Monday, March 4, 2019

How Novels, Like News Stories, Grab Readers with the 5 W’s

            In revising the opening pages of my current YA manuscript, I reminded myself that the strongest first pages of novels should provide the same information found in a compelling TV or movie preview: a glimpse of an intriguing character (or two) with an implied back story, an interesting setting, and a vividly engaging point-of-view. Similarly, the first page of a novel, like the lead of a news story, should give the reader a sense of the Who, What, When, Where, and Why, with the promise that the story will unfold the How. But the “lead” of a novel should never turn into an information dump. The W’s should reveal themselves through implication. When authors resort to info-dump openings, they probably believe that readers require copious details for a clear understanding of the world they are entering, even though, ironically, the superfluous details actually muddy the readers’ perceptions. Authors who want to establish strong relationships with new readers should expect those readers to have the intelligence to discern the W’s within subtly and concisely crafted openings. Info dumps are, in a sense, condescending to readers.

            The following story openings, from some novels I’ve recently enjoyed, clarify the way carefully chosen details can reveal—or artfully conceal—enough W’s to keep us reading:  
(Links to buy each book listed below are available by clicking on the highlighted titles.)

        Dear Martin, by Nic Stone, begins: 
            “From where he’s standing across the street, Justyce can see her: Melo Taylor, ex-girlfriend, slumped over beside her Benz on the damp concrete of the FarmFresh parking lot. She’s missing a shoe, and the contents of her purse are scattered around her like the guts of a pulled party popper. He knows she’s drunk, but this is too much, even for her.
            “Just shakes his head, remembering the judgment all over his best friend Manny’s face as he left Manny’s house not fifteen minutes ago.”

WHO: Justyce, a young man (“he” indicates his gender, and the fact that he has an ex-girlfriend who can drive and has been drinking, suggests that he is not a kid). Melo, a possibly rich young woman (“Benz” suggests an expensive Mercedes Benz car) who is a reckless partier (given her drunken state) and still matters in some way to her ex, Justyce (“…this is too much, even for her. Just shakes his head…”).

WHAT:  Justyce seems to be contemplating a rescue of his ex-girlfriend, risking the disapproval of his best friend, Manny, whom we readers will surely meet since he’s important enough to mention in the opening.

WHEN: Contemporary time, due to modern diction, and references to a current car and store name. We can also guess that this scene takes place just after a rain (“damp concrete”).

WHERE: Urban or suburban neighborhood, suggested by a parking lot and a grocery store, and a neighborhood (where Manny lives) within a 15-minute drive.

WHY: Justyce is witnessing a dangerous situation—his ex-girlfriend might drive drunk—and that seems to compel him to play hero now.

            The Love & Lies of Rukhsana Ali, by Sabina Khan, opens:
            “No parties, no shorts, no boys. These were my parents’ three cardinal rules. But what they didn’t know couldn’t hurt them, right? I quickly changed out of my NASA pajamas and into my favorite black crop top and dark blue vintage jeans, liking the way they accentuated my curves. According to my Mom no one needed to know that I had boobs, much less a belly button, except for me, Allah, and my future husband. Of course, the whole “no boys” rule was a moot point in my case, but fortunately my parents didn’t know about Ariana.”

WHO: A teenage girl named Rukhsana Ali (the title reveals her name, and her gender is revealed by the fact that she has “curves” and “boobs.” She is either into space exploration or astronomy or physics, or she is close to someone who has such interests, since she wears NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) pajamas. She likes to show off her body—more than her strict, conservative parents do! She is likely Muslim, given the reference to “Allah.” And she is possibly a lesbian, unbeknownst to her parents, given her line: “the whole ‘no boys’ rule was a moot point in my case, but fortunately my parents didn’t know about Ariana.” We can infer from the word “fortunately” that the narrator believes that her parents would disapprove of her being gay.

WHAT: Rukhsana is a rule-breaker, about to sneak out of her house, possibly to a party where she will meet up with Ariana. This seems to be a story about a girl trying to be herself within the confines of a rigid home, where she is expected to marry a man and dress modestly.

WHEN: Modern times, given the narrator’s diction, her unflinching candor about being into girls, and the clothing style references. 

WHERE: A family home, with enough luxury that she can have a “favorite” top (so, in other words, not poor), and in a neighborhood (because parties are an option).

