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Promises, Promises

In The Fiction Editor, the Novel, and the Novelist, Thomas McCormack talks about making promises to the reader. Of course we hear this terminology all  the time, but McCormack gets into a fairly technical explanation of what’s entailed in making and keeping such promises.

I was intrigued by the idea that a reader keeps turning pages, not so much because of what she’s reading right now, but rather what she’s being promised is still to come. Like the smell of coffee or the anticipation of Christmas morning, a promise can be so much more delicious than any reality. The reader therefore reads in a state of pleasurable expectation, and so long as reality doesn’t actually disappoint, she’ll finish the book having had a delightful reading experience.

I’m wondering if there’s something too stolid about the way I usually write, which is focussed on what I’m delivering on any given page, rather than what I’m promising.

McCormack talks about “prelibation” (I do love a good neologism!) It translates as something like “foretaste” – tasting in advance. McCormack says that the reader has “salivancy” – an appetite, a craving produced by the text – and the author must know both how to elicit this craving and how to satisfy it. Prelibation is the author’s intuition about what will satisfy.

“Implied prelibation” is when the text has set up an obvious requirement. Virginia Woolf praised Jane Austen for never failing to supply the “obligatory scene” – the scene we have to have. In a whodunnit, there must be a scene in which the detective reveals who the murderer is. Usually there must also be some kind of confrontation with the murderer – don’t you feel cheated when it turns out the murderer has been killed, or has run away to reappear in the sequel, without leaving so much as a taunting note?

I’ve realised there’s an obligatory scene missing from my current novel. Two characters who’ve been in conflict for two-thirds of the book make up awkwardly over the phone because there are larger issues at stake. This just isn’t good enough: the reader will be “salivating” for a proper showdown, which I’m obliged as the writer to supply. Implied prelibation is at work.

“Unimplied prelibation” is more subtle. The reader doesn’t know what she’s expecting next, but she’s expecting something. The writer’s responsibility is both to whet these inchoate appetites, and then to satisfy them with surprising and gratifying details, scenes, dialogue, etc. That’s writing, you say. Yes, but maybe it’s a common mistake of the novice writer to slave away, trying to deliver surprising, gratifying, original, amazing and beautiful words on the page, but not paying enough attention to the creation of expectations. The set-up, the promising.

The idea of promises is related to – possibly the same as? – tension. So that this post doesn’t go on forever, I’ll just look at two examples of the kinds of promises a writer can make, or tensions he can set up.

Here’s the first one-third of the first line of Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Virgin Suicides: “On the morning the last Lisbon daughter took her turn at suicide – it was Mary this time, and sleeping pills, like Therese – …”

What are you asking yourself as a reader? How many Lisbon daughters were there? (clearly at least three, sounds like more). How old were they? (the title and the fact they’re described as “daughters” sounds like they were very young) Why did they attempt suicide? Under what circumstances? How? (since Mary and Therese used sleeping pills) Did any survive? (the word “attempted”) Does Mary survive? Why are we being told this story? The author is promising to explore all these questions, if not necessarily to answer them. We can be pretty sure of finding out how many girls, their names, their ages, the circumstances, the methods, the outcomes. We expect to learn something about the Lisbon daughters, individually and as a family. We can be certain the “why” question will be asked, but we sense from the tone that we’re not being promised an answer, and this is a source of tension.

In the second sentence we get the information that the medics were, “as usual”, moving much too slowly “in our opinion”. The reader is promised something very unusual – a plural first person narrative point of view: in effect, a chorus. Reviewers have noted that the first paragraph of this novel also promises the setting (suburban America), the tone (“wry and voluptuous with glittering black jokes carried along like seacoal by the smooth melancholy swell”), and the idea that there is something allegorical about this story, that it takes place more in a mythic realm than a realistic one. These are all interesting promises, and we read on with a strong sense of curiosity to see where the writer will take us.

A different kind of promise is offered in Justin Cronin’s The Passage, through the structure of the book. Again there’s a mythic note struck at the very beginning, telling us “Before she became the Girl from Nowhere – the One Who Walked In, the First and Last and Only, who lived a thousand years – she was just a little girl in Iowa, named Amy”. The first chapter goes on to tell us briefly and fairly realistically about Amy’s early childhood. The second chapter consists of emails between Jonas Lear and Paul Kiernan, concerning mysterious but horrific events in a Bolivian jungle. The third chapter begins in a prison for men sentenced to death, and focuses on inmate Anthony Carter. Halfway through this chapter we jump to a federal agent, Brad Wolgast, driving along a Texan road reminiscing about his childhood. The promise is that all these people and storylines are moving into alignment, that they will come together and set in motion other trains of events.

