I’ve been having trouble writing lately. With college on its last four weeks classes, writing assignments are piling up, so I haven’t had much time for working on my novel. Even when I …
How to begin writing a story? I’ve heard people ask this question so many times on blog sites dedicated to writing, and it always makes me stop and wonder what the bother is all about. But, of course, that sounds like I know what I’m talking about. That I know how to start writing a story, but I’d be leading you up the garden path if I said I really knew. Starting a story isn’t as simple as it sounds, but there’s a way to make the opening sentence the best opening sentence.
Starting a story is basically writing the opening sentence, right? But what should be said in the opening sentence? Whatever you want. Simple. According to K. M. Weiland, however, the opening sentence is your first and last chance to grab your reader’s attention and give them a reason to read your story. Yet, opening lines tend not to be very memorable, says Weiland. Why the seeming contradiction? The fact that you keep reading the book after reading the forgettable opening line, I suspect, says something about the opening sentence.
Weiland says there are four, not three, or two, or one, but four steps to a riveting opening sentence. I want to have a look at some of the books I’ve read, and my own novels and short stories and compare them, and see how well the authors of my favourite reads and I have managed to achieve Weiland’s four steps, or not. The four steps:
- Ask a question, either explicitly or implicitly
- Introduce a character
- Offer (at least) a sense of setting
- Set the tone
Ok, let’s see how well some of my favourite reads and my own stories score.
‘The trawler plunged into the angry swells of the dark, furious sea like an awkward animal trying desperately to break out of an impenetrable swamp.’
The Bourne Identity, Robert Ludlum, 1980
Beginning with Robert Ludlum’s The Bourne Identity, let’s see if it contains all four of Weiland’s ingredients. The short answer is maybe. It doesn’t ask an explicit question, but perhaps a few implicit questions. Why is the trawler plunging into angry swells of a dark, furious sea? Well, that’s what boats do. But perhaps there’s another reason why it’s contesting such seas. Perhaps it’s in a hurry to get somewhere? Like out of the storm. It doesn’t introduce a character, either. Not unless the trawler is considered a character. But no. The trawler is not a character in the story. It offers a sense of setting, though. ‘The angry swells of the dark, furious sea’ is a setting. Perhaps it’s a metaphor? This idea of battling the elements to survive is kind of what happens to the character of Jason Bourne, the protagonist in The Bourne Identity. But this is also the tone of the novel, angry and furious. It sets the tone. So it gets a score of 2.5 out of 4.
Ratking, Michael Dibdin, 1988
Next up is Michael Dibdin’s Ratking, which was made into a successful television series, by the way. I liked it. But then I like good detective stories. However, the opening sentence of Ratking is a sparse statement, indeed. ‘Hello?’ is what people usually say when they answer the phone. Perhaps it’s a question? Is anyone there? But it doesn’t explicitly provide any of the ingredients in Weiland’s list. Not unless ‘Hello?’ sets the tone? And a sense of setting? It is, however, a kind of question, isn’t it? It’s asking if there’s anyone there. And of course, there is. ‘Hello?’ begins a long and fascinating conversation between two characters in Ratking. Ok, so that’s 1.5 out of 4.
Sword Song, Bernard Cromwell, 2007
Next up is Bernard Cornwell’s Sword Song. And another sparse opening sentence. ‘Darkness’ doesn’t ask a question, but certainly sets the tone. A sense of setting too? Perhaps. Darkness is a noun. So maybe darkness asks an implicit question: why isn’t there any light? But it certainly sets the tone. An absence of light is like a metaphor for good and evil, perhaps. So I’ll give it 1.5 out of 4.
‘A Turkish heavyweight boxing champion sauntering down a Hamburg street with his mother on his arm can scarcely be blamed for failing to notice that he is being shadowed by a skinny boy in a black coat.’
A Most Wanted Man, John le Carré, 2008
John le Carré’s A Most Wanted Man asks a few implicit questions. Why is a skinny boy following a Turkish boxer accompanied by his mother? This is a very interesting question, indeed, and one that needs an answer. Almost demands it. It also introduces a character, in fact, three characters: the Turkish boxer, his mother, and a skinny boy. A Hamburg Street is the setting. The tone is one of mystery, and a touch of suspense.
‘It has been eighty-three years since the last thinking machines were destroyed in the Battle of Corrin, after which Faykan Butler took the name Corrino and established himself as the first Emperor of a new Imperium.’
Sisterhood of Dune, Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson, 2012
The Sisterhood of Dune by Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson does ask an implicit question or two. If you want to know why it is 83 years after the last thinking machines were destroyed, then this is a question that needs an answer. But why Faykan Butler named himself after a battle – the Battle of Corrino – and declared himself the first Emperor of the new Imperium are also legitimate questions. It introduces a character, Faykan Butler. The setting is suggested in the palace of the Emperor, if there is one. The tone is serious and political.
To avoid the appearance of sexism – choosing only male authors to review – here are five female authors whose writing I also enjoy.
‘She woke in the dark.’
Naked in Death, J. D. Robb, 1995
Naked in Death by J. D. Robb generates implicit questions. Why is it dark? It’s similar to Bernard Cornwell’s Sword Song, isn’t. Where is the light? But it doesn’t explicitly introduce a character, only a ‘she’. A she can be a character, of course. But it’s almost a disembodied she; just gendered. A bedroom is implied as the setting: she woke. The tone is serious and a tad spooky.
‘Benton Wesley was taking off his running shoes in the kitchen when I ran into him, my heart tripping over fear and hate and remembered horror.’
Point of Origin, Patricia Cornwell, 1998
Point of Origin by Patricia Cornwell, certainly asks an implicit question. Written in the first person, we want to know why the character’s heart skips a beat in fear and hate, and why they remember horror at the sight of Benton Wesley. And just who the hell is Benton Wesley? It introduces the speaker and another character, Benton Wesley. The setting is a kitchen; a home, perhaps. And the tone is dark: shock and horror.
‘England, at last, in view: a small harbour settlement crouched on the shoreline.’
The Queen’s Sorrow, Suzannah Dunn, 2008
The Queen’s Sorrow, by Suzannah Dunn, asks an implicit question or two. Why is England being seen as a small harbour settlement? It’s a historical view, undoubtedly. And who is viewing this historical England, and why? It is written in the first person, implied by the invisible viewer. Unless England is the character, it is implied. A viewer is implied by the angle. The setting is the sea, or the coastline. The tone is serious and affecting – the sight of historical England as a settlement would have been a view to evoke wonder.
‘When Elena told people she was a vampire hunter, their first reaction was an inevitable gasp, followed by, “You go around sticking those sharp stakes in their evil putrid hearts?”’
