My novel has its beginning, middle and end but needs fleshing out, so it’s a matter of tweaking and twiddling. The word count is creeping upwards and now stands at 53500. I produced circa 7000 in March, a sentence here, a paragraph there. Develop the characters more, insert back story, describe places and clothing. This is where one can ignore the ‘show, don’t tell’ rule a little, and tell the reader your protagonist’s thoughts. Just a little!
It’s an interesting exercise to review the current rules for writing. There is a dictum that you have to grab your reader on the first page, or even with your first paragraph. Or your first line. These days, the dictum requires action in that initial passage, and the chief protagonist’s identity. We are supposed to plunge the reader straight into the plot. Apparently, standing in the book shop, with your master work in their hands, our cherished reader will decide to buy or not buy, on the strength of those.
Take your favourite novels off your bookshelf, dear writer, and see how many of them stand up to this test. Yes, we know the cherished first lines: ‘It is a truth universally acknowledged…’; ‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.’ Yet, those famous openings speak more to a general description rather than a specific event or person in the story. Even more specific lines like. ‘Call me Ishmael’ (Moby Dick, Melville), or Sebastian Barry’s ‘He was born in the dying days.’ (A Long Long Way) serve to intrigue rather than inform. And that, in my view, is what a good opening line or paragraph should do – intrigue.
The notion that your first page should be about action is dictated by the reality of our visual culture. Ever since the movie industry arrived, and then television, the internet and computer screens, visual media has (have?) taken a dominant position in our lives. ‘A picture paints a thousand words’ is an accepted truth nowadays, which is bad news for novelists! Are we obliged to present the equivalent of the initial scene of a movie in six lines, or one sentence? I don’t think we can and would urge writers to go for intrigue, not information.
Of course, I didn’t know this when I wrote my first (as yet, unpublished) novel. It started with my protagonist witnessing an important arrest in 1798. Critique from a beta reader has caused me to rewrite that accursed paragraph six times, and I think it’s worse now than when I began. I sacrificed intrigue for action. My current Work in Progress does not suffer that fate. And when I finish it, I will return to the previous book and work on it, again.
(c) Audrey Mac Cready