Promises, tension, mystery, suspense. A writing exercise? Ask a trusted reader to look at the first paragraph of something you’ve written. Ask them to tell you as they go along:

1. What questions am I asking as I read this?

2. What do I expect from the rest of the story?

Leave the questions as broad as that – see how much they can tell you about the possibilities opening up in their mind, stimulated by your words on the page. Take notes – do any of their questions and speculations surprise you? Do they imagine a whole storyline worlds away from what you’ve actually written? Or do they struggle to articulate any sense of anticipation or curiosity? (in which case, you might want to reword this opening para).

If you’re very brave, you could allow them to go on reading, and describe for you as they go along which possibilities are opening out or collapsing, and whether they’re happy with the realities that take their place.

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Grab the reader

“But why?” I wailed. “Why won’t you read my book?”

My thirteen year-old son shrugged. “It just doesn’t grab me.”

I’ve drafted my first-ever children’s book, and I’m cajoling every child of my acquaintance to read it and tell me what they think. My very helpful nieces have done so, without the need for emotional blackmail, bribery or threats (thank you, Rhiannon and Briley!) But my own kids haven’t made it past the first three pages. Which is a pretty big red flag.

Every “How-to-Write-a-Book” book gives the same advice – grab the reader on the first page. Once she’s hooked, maybe you can let the pressure off a bit (unless you’re Matthew Reilly). But it’s fatal to let the reader get a few pages in and give up, because nothing exciting or intriguing has happened to “grab” her.

I’ve always been a bit skeptical about this advice. Many of the books I love start with paragraphs of description – of a place, or a character – a bit of mood-setting, some information, even a philosophical rant. But I recognise, firstly, that such openings tend to be associated with older works (my editor friend Helena Bond has pointed out that most Georgette Heyer books begin with description rather than action or dialogue). And even a low-key opening must offer the reader something she wants, some promise she’s keen to see fulfilled.

I’m having a quick look at a random selection of books lying around my house at the moment, and the various techniques authors use to hook us in.

Teaser – a sneak peak at story’s climax

Twilight by Stephenie Meyer (shut up, I’m loving it) begins with a scene you know must be from the climax – then goes back and narrates the events leading up to it. First line: “I’d never given much thought to how I would die – though I’d had reason enough in the last few months – but even if I had, I would not have imagined it like this.” That’s a grabber.

Similarly, Miranda Darling begins The Siren’s Sting with a dramatic event involving two characters, then starts the main story some time earlier. The protagonist is not one of the characters we’ve briefly glimpsed in the prologue, so the tension that pulls us into the story initially is the desire to know who these two people are, when the protagonist will meet them, and what the opening scene will turn out to mean in the larger context of the story.

Prologue – events that occur before the main story begins, and cast a shadow

An Imaginary Life by David Malouf, my favourite book ever, starts with a brief prologue introducing the two main characters on a kind of mythic level – appropriate for a book narrated by a poet. I remember being intrigued and wooed by the style, the mood and the mystery.

Blanche d’Alpuget’s Turtle Beach is somewhat similar, beginning with a brief “Part One”/prologue referring to events which occur before the main story begins. The promise is that the significance of these events will be unfolded over the course of the story. Evelyn Waugh does the same in Brideshead Revisited. Kim Wilkins does it in The Resurrectionists, but in this case the Prologue occurs only a short time before the main story starts, and is the immediate catalyst for it.

Keri Hulme, in The Bone People, uses her prologue to introduce her main characters, but very cryptically. You know you’ll have to go back and re-read it, once you figure out what’s going on.

Danielle Wood’s The Alphabet of Light and Dark introduces her protagonist as a child, seventeen years before the story begins, and her second main character as a young man three years before the story begins. At this stage we have no idea whether they know each other. Some of the expectation, therefore, is about when and how they’ll encounter each other story and what will be the result.

Prologue-Epilogue frame – start with events that occur after the story has finished

David Malouf’s Johnno starts with a Prologue in which the narrator is going through his father’s effects after his death. The narrator finds a photograph, which triggers memories of his friend Johnno. The story proper explores the history of that relationship. What sucks me in on the first page is the situation – a man describing his father, his father’s death, his own reaction. It’s a situation at once so common and so unique, of course I care and of course I want to read more about it.