Angel’s Blood, Nalini Singh, 2009
Angel’s Blood, by Nalini Singh, asks implicit and explicit questions. Why, for instance, is the speaker a vampire hunter? And why does she/he get an incredulous response? And why does she/he tell people they’re a vampire hunter? Written in the third person, it introduces Elena, a vampire hunter. The sense of a setting is seems a social event, like a party. The tone is playful, but with an underlying seriousness. Killing vampires is serious business.
‘She sits, this odd trophy of war, as neat as an obedient child, on a small stool in the corner of her cell.’
The Lady of the Rivers, Phillipa Gregory, 2011
Phillipa Gregory’s The Lady of the Rivers, asks a few implicit questions. Who is this trophy of war? And why does she sit on a stool? And why is she, a child no less, in a cell? An invisible ‘she’ is introduced – a prisoner of war. The setting is a prison cell. The tone is serious and grave, and political.
And now, as promised, the opening sentences in my novels and one short story.
‘For Dr Ryndeel Drinns, sitting around waiting to be interviewed for a job was not her idea of fun, even if it was for her dream job.’
Reciprocity, Robert M. Easterbrook, 2012
In Reciprocity, I ask a few implicit questions. Who is Dr Ryndeel Drinns? Why is she waiting to be interviewed for a job? Don’t doctors have jobs? Why does she want a new job? If she already has one. What she imagines will be the result of the interview? Being her dream job she probably expects to be successful; she’d be making extra effort to get it. It introduces the main character, Dr Ryndeel Drinns. The setting is a passageway outside an interview room in a corporate-like building. The tone is serious and testy, and a touch intrigue.
‘Vidocq Verone sat in the charcoal-grey darkness of his Pajero, as he’d done many times, and wondered whether tonight would be any different from the other nights he spent out here on the lookout for high strangeness.’
The Directive, Robert M. Easterbrook, 2013
In The Directive, I ask several implicit questions. Who is Vidocq Verone? Why is he sitting in the dark in his car? Why does he regularly do this? And why is he waiting to see high strangeness? The main character is introduced, Vidocq Verone, a Private Investigator. The setting is night, and a lonely country road in the bush. The tone is weird, spooky and serious.
‘The dark, starry dome above the city of Xintito was alive with the language of battle.’
The Subjugation, Robert M. Easterbrook, 2013
In The Subjugation, I ask a few implicit questions. Who is fighting whom? And why? I don’t introduce a main character, as much as a city – though it introduces one the minor characters indirectly. The setting is a city, Xintito, and the space above. The tone is serious and grave, and perhaps hopeless.
‘Ocean Thyme and her girlfriend, Jacinta Fleming, cheered for their favourite Roller Derby team like there’d always be days like this.’
Ocean Thyme, Robert M. Easterbrook, 2014-15
In Ocean Thyme, I ask a few implicit questions. Who is Ocean Thyme? Why does she have a girlfriend? What’s Roller Derby? Why do the girls think there may not be happy, celebratory days, like this, in the future? I introduce the main character (Ocean) and a minor character (Jacinta). The setting is a Roller Derby event. The tone is happy and celebratory, and a tad curious.
‘Arriving at Aestralus 13, the Intrepid B dropped out of hyperspace.’
Aestralus 13, a short story, Robert M. Easterbrook, 2012
In my short story, Aestralus 13, I ask a few implicit questions. What is the Intrepid B? What is Aestralus 13? And why is the Intrepid B going to Aestralus 13? It does not introduce any character(s), but implies there are; they’re in the Intrepid B spaceship and on the planet, Aestralus 13. The setting is the space around Aestralus 13. The tone is serious and mysterious.
As you can see by the above examples, the opening sentence is anything but straightforward. And, few people seem to strive to do what Weiland suggests. Not that what she says in wrong, far from it. Just that the opening sentence can be written for any number of reasons. Robert Ludlum emphasised the stormy sea as a metaphor. Dibdin emphasised the drama of an opening statement in a phone call, the prelude to an extraordinary conversation. Cornwell emphasised a thing: darkness, as illusion. Le Carré emphasised a peculiar situation. Herbert and Anderson emphasised an imperial moment. Robb emphasised a spooky moment. Patricia Cornwell emphasised the darkness of humans: fear and horror. Dunn emphasised the wonder of an historical moment. Singh emphasised dark humour. Gregory emphasised the grave and dispirited. I have emphasised anticipation (Dr Drinns waiting to be interviewed), expectation (Verone is waiting to see high strangeness), desperation (the battle for Xintito), happiness (Ocean and her girlfriend at the Roller Derby event), and intrigue (the Intrepid B arrives at Aestralus 13).
But whatever the reason for writing a particular opening sentence, a certain amount of care should be given to its nature and content. Weiland is right, I think, in that unless there is a question, explicit or other, in the opening sentence, the reader may not be so easily hooked and keep reading. And the hook is another tale altogether.
When I’m writing novels and short stories, I create a soundtrack for the book to get inspired. This one’s for Ocean Thyme, a paranormal/crime story.
01 Ghosts 1/ Nine Inch Nails/ Ghosts I-IV
02 Ghosts 2/ Nine Inch Nails/ Ghosts I-IV
A New Day/ Nit Project/ Mx Lullabies
Adrift/ Desiderii Marginis/ Procession
Afraid of Time/ Hans Zimmer/ Interstellar OMS
Binary Awakening – Original Mix/ Nanoplex/ The Billion Dollar Brain
Broken Hands After Mozart Sonata No.12 F-Dur/ Annette Focks/ Night Train to Lisbon OMS
Chasing Shadows/ Atticus Ross, Claudia Sarne & Leopold Ross/ Broken City OMS
Come Ruin and Rapture/ Desiderii Marginis/ Procession
Day One/ Hans Zimmer/ Interstellar OMS
Divuit-Cinc/ Nit Project/ Mx Lullabies
Juga Amb Mi/ Nit Project/ Història Sobre Blanc Bso
Land of Strangers/ Desiderii Marginis/ Procession
Left Alone/ Atticus Ross, Claudia Sarne & Leopold Ross/ Broken City OMS
Missing Pieces/ Atticus Ross, Claudia Sarne & Leopold Ross/ Broken City OMS
Relapsed/ Atticus Ross, Claudia Sarne & Leopold Ross/ Broken City OMS
Running Out/ Atticus Ross, Claudia Sarne & Leopold Ross/ Broken City OMS
Secrets of The Future Past/ Desiderii Marginis/ That Which Is Tragic And Timeless
Silence Will Stop Our Hearts/ Desiderii Marginis/ Seven Sorrows
Silent Messenger/ Desiderii Marginis/ Procession
Stolen Silence/ Desiderii Marginis/ That Which Is Tragic And Timeless
The Tarmac At Munich/ John Williams/ Munich OMS
There’s a Light/ Nit Project/ Mx Lullabies
Untitled/ Desiderii Marginis/ Seven Sorrows
We often hear that someone or other has been abducted by an ET and the event called an ‘abduction’, and rightly so. To take someone against their will is an abduction. The person is not asked first whether they want to be taken from their bed while asleep, while driving their car, or returning home from a long weekend. Furthermore, in some cases, people claim they underwent a medical examination during their abduction, taken to see another planet, or told a story about planet Earth. The medical examination was said to be highly traumatizing. For some people, they are thoroughly unhinged. This paints a thoroughly unethical picture of ETs. Some people, however, are not ‘abducted’, so they claim, and say they willing allow themselves to be taken by the ET, wherever ET wants to take them and whenever the ET calls. How true it is that people initially willingly go with an ET is something that needs to be verified. I’m going to try here. Regardless, such people have had an experience, both physical and psychological – being taken will cause psychological affects, whether pleasant or unpleasant. Some say they have a pleasant experience, while many say they have an unpleasant experience. I don’t know the percentages, but I know I’ve read more accounts of unpleasant than pleasant experiences. Either way, such people have been labelled ‘abductees’, if taken without permission, while the others, as they haven’t yet been labelled, I will call them ‘consenters’, because they claim they willing go with an ET when beckoned. Why they willingly go is an irresistible question, but that’s another story.