WHY: Rukhsana resorts to rule-breaking out of fear or respect for her parents and her Muslim background, and she rationalizes that she is deceiving them to keep from hurting them (“But what they didn’t know couldn’t hurt them, right?”). She mentions “my future husband” because she knows her Mom’s expectation, and Rukhsana is acknowledging that she will have to break that rule along with the three much simpler ones that she lists in the first line. 

            Leah on the Offbeat, by Becky Albertalli, starts:
            “I don’t mean to be dramatic, but God save me from Morgan picking our set list. That girl is a suburban dad’s midlife crisis in a high school senior’s body.
            Case in point: she’s kneeling on the floor, using the keyboard stool as a desk, and every title on her list is a mediocre classic rock song. I’m a very tolerant person, but as an American, a musician, and a self-respecting human being, it is both my duty and my privilege to blanket veto that shit.”

WHO:A teenage musician, probably Leah, of the title, who ironically calls attention to her tendency to be dramatic by saying “I don’t mean to be dramatic….” She does not refer to herself as a “girl,” only as a “self-respecting human being,” but she does identify Morgan as “that girl…a suburban dad’s midlife crisis,” thereby acknowledging that Morgan is a “hot girl,” while revealing herself to be amusingly sarcastic and judgmental (even though she calls herself, ironically again, “tolerant”). She is not a “girly girl,” so to speak, and she uses coarse language, letting the reader know that she is not someone who censors herself. She also has very strong musical preferences and disdain for her band mate Morgan’s taste (we can infer that Morgan is a band mate because the narrator mentions “our set list”).

WHAT: The narrator is asserting her control over the musical choices and possibly starting a power struggle with Morgan, for whom she expresses disdain, but the reader may read between the lines to guess that Leah is jealous of her band mate.

WHEN: Today’s American suburban world, given the casual diction and the coarse language (“blanket veto that shit”).

 WHERE:The setting seems to be an American suburb, due to the reference to students as “seniors” (an American term for the final year of high school), and the word “suburban.” We can also surmise that the band mates are in some form of music practice room, because of the presence of a “keyboard stool.”

WHY: The conflict between the musicians is based not only on differences in musical taste, but possibly on an unstated jealousy between them.

            On the Come Up, by Angie Thomas, begins:
            “I might have to kill somebody tonight. 
            It could be somebody I know. It could be a stranger. It could be somebody who’s never battled before. It could be somebody who’s a pro at it. It doesn’t matter how many punch lines they spit or how nice their flow is. I’ll have to kill them….”
WHO: A narrator of any possible age or gender, who at first seems to suggest the possibility of homicide, but then reveals that the narrator is about to engage in a battle of words, possibly a rap battle (“how many punch lines they spit or how nice their flow is”). The narrator, we can assume, is not a “pro” because the narrator implies feeling intimidated by “somebody who’s a pro at it.” The narrator is someone very determined to win (“I’ll have to kill them”). 

WHAT: A verbal war is about to ensue, “tonight,” with unknown competitors.

WHEN: Contemporary time period, based on language (the casual use of “kill” to mean “defeat”). 

WHERE: No setting established yet, only a future setting is implied: possibly a club where a rap battle will take place.

WHY: The reader doesn’t know why the narrator is so determined to win, but the reiteration of the desire to “kill” compels us with the passion behind that repeated hyperbole.

has two openings, in essence, because the story has two narrators. So I will look at both Chapter One and Chapter Two as individual openings within the same novel.

            Chapter One: Adina
            “I used to think his touches meant nothing. We brushed arms in the hallway of his apartment, and I let myself believe the space was simply too narrow. Our hands tangled and I figured it was because we reached to turn the sheet music at the same time.”

WHO: Adina (probably female, given her name) is a musician (because she refers to turning “sheet music”), age unclear. She seems to suspect that the male musician, with whom she plays music, is intentionally touching her. We can’t be sure from this first paragraph whether she likes or dislikes the idea of physical contact with this man or boy. 

WHAT: Adina has been playing music with this male musician for a while (“I used to think…”), and she plays with him at his apartment.

WHEN: Not clear, could be almost any time period.

WHERE: Probably the USA or Canada, because of the reference to an “apartment,” rather than a “flat,” as such a home would be called in other English-speaking countries.

