Time and narrative

In other words, people naturally create stories, breaking up those clock-ticking seconds and replacing them with dramatic rising action, heart-stopping climaxes, and resolutions. Storytellers “lengthen time” with focus and careful description and contract time with descriptive brevity, summary, or even absence. The simple choice of when to start and when to stop the story imposes significance and value on certain events and diminishes others.

Kylie Nielson Turley

Involving readers with characters

“Equally important, the scene is required for what it does to the reader’s emotional involvement with these two people. As they become friends, they win our friendship. As they impress each other with their warmth and generosity, they impress us as well” (107).

            –Wayne Booth on E. M. Forster’s A Passage to India

Learning from Groff

Notice this strategy for beginning from “Ghosts and Empties” in Lauren Groff’s collection Florida: “I have somehow become a woman who yells, and because I do not want to be a woman who yells, whose little children walk around with frozen, watchful faces, I have taken to lacing on my running shoes after dinner and going out into the twilit streets for a walk, leaving the undressing and sluicing and reading and singing and tucking in of the boys to my husband, a man who does not yell.” Good first sentences, like this one, contain tension (both within and external to the character here) and something at risk (the narrator’s relationships, maybe, and sense of self almost certainly). 

Notice this first sentence from later in the same collection: “The storm came and erased the quiet. Well, the older sister thought, an island is never really quiet.” The sense of tension, as in the world being more complicated than the first sentence might suggest, at least to these characters, is something these two sentences from Florida have in common. It’s a good strategy, one Groff uses often.

Finally, characterization also begins immediately, along with plot. Because the tension (sense of self in one sentence and a storm in another) is important to the characters and their actions or situation, the beginnings also provide an implied question and so the impulse to move forward into the story: how will the tension be resolved?

Learning from Didion

He said: the sky was this pink no painter could approximate, one of the detonation theorist used to try, a pretty fair Sunday painter, he never got it.


Democracy by Joan Didion

Democracy is about many things, but one of them is the testing of nuclear weapons in the South Pacific. I recommend the novel. Here are some quick thoughts about this sentence from Didion’s book.

  • The comma splices rush readers to the phrase “he never got it.” Why? Where in your writing might you use this technique of moving readers toward a phrase quickly? Which phrase?
  • This sentence characterizes the “he” who said it. One of the things he remembers from the nuclear testing is this painter’s efforts. It is an interesting enough memory for this character that he brings it back up, and that tells readers about him. But this sentence also characterizes the detonation theorist who paints. The response of the theorist to his own work is to try and capture the results of it (particles raised by the tests change the color of the sky). One sentence characterizes the person who said it and the person the sentence is about.
  • “Detonation theorist,” at least for me, provides an interesting contrast with the rest of the sentence and the setting around it. The specifics associated with painting might be well known to readers (brushes and paint, canvas or houses), but fewer specifics are obviously associated with the work of a detonation theorist. What professions can contrast with hobbies or other activities? “Psychiatrist” and “serial killer” is one example Harris has used. These contrasts can provide an initial kernel of characterization.
  • This sentence also demonstrates the possibility of quickly capturing big, philosophical questions. An entire manuscript isn’t necessary to ask about how humans respond to preparing for war or coping with, perhaps, difficult employment. The question can be raised quickly, though resolving or exploring it takes more time.

Learning from Welty

“She stayed and read. Nicholas Nickleby had seemed as endless to her as time must seem to him, and it had now been arranged between them, without words, that she was to sit there beside him and read – but silently, to herself. He too was completely silent while she read.”

from The Optimist’s Daughter by Eudora Welty

I think these sentences provide enough context, but my memory suggests (though I’m not perfectly sure) that they describe a daughter reading to an aged father.

Here are some quick thoughts.

  • Character’s reactions characterize them, including, here, the narrator’s reaction to Nicholas Nickleby. How your characters react to just about anything reveals them to readers.
  • Characters that “read the minds” of other characters can be fascinating, both in the mind reading itself, but also in what characters assume is in the minds of other characters. The narrator thinks the book is endless; she thinks he must think of time as endless. Contrasts or harmony between what a character “reads” in another character’s mind and what is actually there (as shown through the second character’s actions or dialogue), can also characterize the characters and their relationship.
  • What arrangements might your characters make without words? What might those arrangements and how they are made suggest about them?
  • When are pairs of your characters silent? When do they speak? What are the implications of those silences? Anger? Comfort? Safety?
    • I think when we talk about sentence lengths, what ends up actually happening is a short sentence after an extremely long one. The short sentence, especially if it contrasts with the long one can be funny. Length isn’t the only factor in this, obviously, but consider this from Remarkably Bright Creatures by Shelby Van Pelt: “Tova Sullivan preparers for battle. A yellow rubber glove sticks up from her back pocket like a canary’s plume as she bends over to size up her enemy. Chewing gum.” The contrast between “battle,” “enemy,” and “chewing gum” and the paragraph break between “enemy” and “chewing” also helps make this chapter opening funny.
      • Both Van Pelt and Welty, rather than a short sentence after an extremely long one, give readers a short sentence followed by a longer one and then another short sentence.
        • I’ve mention long/short sentence patterns and provided examples of short/long/short patterns. Can you find interesting examples of short/long or long/short/long sentences? How might those patterns influence readers experiences?
        • What, if anything, besides the content of the sentences and the paragraph break makes the two sets of three sentences (one set from Welty and one from Van Pelt) so different from each other?

Seeing the plan

Some writers claim to extrude a book at an even rate like toothpaste from a tube, or to build a story like a wall, so many feet per day. They sit at their desk and knock off their word quota, then frisk into their leisured evening, preening themselves. This is so alien to me that it might be another trade entirely. Writing lectures or reviews – any kind of non-fiction – seems to me a job like any job: allocate your time, marshal your resources, just get on with it. But fiction makes me the servant of a process that has no clear beginning and end or method of measuring achievement. I don’t write in sequence. I may have a dozen versions of a single scene. I might spend a week threading an image through a story, but moving the narrative not an inch. A book grows according to a subtle and deep-laid plan. At the end, I see what the plan was.

Hilary Mantel

On not-knowing what to do

It’s appropriate to pause and say that the writer is one who, embarking upon a task, does not know what to do.… The not knowing is crucial to art, is what permits art to be made. Without the scanning process engendered by not-knowing, without the possibility of having the mind move in unanticipated directions, there would be no invention.… Writing is a process of dealing with not-knowing, a forcing of what and how.

~Donald Barthelme, “Not-knowing”

On beginning

The scene comes first, an idea of a character in a place. It’s visual, it’s Technicolor—something I see in a vague way. Then sentence by sentence into the breach.

Elisa Gabber quoting Don DeLillo

Learning from Naomi Mitchison

It is said that when the new Queen saw the old Queen’s baby daughter, she told the King that the brat must be got rid of at once.

from Travel Light by Naomi Mitchison

This is the first sentence of a novel written in 1952. The novel is good and this sentence is excellent.

First sentences should include at least one implied question, a compelling question that leads readers into the text in search of an answer. The sentence quoted above includes an implied question about at least the life of the old queen’s baby daughter. It is easily read as including questions about the relationships between the queens and the king. Most compelling is the question of what the king does next. What happens to the baby? The rest of the novel answers that question.

The strategy of implied questions can and should be used at the beginning of chapters as well. Before answering any one implied question, be sure at least one other has been asked. A story or novel might be organized or outlined as a long series of related implied questions and answers.