What really happens when an ET visits someone in the middle of the night? As I discuss this issue I will use the generic ‘ET’ to refer to all visitors to Earth (until provided evidence to the contrary – if we’re not talking about ETs, we’re talking about something else). And in discussing the psychological events associated with visiting ETs, I will only discuss the highly controversial experience of telepathy. The presence of ETs physically and telepathically on Earth is viewed as an arrogant, intrusive act on the part of ETs. And this highlights an important issue with ETs that in my opinion goes unacknowledged in Ufology circles, that of ethics.
Rich Hoffman recently reported on a shift in MUFON, for instance, where in the above scenarios the emphasis will not be on the ET side of the event but on the human side. Instead of saying an ET physically took someone, whether willingly or not, the emphasis will be on the human having some kind of experience. All types of experiences (discussed below) will result in the person being re-classified an ‘experiencer’, whether or not their experience is a happy one. I will discuss only three.
The shift in focus from the ET to the human is meant be an attempt at being ‘politically correct’, says Rich Hoffman. But is it? I don’t think so. If someone is taken against their will then they are an ‘abductee’, they’ve been abducted. Pure and simple. If someone is ‘contacted’ by an ET, then they are a ‘contactee’. Sure. I accept that. But being contacted is problematic too, and here’s why. Normally, when we talk about being contacted by someone we talk about the manner of the contact, e.g. by phone, by email, by letter, or indirectly through another person. For example, John makes contact with Susan through Margaret. One example of being ‘contacted’ by an ET in a conventional manner would be this: an ET knocks on your door and says he’s from the star Vega, he was in the neighbourhood and just wanted to introduce himself. This is an incidence of being contacted. Exaggerated on not. But this is an instance of being contacted in a conventional, acceptable manner. Though some people might say if the ET knocked on their door, they’d think they were salesmen or something, and not view it as polite. Being contacted by an ET, however, is often far from conventional.
So there are three main types of experience being discussed here. 1) Being taken against your will. 2) Being invited to go with an ET. 3) Being contacted by an ET, directly or indirectly, and the manner of the contact. Why would you classify the first event as merely an experience, rather than what it is, an abduction? Being abducted – an abduction; being contacted – a contactee. Why would you classify someone who’s been abducted against their will as someone who merely experienced something? MUFON is trying to be politically correct, and mishandling it. By saying the abductee is an ‘experiencer’, in my view, makes it easier to reduce the abduction experience to a psychological event rather than a physical one. In this way, MUFON can be inclusive when investigating events out of the ‘normal’ and into the ‘para-normal’. I think this is going beyond the realm of reason and the rational to the irrational and the fantastical. If MUFON thinks the UFO phenomena is beyond the ‘normal’ then it will end up in a bog with no way out. Placing UFO phenomenon in the realm of the paranormal places it in the realm of the uninvestigable. It is impossible to sensibly investigate the paranormal.
But I’m not so concerned here with labels and classifying, though I’ve done that and discuss it elsewhere. What I’m concerned with is the manner of these experiences. And why we shouldn’t merely label them all simply ‘experiences’. If an ET comes into your house at 3am to make ‘contact’ with you, it is not an incidence of being ‘contacted’, in my view, in a conventional manner. It’s an incidence of home invasion. The ET was not invited. The ET has violated your sovereignty; invaded your privacy, even if the ET seems polite and friendly as she takes you against your will on an air-conditioned journey to the planet Saturn to observe the beauty of Saturn’s rings. This event is at best problematic. Why?
The problem of ET abduction and contact is ethics. This is what is missing from the discussion of ET abduction and ET contact. Ethics is the study of moral values and rules (principles). It is also a system of principles governing morality and acceptable conduct (behaviour). The principles that govern behaviour. The ethics of ET abduction is obvious: taking someone against their will is wrong, pure and simple. The ethics of ET contact is not so obvious, if ‘conventional’: an ET comes knocking on your door, do you invite a stranger into your house, even if they’re from Alpha Centauri?
“An ethical dilemma is a complex situation that often involves an apparent mental conflict between moral imperatives, in which to obey one would result in transgressing another.”
Source: Wikipedia, Free Encyclopedia.
If an ET is an ethical being, they will have a system of principles governing morality and acceptable behaviour, similar to humans, maybe even superior to humans. I don’t think they are morally superior, by the way, and I’ll show why. Firstly, an ET should respect the rights of human beings, just as humans should respect the rights of ETs. Right? But it’s not always clear cut. It isn’t always obvious that ETs respect our rights, even at the best of times. Let me explain, by way of examples. An ET drops in on Arizona, flies around the state in his sporty spacecraft a few hours and while doing so sees a lone driver heading south on highway 285 and decides to follow him for 15 minutes before zipping off home or to some other place.
Has the ET shown that they are ethical in the above scenario? The answer is no, not really. Firstly, the ET has violated a few of Arizona’s laws, if not the laws of the entire USA. The ET has breached Arizona’s air space and flown Arizona’s skies without permission. They have caused aircraft in the area to take evasive action, jeopardizing plane and passengers. Secondly, the ET has spooked the hell outta some guy on the 285. Intruding in the driver’s ‘personal space’ has caused the driver some concern, caused the driver to drive cautiously, if not erratically, jeopardizing his car and his safety, if not that of other drivers on highway 285.