Beginning at the beginning – origin stories

Annie Proulx’ Accordion Crimes begins with an unnamed instrument-maker creating the accordion of the title. What grabs me is the close focalisation, the instrument-maker’s intense concentration and passion, and the rich vivid sensory depiction of details. The lacquer on the instrument is “gleaming like wet sap”. The maker is someone who hears harmonies “in the groan of hinges”. The promise of this opening is that the writer has constructed her story with the same fanatical care and attention to detail as the instrument-maker creating the accordion, with which we are about to pass a hundred years.

Humour

Terry Pratchett’s Jingo, of course, starts with a character who has a silly name, doing something intricately pointless but exquisitely linguistically funny. Solid Jackson is fishing for Curious Squid, “so called because, as well as being squid, they were curious”. Okay, I’m hooked.

Anansi Boys, by Neil Gaiman, begins with a “sublime to ridiculous” first page. There’s a kind of Biblical invocation, in which all of creation is sung into existence, before the narrator tells us chattily “There are other things you can do with songs. They do not only make worlds or recreate existence. Fat Charlie Nancy’s father, for example, was simply using them to have what he hoped and expected would be a marvellous night out”. Of course, as well as being slightly and pleasantly confused, we are now intensely curious about both Fat Charlie Nancy and his father.

A powerful emotion

William Golding’s The Spire opens with the protagonist laughing for joy – out loud, immoderately, and in the face of his companion’s misgivings. The imagery is also startling and initially confusing – “God the Father was exploding in his face with a glory of sunlight through painted glass”. We read on, gathering up the hints as the author drops them, desperate to know why a Dean in his cathedral just before Matins can’t help laughing uproariously with excitement. So it’s not just the expressed emotion that grabs us, but curiosity about its cause.

Instant drama

Tim Winton’s Breath begins with the first person narrator in an ambulance; he’s a paramedic rushing to an emergency, lights flashing and sirens blaring. As if that wasn’t exciting enough, he’s in a conflict with the young woman who’s driving, and we know we’re going to hear more about that. Grabbed. Cloudstreet is different – it’s more like The Spire, with lyricism and joyful energy sucking us in first. But the sense of imminent danger cuts in very quickly too – someone is rushing towards the river, someone who shouldn’t be. In Cloudstreet we know we won’t find out till the end what happens to this person – and that’s a lot of reading! – but the language and the characters are going to take us there.

Northern Lights, by Philip Pullman, starts with someone sneaking around trying not to get caught. We’re told that she’s accompanied by her daemon, and we quickly realise she’s a child. Yes, I want to know what she’s up to. The single word “daemon” alerts me to the fact that she’s not in my world – from the start I’m working hard to compare and contrast her world with mine, reach some comprehension of her world in time and space as I know it. She’s grabbed me.

Intriguing characters

Wuthering Heights begins with an interesting juxtaposition – a first-person narrator jauntily describing himself as a misanthrope and rejoicing that he has come to live in such a bleak, unpeopled corner of England. He immediately embroils himself in an edgy social encounter with his landlord, Heathcliff, “a man who seemed even more exaggeratedly reserved than myself”. There’s a delightful energy about Lockwood’s determination to inflict his company on Heathcliff, who so patently doesn’t want it, that we read on to see what will fall out.

Begin with dialogue

Another technique, recommended by Craig Bolland from the School of Creative Writing at QUT, is beginning with dialogue. I didn’t find an example in my random book-snatching, but I think it’s a good way to hook the reader straight into the relationship between two characters.

A writing exercise? Write the opening paragraphs of your next ten stories (hypothetically!) Each opening paragraph should aim to use a different technique for “grabbing” the reader:

1. A sneak peak of the story’s climax, which is yet to come

2. An event that occurs before the main story begins, and promises to influence the main story

3. An event that occurs after the main story ends, and promises to be meaningful once the main story has been told

4. Begin the story “starting at the very beginning”, with a strong sense that this moment will have far-reaching effects

5. Start with humour

6. Start with a strong emotion

7. Start with instant drama/trouble/conflict, through which we are introduced to the characters

8. Start with an intriguing character

9. Begin with dialogue

10. Start with something that is consciously none of the above – maybe a piece of scene-setting. How can you “grab” the reader through this opening? What can you promise her, how can you intrigue her, what can you do to make her want to keep reading?

Good luck – let me know how you get on!

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Relego

[Spoiler alert: DON’T read this post if you haven’t yet read Ian McEwan’s Atonement. I wouldn’t want to be responsible for ruining Atonement for anyone. Go and read it now. Go on. You’ll thank me.]

