-for-work thing, or a minor work problem.) And all this conveyed in language that’s not quite conversational, exactly, but diary-type language anyway: the way you might talk to yourself about all these ordinary things.

And yes, OK, I’d probably prefer to encounter the Everyman/Everywoman character than the suave superspy one, but honestly? I don’t want to read about either. The Error Accurate ends up delivering someone perfectly believable, but just not intriguing. You want me to get on board your damn story train, but I think I might just linger here on the platform and see what else chuffs into view.

Sorry.

The Error of Baroque Emotion

“Aha,” you say. “O-ho,” you mutter. “We know what readers want from their stories. They want to feel emotion. They want to be plunged into situations that shock, that stimulate, that shine brighter than the ordinary world outside.”

And so we have gasps of agony right there on the first page. Or crashing sobs of grief. Or some improbable level of panic over some ordinary life accident (a missed train, a forgotten report.)

It’s as though the writers is thinking, “Look, if I send my train into that station with a brass band on board – and a pair of performing monkeys – and a troop of dancers complete with a tiny acrobat from Java, people will just have to get on board. It’ll be the most amazing train in the station.”

Well, kinda. And look: I love tiny Javanese acrobats as much as the next man. But this is all too much, too soon. The danger – the great and serious danger – is that your emotion seems unjustified. Premature. Deterring the very engagement you were seeking.

The Approach Simple

And look, for some reason, I don’t know why, my books tend to open in a somewhat low key way. I don’t say that your book has to do the same. Plenty of terrific books do open with a splash of bright colour right there on page one. But they don’t have to.

Here’s an example of one of my openings that almost boasts about its own drabness:

Jane’s driving. Jane Alexander.

The traffic is snarled because of some incident ahead. A weak sun moves in and out of cloud. On our left, a garage promises ‘Probably the Lowest Prices in the Vale’.

The garage has thirty cars lined up behind metal railings. A man walking among them, talking into a phone. On our side of the railings, an elderly woman in a grey skirt and dark raincoat peers in at the cars, then over at the railway station. She checks her watch, pats her hair, walks forward, stops.

I stare at her. Jane stares at the road.

A nothing day.

Nothing has happened. Nothing seems on the brink of happening. There’s no dramatic incident. No superspy, no gunshot. No burr of emotion. No desperate attempt to make the world of my story reflect the world of my reader. There’s just not a lot going on.

But –

Is that enough for you to read on? Do you feel ready to step forward into my story train? I think you do. And if so, here are the components that are keeping you engaged:

  1. There is, immediately, some sense of the physical world. A road. Traffic. A weak sun. A low-rent garage. Railings.
  2. There is immediately a recognisable human character – the elderly woman in a grey skirt. She’s clearly a little muddled, or a little something, but nothing extravagant. She’s not a superspy. She’s not someone-just-like-you. She’s not someone in the grip of wild emotion. She just seems – real. And that little hint of muddle or confusion in her behaviour lends a tiny dot of intrigue to the picture so far.
  3. The first person protagonist, Fiona, is in relationship with something: her driving buddy, Jane. There’s terribly little going on there – “I stare at her. Jane stares at the road. A nothing day.” – but even that tiny description opens up a question. Why is Jane not engaging with Fiona’s look? Is it just because she’s driving? Or is there an atmosphere inside the car? Why is Fiona actually staring at Jane? Those are, I agree, very little things, but we all know that stories can start out small.

To form those three points into a bit of a checklist, we want:

  1. A physical setting
  2. A credible character
  3. Some sense of the viewpoint character in relationship with someone (or something – the viewpoint character might be alone, but she still needs to be bouncing off something in her physical or mental space.)

And those are small asks, please note. They demand the wriggle of life, and not much more. Remember that people have come into the station in order to board your train. To entice them to make that little further act of commitment, you just need to show that you are properly in charge of your materials: your world, your characters, the glimmer of story.

And that’s enough. You can go bigger if you want to, but you really don’t have to.

But tell me: what do you do to develop character - plausibly and enticingly - right there on page 1? What are your particular first page bugbears? Let's have a Heated But Polite Debate.

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Comments (3)
  • "What do you do…" implies some system, some regularity, to the activity, that a norm can be determined. While I've been writing for over 30 years, I've written only eight page-ones (of novels). As such - and given that the first five were definitely a learning process - there is no norm on which to base an answer.

    Instead, how I would approach one book on my to-write list: The Oxygen War. (I outlined this three years ago or so.) It will open in denial, the main character staring at the play of sunlight on old synthetic-fibre carpet, ignoring the mountain view outside the highrise's floor-to-ceiling window, as his lawyer, in the next room, tells his wife that he thinks a divorce is the best thing for them,

    So, yes, I suppose it very much lines up with your three points, Harry. It has an immediate location, recognisable characters (the emotionally-cowardly main character, the surrogate, the wife), and an interaction between them (compounded by being his imagination at work).

    As to the bugbear… the biggest of those I can describe from someone else's work. And it wasn't on page one. Indeed, page one - and page two - made up perhaps the best opening to a book I've ever read. A science fiction novel, it had the main character - a military officer - recollecting a lesson from her academy days when the teacher had been describing a superweapon (makes a nuke look like a garden variety supersoaker); the horror was in how completely it eliminated all signs of life, leaving the target eerily sanitised, making more conventional weapons a relief in the perceivable residue of their use. Having experienced combat, she disagreed. The bugbear was what followed that beautifully written, evocative and emotional opening: a descent into endless pages (20+) of disjointed, unanchored backstory attempting to explain the magic system the setting was built on, wherein the laws of physics depended on concensus on a calendar. Or, in other words, a false promise on page one…

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    • I think I need to revisit my opening - you've just outlined it (more or less) under The Error Accurate. Ah well, I had nothing to do this weekend anyway :/


      Thanks for that insight ....

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      • My story has a wham-bam opening, violence and corruption.Hoping to find out if it will float at the Festival/.

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