We can use a few true historical events to emphasize the point. In 1961, Betty and Barney Hill were allegedly abducted while driving home on Interstate Route 3 from a long weekend in Montreal. In 1986, Japan Air Lines flight 1628 en route to Tokyo from Paris was forced to change its altitude and flight path dramatically to avoid a collision with a large UFO. In 2006, O’Hare International Airport, Chicago, was buzzed by a disc-shaped object causing pilots to take usual steps to avoid a collision. Here are just three historical events involving ETs. Firstly, the ETs breached New Hampshire’s airspace, breached airspace somewhere between Paris and Tokyo, and breached Illinois’s airspace. Secondly, the airspace breach put lives at risk.
In each case of airspace violation, the ET did more than breach our laws and ethical principles. The ET committed a criminal offence. If I fly my turboprop Dornier 228 through New Hampshire’s airspace at 2am in the morning without permission, I’m quite sure I’ll be confronted with more than dark skies. I’ll have broken the law, and the US Air Force will intercept me with some angry F-16s and force me to land at the nearest airport and arrest me. Entering a sovereign state’s airspace without permission is a criminal offence. ETs are clearly not behaving ethically when they breach the airspace of sovereign nations on Earth without express permission. Even if invited to by the local ET Contact Team.
In abducting Betty and Barney Hill, the ET did more than breach their value system. The ET committed a criminal offence. But, how does one arrest and prosecute an ET? The same way a sovereign nation prosecutes a non-citizen who has committed a crime within their sovereign borders. The ET’s behaviour presents us with an ethical dilemma. It also makes us question the ET’s ethical principles if not their value system. By breaching the air space of sovereign states, the ET has shown disregard for the laws of humans. In abducting people, the ET has shown scant regard for human value systems. This is a problem.
If humans are inviting ETs to come visit, they are inadvertently showing scant regard for others, if not the laws of the sovereign state or country where they live. If the ET accepts the invitation to come visit by, say, an ET Contact Team, for instance, the ET will violate the air space of whatever sovereign state the ET Contact Team is camped eagerly awaiting the crafts appearance. Even if someone wants an ET to come and speak with them, in order for the ET to visit, the ET will invariably breach the immigration laws of whatever sovereign country the person making the invitation resides eagerly awaiting the arrival of the ET from some far-off star system (or dimension). The ET may bring unwanted pathogens that may harm humans, and that would be disastrous.
Aside from personal invitations to ETs to physically visit, there is also the problem of telepathic communication. Say an ET decides to telepathically communicate his existence to someone in the early hours of Monday morning, say around 3am. Has the ET violated that person’s ‘mental’ space? If the telepathy is unsolicited, the ET has breached the person’s sovereignty, as well as their privacy. Uncalled for telepathy presents us an even greater ethical dilemma than breaching a sovereign state’s airspace, jeopardizing air planes and their passengers. Even if seemingly less intrusive. There’s the psychiatric side, which I won’t discuss here but you can imagine the effect. And that resides in the realm of psychiatry and psychology to manage, and not MUFON.
Interfering in a human’s life (without their express permission) is a breach of that person’s sovereignty. Doing so is unethical; an immoral act. Whether it is non-violent or violent. Unless the person has given the ET permission to invade their personal space and life, then the person, state, country, etc, hasn’t given the ET the right to do anything. If ETs are ethically principled, as we assume them to be, then their behaviour toward humans should be respectful. If it isn’t, then we have grounds to question ET ethics. Just like we claim the right to question the ethics of every other human on planet Earth when they do things we find objectionable.
Categorizing someone an ‘experiencer’ does not address the issue of ethics. It merely re-categorizers someone, perhaps with a hidden agenda. Has any ‘experiencer’ really, honestly, invited an ET to physically breach their sovereignty? Does Dr. Greer realise what he does when he invites ETs to visit him and his ET Contact Team? He is inviting ETs to break the law. Whether intentionally or not, Dr. Greer invites ETs to also behave unethically. He forces an ethical dilemma on the ET. If the ET is an ethical being living by ethical principles, then the ET’s ethics are being compromised by Greer’s ET Contact Team simple because his Team is inviting the ET to visit (without going through the proper channels). Dr. Greer, in fact, forces an ethical dilemma on us all when he invites us to make contact with ETs. Perhaps ‘contactees’ do the same when they personally invite an ET to visit. If they do, that is.
Some people will scoff at my questioning ET ethics. But by doing so, they will have missed the point. As ethical beings, we should question the ethics of everyone in the universe, not because it’s arrogant but because it’s the right thing to do. If an ET enters your life without your permission, telepathically sending you messages or physically entering your home without your permission, intent on taking you for an unauthorized medical examination, the ET has behaved badly. If the ET behaves badly then they cannot expect us to show them any respect. We frown on humans who behave badly, if criminally, we incarcerate them, so why should we smile if an ET does the same things? What would you do if a human stranger entered your house in the middle of the night? I bet you’d call the police, or take out your .38 and make a citizen’s arrest.
So how can ETs ethically endear themselves to us? By sharing their technology? No. That’s commerce, and commerce is rarely ethical. ETs must show they respect our sovereign right to be politely contacted, whether through old technology, an open letter, or some other polite way of introducing themselves. If you say I’m being rude, you’ve completely missed the point and don’t understand ethics. So far, the ethical track record of ETs hasn’t been all that good. Show me an instance of an ET being ethical?
If you say ETs are morally superior to humans and therefore deserve our respect without question, you better provide evidence that ETs are morally superior. If you want me to agree with you, that is. If you say ET technology makes them morally superior, you’re delusional. That’s exactly the thinking of the world’s superpowers. The world’s superpowers are militarily and technologically superior, and often say (to weaker nations – even to each other), that they are morally superior and just in their stance toward weaker nations say so show us respect or else. This a form of neuroticism. And some UFO-believers show deference to ETs purely because they’re technologically superior. That is questionable behaviour.
My feeling is that we have put ourselves and ETs in a tight spot by openly inviting or indirectly inviting ETs to visit, we force ETs to comprise their ethics. By wilfully breaching our ethical codes, ETs have demonstrated they can be capricious, mean-minded, and stupid. Whether it is deliberate or not, is difficult to know because they don’t communicate in conventional ways. If deliberate, their ethics are questionable. If not, then ETs are ethical beings but are for some reason breaking theirs and our ethical principles. We’ve seen how they can be violent and stupid. We’ve also seen how they can be enigmatic. I think ETs are as fascinated by us as we are of them. But let’s not ignore ethics as we investigate, study, and invite ETs to interact with us. And by no means give them the impression that they are morally superior to us just because they possess more exotic technology and have engineered their way among the stars or dimensions.
What makes the first chapter (in a novel) so interesting? Well, according to K. M. Weiland, there are five ingredients that make up the first chapter in a novel (reduced to three main ones, discussed later). I’d like to show these now, because I, for one, have had great trouble (so far) putting all these ingredients together in the first chapters of my novels. But I think I’ve managed to include most of them (so far). But there’s this niggling feeling that I haven’t been as obvious, perhaps; made the five ingredients blatantly obvious, I should say, in my opening chapters as Weiland suggests, implied in this list of important ingredients:
- Does the chapter contain the all-important hook?