Here’s a technique I find really fascinating. I’ve only seen it used a few times, and have been unable to discover any proper term for it, so I gave it my own name: relego. I’m thinking of it as Latin for “need to re-read”.

Etymology 1

From re- (“again”) + legō (“choose, gather”).

Pronunciation

(Classical) IPA: /ˈre.le.ɡoː/

Verb

present active relegō

•I gather, collect again, recover.
•I travel, traverse or sail over or through again.
•I go over or go through again in reading, speech, thought, read, relate or recite again, revise, recount

Relego refers to a technique which has the following steps:

•A scene in which the writer carefully leads the reader to think he/she knows what is going on in the story; that he/she has been given sufficient information to grasp the meaning of events – “bomb”
•A scene which throws a completely different light on the earlier scene, and thus gives a different meaning to events that have occurred in the   interim (and even earlier) – “trigger”
•The reader is forced to return to the earlier scene and re-read it (even to re-read the whole book) in order to comprehend the newly-revealed meaning
To qualify as relego, what happens can’t be just a shelved idea being unshelved,  or something foreshadowed that comes up again or pays off. It’s not just a “twist”, it’s a particular kind of twist. It’s not just “that’s not where I thought we were going” but “that’s not where I thought we were”.
Some variations:
•The protagonist knows what’s really going on but the reader doesn’t
•The protagonist starts to realise what’s going on just before the reader does, or vice versa
•The reader and the protagonist find out together
The best example I know of this is in Ian McEwan’s Atonement. He does it less dramatically though no less effectively in The Child In Time. In film, some examples include The Sixth Sense, The Crying Game and The Others – relego is what makes you say “What???? I have to watch the whole film over again”. There’s also a good example in YA fiction, in K.M. Peyton’s Pennington’s Seventeenth Summer.
The acts of writing and reading are a dance between writer and reader. Relego is a kind of joke the writer plays on the reader – part of the dance, the relationship, the interaction, the seduction. The satisfaction for the reader lies somewhere in the intimacy of sharing this joke with the writer – being his/her willing victim. The emotional charge and the moral message are worth the embarrassment of having been duped. Essentially relego is a comic technique even where the comedy is dark (eg. The Child in Time, The Crying Game); even where it is cataclysmically so (Atonement, The Others).
How does McEwan do it?
• Viewpoint – intimate 3rd person narration, so we cannot know more than the character knows
• Vision – details plus the meaning attributed to them by the character (eg. “he… shifted into her sight line, which she was too tired or indifferent to adjust”; The Child In Time)
• Velocity – use pace to skip over the moment, keep the reader from reading too closely, encourage them to believe they’ve “got the gist” of what the moment means eg. we’re focussed on whether or not Edward will give Stephen a lift, not on his off-hand question about when Stephen last saw Julie (The Child In Time)
• Vocabulary – word choice, connotations eg. Stephen attributes “indifference” to the beggar girl, Edward’s “that figures” is the kind of vague thing people say without meaning anything (The Child In Time)
•Under-specification, so long as it’s not obvious that something’s missing eg. we don’t know what Julie says to Stephen on the phone but in the next chapter we see him heading towards her so we assume she offered reconciliation, and we think that’s all that’s happening (The Child In Time)
•Exploit readers’ unconscious assumptions about society, narratives eg. we assume society won’t simply allow a child to die of cold, so that’s not our first interpretation of what we’re seeing (The Child In Time). We assume that in 3rd person intimate POV the character we follow is “real” and any proposed alternative version of the character pursuing a different course of action must be “imaginary”, so we’re misled by the “ghostly Briony” who heads back to the hospital (Atonement)
Can we try this at home?
Sure we can.

1. Write a short scene that appears to mean one thing but actually means another. Not just ambiguous (could mean one thing or the other), but actively misleading. Some of the above points may help. This is the “bomb”.

2. Write a short scene to occur later in the story, which will make the reader say “What the…???” and rush back to re-read the bomb. This is the trigger.

3. When you re-read the bomb, imagine the experience of the reader coming back to re-read this after the trigger. How can you strengthen it – ensure the reader strikes her forehead dramatically and thinks “how could I have missed that?” – without giving the game away on the first reading.

4. Without having to write the whole story, think about what impact the triggered bomb may have – what did the reader think was going on? How has the triggered bomb changed the meaning of subsequent events?

Happy experimenting!

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