Posts Tagged ‘Holy Bible’


Any fiction writer knows that characters are crafty and unpredictable little critters who seem to possess minds of their own. While this is one of the most fascinating aspects of the storytelling process, it can also be one of the most frustrating. At times, you want a character to do (or not do) one thing or another, and you spend substantial amounts of time and energy trying to force the desired activity only to learn over and over again that you really aren’t in control at all.

There are endless ways our characters surprise us. There is the good guy who suddenly wants to do something heinous, there’s the bad guy who wants nothing more than to redeem himself, and there are the small bit-players who demand far more of the spotlight than they need. Finally, there are those characters who just mysteriously appear, and of course, their even more mysterious counterparts, the ones who just kind of vanish into thin air. It’s those fictional vanishing acts that intrigue me most of all.

As far as I can see, disappearing acts in the world of the written word date as far back as The Holy Bible when, after stripping Samson of his lustrous locks and Almighty Power, his duplicitous love interest Delilah, slips into the netherworld, never to be heard from again. We don’t know what happened to Delilah, and for the most part, we don’t care; but it does make me stop and wonder what becomes of our own characters who never fulfilled their author-imposed missions.

Of my own characters, the one I’m most curious about is a fellow named Chester. Before a word of The White Room had actually been written, Chester was at the front of the line, lobbying for my attention with sweet little promises of all the various ways he would contribute to the story. It wasn’t until almost two years later, when I wrote those two beautiful, final words, The End, that I realized poor Chester was never even mentioned.

I’ve come to think of writing a novel as something similar to making a movie, and one of the most important parts of books and movies are, of course, the characters who drive the story. So it’s safe to assume that sometimes, certain players just don’t make the final cut. Maybe the story evolves and just kind of leaves them in the dust, or maybe the introduction and evolution of new characters renders the old ones unnecessary. In Chester’s case, I think it’s a matter of the latter, but I don’t think that means he won’t reappear at a later time.

I imagine fictional characters as actors of sorts who are ever-vying for the next best part to play. Maybe this analogy is a bit outlandish, but it’s what makes sense to me so I’m going to go with it. I just can’t accept that the characters we create are accidental mirages of meaninglessness who can fade in and out of existence as quickly as picking up or setting down a pen. We bond with these “people”; we foster them and invest in them. They are, I believe, extensions of ourselves that we’ve found a way to give expression to, and I don’t believe that part of ourselves will go ignored forever.

I still have a lot to learn about this whole fiction-writing thing, but I suspect that in time, I will clearly understand these little mysteries enough that I’ll no longer find myself worrying that people who do not exist didn’t get their chance to shine in a world that isn’t real. Until then, I will just have to comfort myself with the hope that these little disappearing acts will re-emerge when the time (and the story) is right.

This is a strange journey, indeed…

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You have about fifteen seconds to get their attention, and given the average modern-day attention span, which is about that of a coffee-buzzed gnat, it’s best to try doing it in five. This being the case, one of the most important lines ever written in a novel is the first one. For contemporary writers, the days of Charles Dickens-style, drawn-out opening passages are gone. Not that we don’t still love the “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…” type of opening lines of the golden oldies, but we generally adopt a different mindset reserved only for the classics; and even concerning them, that first line has to contain enough intrigue to move readers to the next sentence. This is a truth that has withstood era after era. One of the best examples I can think of to support this is probably the Holy Bible. Even though the bible goes on to confuse, bore, or entirely evade many of us in a literary sense, you can’t help but be a little intrigued by its first line. “In the beginning, God created the heavens and earth,” is, if nothing else, a pretty good hook. The bible though, is not a novel, so unless I am looking to write my own bible (which I certainly am not), I should probably look elsewhere for insights that will improve my own fiction writing techniques.

 

Probably my favorite opening line is that of Margaret Mitchell’s, Gone with the Wind. That first passage, “Scarlett O’Hara was not beautiful, but seldom men realized it when caught by her charm as the Tarleton twins were,” is, to me, a brilliant starting point; not because it thrusts the reader into the heart of some on-the-verge-of-death conflict, but because it is so thick with insight into human nature, and as well, gives us an immediate but subtle sense of duality and arguably, deceit. Scarlett O’Hara herself is the conflict, and that alone presents a whole new breed of hook.

 

Mystery can also be a good approach. Stating something that intrigues a person, yet doesn’t say much at all about what’s happening, can (if done well) propel the reader forward with a strong level of interest. Human beings are, by nature, very curious creatures, and a writer who knows how to strike the precarious balance between not enough information and too much information can carry a reader quite a long way on this tactic alone. A good example that comes to mind which uses this technique is the opening line of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451: “It was a pleasure to burn.” How can you not continue reading something like that?

 

In The Servants of Twilight, Dean Koontz begins with the passage, “It began in sunshine, not on a dark and stormy night.” This is a strong opening for several reasons. First, it’s ominous. By saying, “a dark and stormy night,” we know something bad is going to happen, and we all love it when bad things happen. Second, it’s mysterious. We don’t know what “it” is, and we really shouldn’t care, but somehow, we do, (probably because we know it’s something bad).  The third element of this opening line that strikes me (and probably my favorite part of it), is that it gives the middle finger to the dark and stormy night cliché that so many horror stories depend so heavily on. With this line, Dean Koontz is taking fear to a whole new, far deeper level by telling us (as if we needed to be more afraid) that really horrific things can happen just as likely in the broad daylight as anywhere else. Thank you, Dean Koontz.

 

Shock value, is of course, also an option. Using shock value as an opener is probably the riskiest approach because you chance offending, and thereby losing, the reader right off the bat. In a way, I respect this approach though because if the content of a novel is going to be offensive, at least its author is being respectful enough to let you know upfront. Still, it can’t be said that shock doesn’t do a pretty good job getting, and in the best cases, holding an audience’s attention. The opening of Sabbath’s Theater by Philip Roth is a shining example of that. With the novel’s opening line, “Either forswear fucking others or the affair is over,” we are either immediately hooked, or immediately offended. Whether or not it was Roth’s intention to shock the reader, only he knows, but there’s no denying it’s an eyebrow-raiser. This line, as far as I’m concerned, pretty much has it all: mystery, sex, shock, profanity, and self-confidence; all this in nine words, and with a poetic edge to boot.

 

Regardless of how I choose to begin each story, I have to keep in mind that the first sentence needs to pack a little punch, and that it doesn’t get any easier from there. In my experience, an interested agent will ask to see five to thirty pages of a person’s work in order to determine whether or not a submission is a worthy investment of their time. I recently re-wrote the first four pages of my third manuscript because as I reread it, I realized I’d given the reader very little, if anything at all, to hold onto. My initial intention was to start in the heart of the action, and while this is often times a fine idea, it was, in this case, not working. So I challenged myself to compact as much into the first five pages as I could, while still moving the story forward. In five pages, I tried to reveal a sense of who my character is, what normal life is like for him, and that some kind of conflict is on its way. This, while introducing a couple of characters, laying down a setting without going too heavy on description and detail, and moving the storyline forward at an interesting and engaging pace, without relying on back story and too much exposition, is no easy feat. But it can be done.  

 

In an era when people are tapping their feet, impatiently waiting for the microwave as it heats up their frozen dinner; when folks are rolling their eyes and looking pointedly at their watches in the less than ten seconds it may take while the internet uploads an entire library’s-worth of world history on their computer screens, there’s no time to dawdle. You have fifteen seconds or less to get their attention. Make it count.