- Does the chapter contain enough background and setup to orient the readers?
- Does the chapter contain the opening event – that first domino that kicks off the plot?
- Does the chapter contain action of some sort to engage readers?
- Does the chapter contain conflict and stakes?
Given that I haven’t discussed any of these issues (e.g. all-important hook, background, setup, opening events, action, conflict and stakes) on my blog, Weiland discusses them nicely in Structuring Your Novel, I won’t assume you (the reader) know and understand what they are and what they mean. Maybe you do, but you have a slightly different, maybe even very different, interpretation of what the ingredients are or should be (or even be able to recognise them when you see them).
The hook is … what gets the reader to keep reading the novel.
The background is … the information that contextualises the story.
The setup is … the thing that makes you want to care about the character (I suppose) and keep reading.
The opening event is … the catalyst for the story to move forward.
The action is … the thing that happens in the opening chapter that drives the plot forward.
The conflict is … the thing the character contends with, e.g. him or herself, nature, another person
The stakes are … what the character will gain or lose by reacting or responding to the event that is the catalyst for the story.
Let’s look at the opening chapter of Martin Booth’s A very private gentleman. I’m not going to say ‘spoilers! Turn away now!’ because this is an exercise in understanding, or, at least, I hope it is, of what Weiland means by including those important ingredients – listed above – in novel-writing. I’m not reproducing the novel in its entirety, which would be pointless, meaningless and, not to forget, illegal. This exercise is concerned with confirming what Weiland suggests is important for writers to get right, if they want to write good novels, and something writers should aim for in their novel-writing. That’s all I’m hoping to point out here.
The ‘hook’ in the opening chapter to Martin Booth’s A very private gentleman is not so obvious – if you don’t take my word for it and read the opening chapter (if you haven’t already and remember what it says). For me, the ‘hook’ doesn’t come until the end of the chapter. The reader must wade through a strange story about something they don’t expect to be in the opening chapter – e.g. ‘a small cave high up a precipice’. If the reader finds the opening chapter interesting enough to compel them to continue reading until they learn why Booth’s character, ‘Signor Farfalla’, is telling this strange story in the opening chapter. But, I think the opening chapter is very interesting. And in fact, I think the opening chapter serves as a great setup – point number three in the list above. The odd story in the opening chapter makes sense when you read the hook at the end.
There is hardly any background information. In my opinion. The opening chapter doesn’t blatantly provide background to the story. What it does is, by way of an analogy, provide a crumb about the character. It sets up the character more than it sets up the story. But as an analogy, you instantly get an insight into what the story might be about. Is it a strong hook? It was tantalising enough to cause me to keep reading, but that was me. Other people may have a different response to it. And if you get it, the ‘setup’, you’re hooked, and want to read on. It’s subtle; not obvious.
There is no opening event. Like I said, the character tells this odd story about something he did in the past (e.g. ‘I have been there’), but it holds implications for the present (e.g. ‘anything is possible where faith is concerned’). It’s not an obvious analogy with the character’s life, but you can draw that conclusion based on the sentence that contains the ‘hook’: ‘I should know’.
There is no action. Except in the story being told by the character about ‘a small cave’. The action is in the odd story (e.g. ‘it is very difficult to reach’). It is something he did to achieve a personal goal, of sorts – e.g. traversing a mountainous path that requires skill and dexterity or the person might slip and die, kind of thing. Like proving to himself he can do it, but should he have done it? Who’s to say?
The conflict, however, is in the odd story the character tells about the thing he did (e.g. ‘not an outing for the feint-hearted’). Is he contending with the forces of nature (e.g. ‘it is not an outing for the faint-hearted’), whether that be actual nature (e.g. a difficult to reach place because it’s high on a dangerous precipice), or the forces of nature in people (e.g. ‘a test of one’s faith’).
The stakes are what the character will gain or lose by doing something, or responding to something. Whatever it is that compelled the character to do the thing in the odd, opening story, ‘not an outing for the faint-hearted’, says something about the character. That he is willing to do things that other people might find frightening, be unwilling to do. And this immediately makes the reader wonder what it is that the character is willing to do, where he’s willing to go that many people would shy away from going or be too afraid to do. It piques the reader’s curiosity. Well, it did mine. But the gain for the character is perhaps some kind of absolution – he seeks a damn good reason for not doing this thing, for not going to this place. And if he does, who will absolve him of the sin of doing this thing, or of going to this place? If it is a sin? A test of his faith that what he does is what he should be doing, even if it he dies doing it.
It seems that, from just this one example, Weiland’s five ingredients she recommends should go into opening chapters are not always obvious and so blatant that the reader will see them like signposts on a highway, or the sun on a sunny day.
Let’s look at the opening chapter to my novel The Subjugation.
What is the hook in the first chapter? It is found in the sentence expressing Mertinus’s hope that ‘Lledumar’s finest would help turn the tide’. Did he ask them to help? A battle is raging for control of Xinar, the Cuian homeworld. The Hrexan have laid siege to Xinar, and ‘If it wasn’t stopped it would extend, beyond the quadrant, to the shores of Lake Florian on Lled’. Will the Cuians lose the battle? Will the Lledumar come to their rescue?
What is the background in the chapter? It is that ‘It wasn’t like they hadn’t suffered attacks from the Hrexan before this’. The Cuians have been attacked by the Hrexan before – the Hrexan have a history of attacking the Cuains, and others in the quadrant.
What is the set up? It is that the character, Titrius Mertinus, ‘prayed most that the Lledumar would agree to a military pact’. Will the Lledumar agree? Mertinus thinks that if the Hrexan aren’t stopped – the Cuians seem to be barely holding the Hrexan at bay – the battle for Xinar, if lost, ‘would extend, beyond the quadrant, to the shores of Lake Florian on Lled’. Lled is the homeworld of the Lledumar, their neighbours. He’s sent the Lledumar a request to agree to join them in repelling the Hrexan or, if the Cuians lose, the Hrexan will soon be on their doorstep. The reader, I hope, will be interested enough to keep reading, and find out whether the Cuians lose, or the Lledumar agree to fight for the Cuians.
The opening event is the battle for Xinar. A battle is raging in the skies above Xintito, the capital city of Xinar on the Cuian homeworld.
The action is seen in ‘the speckle of fireflies on the edge of the translucent dome’. It’s an analogy. The ‘speckle of fireflies’ are the Hrexan bombardments ‘on the edge of the translucent dome’. The translucent dome is the protective shield the Cuians have erected to keep the Hrexan out. The Hrexan are bombarding it, trying to weaken it and eventually destroy it, if possible.