WHY: Adina is concerned because her relationship to the other musician seems about to change dramatically.

            Chapter Two: Tovah
            “I used to think being a twin meant I’d never be the center of attention. That I’d always share the spotlight with my sister or fight for control of it. For a long time, I didn’t mind sharing. I hid behind Adina while others praised her for her music, her poise, her looks.” 

WHO: Tovah, a twin who feels less important or worthy than her sister (“I hid behind Adina”), and is tired of that feeling (“For a long time, I didn’t mind sharing” implies that NOW she does mind). Tovah immediately mentions Adina in her introductory words to the reader, whereas Adina only mentions herself in the previous chapter’s opening. That says a lot about their respective feelings about each other. The fact that her tone sounds bitter in her reference to Adina’s “poise” and “looks,” suggests that they either are not identical twins and look different, or they are identical but insecure Tovah doesn’t see herself in Adina. 

WHAT:  Tovah expresses her jealousy (“others praised her for…”) and implies that she is about to step out of Adina’s shadow and assert herself. 

WHEN: Unclear time period.

WHERE: No setting, only a voice so far.

WHY: Tovah is fed up and feels the injustice of being ignored.

            The Power, by Naomi Alderman, opens with a literary conceit, a device that purposely plays with the reader. 
Alderman writes her book as if she is its editor, not its author--as a novel being presented to her for editorial feedback by a fictional person, “Neil Adam Armon,” which is an anagram of the real author’s name. The opening features a letter that accompanies the fictional manuscript.

                                                                        The Men Writers Association
                                                                        New Bevand Square
            Dear Naomi,

                        I’ve finished the bloody book. I’m sending it to you, with all its fragments and drawings, in the hope that you’ll give me some guidance or at least that I’ll finally hear the echo of it as I drop the pebble of this book down the well.
                        You’ll ask me first of all what it is. “Not another dry volume of history” was what I promised. Four books in I realize that no general reader can be bothered to wade through endless mounds of evidence, no one cares about the technicalities of dating finds and strata comparison. I’ve seen audiences’ eyes go blank as I try to explain my research. So what I’ve done here is a sort of hybrid piece, something that I hope will appeal more to ordinary people. Not quite history, not quite a novel….

WHO: A possibly British author-historian, suggested by the use of the word “bloody” and the style in which the date is written (we don’t learn his name until the end of the verbose letter). The writer is a man, clearly, representing “The Men Writers Association,” something that suggests a world outside of the USA, because writers are not separated by gender here, only by genre. His writing style is wordy and he even uses a run-on sentence in the letter, which suggests that he does indeed need the editorial assistance that he asks Naomi for in the opening line. Readers can also see that he is self-aware about how esoteric his research is because he acknowledges his awareness that “audiences’ eyes go blank as I try to explain my research.” 

WHAT: The researcher-historian is submitting his book to Naomi for guidance, after four revisions, with the hope of finally educating “ordinary people.” This isn’t the most compelling plot hook, but the hook lies more in the literary device that portrays Naomi Alderman as an editorial consultant for a fictional author’s nonfiction work, which she will share with us readers. The purposeful confusion of the reader keeps us reading to find out why the author chose this stylistic path.

WHEN: No time period is defined, and the diction only indicates a British style. Also, the fictional author-character seems to be sending with his letter to Naomi a hard copy of his manuscript (“with all its fragments and drawings”), rather than an electronic copy with scanned images, so these details do not define a particular time period. 

WHERE: He appears to be writing from an office.

WHY: The fictional author aims to educate as many people as possible with his research findings. 

             (The Power gets much more interesting--becoming a dystopian world masquerading as a factual account of a world overtaken by female power--as we start reading what the fictional Neil has deemed “not quite history, not quite a novel.” )

                        Deconstructing the opening lines of those five novels in terms of the typical journalistic “lead” illustrates that compelling fiction, like nonfiction, requires informing the readers, early on, of certain basic story elements. Rather than clearly “telling” these elements to readers, as journalists must do, fiction authors subtly SHOW the Who, What, When, Where, Why as a kind of preview of the story to come. Thus, novelists lure readers to travel along on the story arc and find out How the story will unfold. Now I challenge you to take a closer look at a novel that you have recently read or are currently reading—even one that you may be writing!


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