There is also action in Mertinus’s prayers and litany recitations. He prays for the Lledumar to agree to fight, and recites a litany against fear so he can bear up under the stress and fear of death, and the possible destruction of the Cuians.
The conflict is a physical one. The Hrexan have laid siege to Xinar, the Cuian homeworld. The Cuians are on the defensive, hoping to defend themselves against ‘A fearful spectacle never before seen by the Cuians or anyone else in this quadrant’. A war is being waged against the Cuians. Is war being waged against anyone else?
What is at stake? The Cuians will lose their lives, if they lose the battle for Xinar, their freedom, if they live. So the stakes are high. The Cuians must win the war, at all costs. Mertinus feels that they will surely lose if their neighbours, the Lledumar, do not agree to fight for them. So he prays hard for them to agree, and while he waits for word of their agreement, he recites the litany against fear.
In some respects, I have tried to include Weiland’s five important ingredients in the opening chapter of The Subjugation. My novel, though, is very different from Martin Booth’s novel. My novel is a Sci-fi/crime novel – I try to combine Science fiction with crime, or vice versa (e.g. The Directive). Martin Booth’s novel is a crime story, about a character, though some people categorise it a ‘psychological suspense thriller’. My novel opens with a war, while Booth’s opens with an analogy about doing things that others may fear to do. Booth’s novel is told from the first-person perspective, that of the main character, whereas mine is told from multiple perspectives, many characters. My novel is set in a galactic context, while Booth’s is set on Earth in the mountainous region of northern Italy. My novel opens with a struggle for survival, between whole civilisations, whereas Booth’s novel opens with one character’s personal struggle with a conscience. Both novels achieve a certain level of tension in the opening chapter. Perhaps one character’s struggle with a conscience is less dramatic than the tension created by a full-on planetary siege. But the personal conflicts each character faces, presented in each opening chapter (e.g. Signor Farfalla faces a personal fear; Titrius Mertinus faces physical death) are not all that different – ‘Signor Farfalla’ could conceivably be facing a life and death situation, depending on whether his unique set of skills lets him do what he does (to protect himself) or someone can give him a good reason to stop doing what he does (and give in), and Titrius Mertinus faces death or life, depending on whether the protective shield holds and/or the Lledumar agree to come to their rescue and fight.
Weiland brings it all back to three main ingredients for opening chapters: character, action, setting. If your story manages to include all these ingredients in the opening chapter, you will succeed in creating a great opening chapter. But will it achieve its purpose? Depends on the story. In my humble opinion. I would not like to presume that any or all of these ingredients should be in an opening chapter, just that your opening chapter achieves the goal of drawing readers into the story (review the five ingredients listed above).
I mean, Booth’s opening chapter begins with the main character telling a short story. Booth isn’t obviously talking about Signor Farfalla – it’s Signor Farfalla telling a short story. Getting Signor Farfalla to tell a short story isn’t providing a lot of opening chapter action. And as to setting: it’s not obvious that having the main character tell a short story is providing some setting. However, having the Signor Farfalla tell the short story subtly introduces the main character – the main character is telling a short story about himself.
The Subjugation, on the other hand, introduces a minor character with Titrius Mertinus. Mertinus is not the main character, as it were. Because the story is told from multiple perspectives, there are several ‘main’ characters. The four ‘main’ characters are the civilizations battling for survival and/or dominance: the Cuians, the Lledumar, the Jannaxians, and the Hrexan. Each of these groups has a lead character whose existence and actions drive the plot forward. The story may begin with the Cuians, but it ends with the Lledumar. The story is really about the Lledumar. But I had to create a situation in which a catalyst would emerge for what happens to the Lledumar. And war provides the context or background, if you will. Without this war, there is no story, really. Well, told from any one of the characters’ point of view might create a slightly different story. So, in essence, I have provided all three ingredients (see above) in the opening chapter to The Subjugation. Two civilizations battling it out (the Cuians and the Hrexan), two characters (Mertinus vs Blexro), one of which indirectly introduces the ‘protagonist’ (Mertinus introduces the Lledumar – the ‘protagonist’), the other is the ‘antagonist’ (the Hrexan), and a setting, a war started by the Hrexan. The twist in the story is … something you’ll have to discover by reading the story. 😉
In NARRATIVE & DIALOGUE [AN AUTHOR’S VIEW] I talked about dialogue, but I gave only a few examples. And these were taken out of context. I mean, I took just one character’s response, but did not show it as part of the conversational exchange between two characters (or more). The examples were one-sided responses. They didn’t show why the character responded the way they did. Didn’t show the dynamics of conversational exchange. I’d now like to show the context; the conversational exchanges in more detail.
Here’s an exchange between Cardinal Maffeo Barberini and Galileo Galilee, in Kim Stanley Robinson’s wonderful novel Galileo’s Dream:
‘I wish I had been able to bring enough of them with me to leave one with you as a gift, Your Eminence, but I was only allowed a small trunk for baggage.’
Barberini nodded at this awkwardness. ‘I understand,’ he murmured as he looked through the glass. ‘Seeing through yours is enough, for now, and more than enough. Although I do want one, it is true. It’s simply amazing how much you can see.’ He pulled back to look at Galileo. ‘It’s odd – you wouldn’t think that more could be held there for the eye, in distant things, than we already see.’
‘No, it’s true. We must admit that our senses don’t convey everything to us, not even in the sensible world.’
They looked through it at the distant hills east of Rome, and the cardinal marveled and clapped him on the shoulder in the manner of any other man.
‘You have given us new worlds,’ he said.
‘The seeing of them, anyway,’ Galileo corrected him, to seem properly humble.
‘And how do the Peripatetics take it? And the Jesuits?’
Galileo tipped his head side to side. ‘They are none too pleased, Your Grace.’
Barberini laughed. He had been trained by the Jesuits, but he did not like them, Galileo saw; and so Galileo continued, ‘There are some of them who refuse to look through the glass at all. One of them recently died, and as I said at the time, since he would not look at the stars through my glass, he could now inspect them from up close, on his way past them to Heaven!’
This charming exchange between Galileo and Cardinal Barberini concerns Galileo’s occhialino or telescope. Well his occhialino was the prototype telescope, and was eventually named so. This particular exchange begins with Galileo and ends with him. But the conversation is about Galileo’s occhialino, which Galileo had wished he could have brought as a gift for the Cardinal. Galileo indicates his respect for Cardinal with ‘Your Eminence’, showing deference to someone like a Cardinal. Galileo did not see himself as equal with the Cardinal, though he was clearly more intellectual than the Cardinal.
The Cardinal, on the other hand, sees Galileo’s frustration at being forced to travel light, causing him to carry just one occhialino, and no more, as an awkwardness. Something Galileo had to bear. Seeing it as an awkwardness is fascinating. The Cardinal is quite content to see through Galileo’s occhialino, though he’d like one for himself, to own. Then he discusses the experience of seeing the distant objects up close and being amazed at it. And Galileo confirms the nature of reality, but also suggests humans need to admit this aspect as something occurring in the ‘sensible world’. As if there is another world that may be less sensible. And the Cardinal agrees.
However, this is the world Galileo has found himself in. A contrary and disbelieving world when it comes to the nature of reality. Galileo contests the beliefs of the Church to his detriment. The Cardinal reminds him of this by asking what the response of the Peripatetics and Jesuits was to his occhialino and how it could reveal worlds unseen to the naked eye. Barberini appears to dislike the Peripatetics and the Jesuits, and picking up on this, Galileo indulges in a moment of levity and tells Barberini about something he’d said to a Jesuit about unseen worlds, ironically unaware that the Jesuit was near death’s door.
Here’s an exchange from Reciprocity (2012) Parts 1 & 2, between Ellura Strinarr and two agents sent by Alton Rhizikh to hire Strinarr to find something for him:
Eaddeann, the shorter of the two and stocky one, looked at her truffle specimens and carefully examined them. He soon asked in a skittish voice: ‘Are these the Terfezia truffle?’
She watched him roll a small dark object the size of a small potato with the fingers of one hand. He felt the leathery texture, and smelled the pungent aroma. His nose must have twitched as he smelt a strong earthy aroma because he rubbed his nose. Did it remind him of something from his childhood?
‘Ah, no; they’re not,’ Strinarr said. She looked quickly but cautiously from the short stocky one, Eaddeann, to the thin and tall, Deygaan.
Deygaan looked at Eaddeann, and Eaddeann looked at Deygaan. And then they both looked at Strinarr.
Well, well, well; they’re after the Terfezia, Strinarr mused in sun-peaking-through-thick-cloud realisation.
The truffle’s reputation has spread far and wide. The few that have been found have quickly gained a reputation as being the crème de la crème of the truffle kingdom. But how that had happened, she was at a loss to know. She hadn’t bothered to search for them herself; where they might be found is a long way from home. Besides, she was content with her market niche, which had grown over the years. She’d been enticed on many an occasion, though, to go in search of the elusive gold, so nicknamed locally because of their colour; the colour of gold.
Deygaan, the taller of the two, spoke quickly, said: ‘We are after those truffles. Yes. Do you know where we can acquire them?’ He added as quickly: ‘We,’ gesturing swiftly at Eaddeann and himself, ‘are willing to pay handsomely for them.’ Quickly glancing at Eaddeann, who’d done the same with what looked like a nervous twitch, and then returned his gaze to Strinarr.
‘Oh, I see. Well…’ she began, nervously laughing and clapping her hands together. The sound carried aloft by a gentle breeze. Thinking quickly, she didn’t want them to think she couldn’t get them, hastily said: ‘I don’t have any of the Terfezia, at the moment.’ She hoped they’d believe that she could get them as if they could simply be gotten in Amal’s beautiful countryside. If the price is right, anything was possible.
In this quaint exchange between the two agents and Ellura Strinarr, a lot is revealed about the agents’ goal. They have been tasked by Alton Rhizikh, the eventual antagonist in the story, to set her up for a nasty fall. Strinarr is simply a means to an end, and Rhizikh is unconcerned about the moral cost to him of doing this thing. He wants to get even with a foe. The agents have been directed to get Strinarr to find Terfezia truffles. The Terfezia is a new type of truffle and rumoured to possess mythical properties. Rhizikh is in the biomedical industry, and has the resources to ascertain whether the mythical properties are real or not. And so the short, skittish agent, Eaddeann, asks the proverbial question to ascertain whether Strinarr is presently showing the truffles they seek. The Terfezia. The question triggers some odd antics from the agents which both amuses and puzzles Strinarr. It’s so comical she doesn’t think to dig deeper into their want of Terfezia truffles and how they happen to know her name (not shown in this particular exchange).
Deygaan, the taller and more senior agent, tries to recover from the awkwardness of being both knowledgeable and ignorant of the thing they seek (revealed in an earlier exchange), and fumbles until he gets it right. Strinarr, ever the merchant, is less concerned about who they really are and where they’re from when money is placed on the table, if she can acquire the Terfezia truffles. Never having searched for them herself, the price is right for her to risk all and go get them. Her decision to find the Terfezia plays right into Rhizikh’s plan and her eventual dismay.
Conversational exchanges reveal something about the characters, their goals, motivations, desires and fears, which may not be shown in the narrative. Among other things. Unless, of course the author can show this in the narrative. But if the author does this, it is no longer dialogue.
Getting the dialogue right is tricky. But it stems from knowing the characters. If the author doesn’t know her characters well enough, she can’t anticipate the kinds of questions and responses the character will make when the time comes. In the conversational exchange between Ellura Strinarr and Rhizikh’s agents, imagine what kind of exchange it would’ve been if Strinarr didn’t know anything about truffles, though it’s allegedly been her business since she was twenty-one? What kind of conversation would have occurred if she wasn’t so mercantile about her truffle business? Or Galileo’s discussion with Barberini about the nature of reality? Galileo doesn’t know anything about the nature of reality, so can’t participate in that discussion. Knowing the characters well enough will allow the author to postulate conversations because Galileo would know about it and be interested in such things, and therefore have an opinion or be knowledge about.
I am told by K.M. Weiland that it’s wise for an author to eavesdrop on ordinary conversations with real people in everyday situations, or if you’re lucky, less ordinary situations. Hearing how people really talk to each other may provide inspiration to create authentic conversational exchanges in a story. Give them a real-life edge. Just don’t get caught eavesdropping though, or you might find yourself in a conversational exchange you really didn’t want to be in. Being tactful and subtle would be wise. But that’s hardly how I go about creating conversational exchanges between the characters in my novels. I’ve studied the mechanics of conversational exchange as part of my study of language and linguistics. This may be a bit sterile for some people, but it’s how I go about it. It’s my way. You may have a different way. If so, no problem.
Again, I’ve been general about conversational exchanges between characters because I don’t want to go too deep, just yet. All I’m really doing now is highlighting and discussing the important features of a novel. Dialogue is one of them, narrative is the other. But this shouldn’t stop people from experimenting or being creative when they create dialogue in their novel. Some people embellish their creative works with interesting things to heighten the bonus richness of their story. Frank Herbert did this:
How do we approach the study of Mau’Dib’s father? A man of surpassing warmth and surprising coldness was the Duke Leto Atreides. Yet, many facts open the way to this Duke: his abiding love for his Bene Gesserit lady; the dreams he held for his son; the devotion with which men served him. You see him there – a man snared by Destiny, a lonely figure with his light dimmed behind the glory of his son. Still, one must ask: What is the son but an extension of the father?
– from Maud’Dib, Family Commentaries’ by Princess Irulan
[Frank Herbert, Dune, p. 44, ebook version, 1965 & 2010]
But such things are for another discussion. The mechanics of conversational exchange are basically what he said, she said, or only what she said. But some thought must be given to why conversational exchanges occur in the first place, as well as of their content. Why does the character speak now? Why did the other character respond the way she did? And this is the realm of creative imagination, and story work.
In ON WRITING [MY STUFF] I said, “The two main characteristics of a novel, that I am aware of (among many other things), are the narrative and the dialogue. If you have characters that converse in the novel, that is. Think of these features as the paragraphs of story telling often placed between the characters’ conversational exchanges. Those two aspects are important to get right. So I’m told. Every novel is idiosyncratically different, though they share common characteristics.”
I want to try to show these two characteristics with some examples. I’m going to use some examples from my own writing and some from my favourite authors, and compare them. How valuable this exercise will be for anyone but me, will be interesting. I hope people find it interesting. On this occasion, I’m not going to do a deep exegesis – a literature professor’s analysis – because it may turn some people off reading for life. Pleasurable reading and critical analysis are sometimes not on the same planet.
Let’s start with the narrative characteristic of novel-writing. Below is a passage from my favourite Sci-fi novel, Dune. It’s a novel everyone interested in Sci-fi should read before they’re 30. So says my local Dymocks bookstore. When I heard that I smirked; of course I read it before I was 30! And that’s the last thing I’ll say about age as reading is something every one of any age – able to read books – should do. In fact, you should be reading to your children, if you have children not of that age. They’ll thank you for it.
“Paul looked out his window. Beneath them, the broken ground began to drop away in tumbled creases toward a barren rock plain and a knife-edged shelf. Beyond the shelf, fingernail crescents of dunes marched toward the horizon with here and there in the distance a dull smudge, a darker blotch to tell of something not sand. Rock outcroppings, perhaps. In the heat-addled air, Paul couldn’t be sure.” [Frank Herbert, Dune, p. 136, 1966]
This passage from Dune shows a narrative. It shows the subject and the topic. The subject is Paul, and tells us what he is doing. He’s flying. He’s looking at the landscape below. And he’s describing it. The description is pretty good, and interesting. The landscape is rocky and sandy. It has some interesting features: void of plants, sharp rocks, and dunes. And the landscape appears hot: addled air. The familiar shimmer of heat waves distorting the air, producing a mirage of water on the horizon. But water isn’t visible, like lakes and rivers on Earth.
The passage is only five sentences long. It’s probably the average. But narration can be as short as one sentence, or much longer than five sentences. I’ll give some examples of this later. As can be seen in the Dune passage above, this narrative tells us (or shows us) something about the character Paul, at a particular moment in the story. Usually a passage narrates a single issue or topic or character at a time. A new passage begins a new issue, topic or character. Or the new passage continues with same character, but on a different topic or issue.
“Dehnhardt’s would be easy enough to find, it lives in abundance here, growing along the edge of the unseasonably-dry, sandy riverbed. The tree grew to around seven metres and developed a broad leafy-hood of dark-green. It was an evergreen. It wore a coat of thin, dark-green leaves in the shape of a crescent moon. In spring, its flower was a small, round, soft yellow-white brush the size of a nut. And it gave off a sweet perfume that made her think of happy things.” [Robert M. Easterbrook, Reciprocity, p. 27, 2012]
This passage from Reciprocity is six sentences long. It’s one sentence more than Herbert’s passage above. But hopefully it does what it’s suppose to do: provide a narrative. Or show and tell, as some writers call it. The passage concerns Ellura Strinarr, a minor character in Reciprocity. But she serves a plot purpose: she’s been hired by the antagonist, Alton Rhizikh, to obtain something – truffles. Here she is describing a tree, the one under which certain truffles can be found.
Strinarr names the tree and describes the landscape it lives in: along the banks of rivers. Rivers that aren’t full. This one is unseasonally-dry and sandy. She talks about the general height of the tree, and a general feature: a broad leafy-hood of dark green. She desccribes it as resembling a coat. Then she describes the leaves in more detail. The shape, with respect to a phase of the moon. The tree’s flower, its colour, size and resemblance to a nut. The flower’s scent: a sweet perfume. And the effect the flower’s scent has on her. And this, indirectly, says something about Strinarr. That, given her job as a truffle hunter, she is apt to be knowledgeable about the region’s flora.
As I said, the narrative can be short or long. Here are some examples of short narrative.
‘There was a tap at the door and a man in shabby clothes stood uneasily on the threshold.’ [Philippa Gregory, The Other Boleyn Girl, p. 110, 2001]
Even though the narrative is short, one sentence, it says a lot. It first describes a sound: a tap at the door. Then it jumps to describing someone standing in the doorway, or in this case, ‘on the threshold’. The door is already open or it was opened by someone, but Gregory doesn’t say. Was it important? Not in this case. The description of the person standing on the threshold simply states gender and then appearance and behaviour. He wears ‘shabby clothes’ and stands ‘uneasily’ in the doorway.
But the passage says more than what is stated and described, doesn’t it? The fact that the door is open may suggest the season: summer, or a warm spring day. Gregory’s novel is historical fiction, a genre I like. So something about the time the novel is set and the characters living in it is revealed in the passage. And of course, this is gleaned from the rest of the novel. The man wears shabby clothes. Why is he wearing shabby clothes? He’s a messenger in the 16th Century, delivering a letter to one of the Boleyn girls. He is poor – probably paid a very small amount of money. He’s uneasy because he’s delivering a letter to ‘royalty’ – Mary Boleyn, the sister of Anne Boleyn, receiving the letter, is, at this time in history, sleeping with the king. The messenger is a ‘peasant’ and intimidated, standing before the Boleyns.
Here’s an example from my book The Subjugation.
“As Zann passed out cursing himself for being ensnared by persons of unknown origin, the blackness came before he’d even begun to count.” [Robert M. Easterbrook, The Subjugation, p. 32, 2013]
Faine Zann is chief of security for the city of Nimbus, on the Cuian planet and homeworld of Xinar. Zann has been kidnapped by Hrexan infiltrators. The bad guys. The kidnappers have him in a tunnel beneath city streets which they had dug earlier in preparation for the kidnapping. Zann doesn’t know who his kidnappers are, being ‘persons of unknown origin’, and is mighty upset about being in this predicament. Hence cursing himself. He’s on a makeshift gurney and he’s just been told he is to be taken elsewhere, and that the best way for them to take him is if he is unconscious. So they inject him with something to knock him out. But before he passes out, he’s asked by one of the kidnappers to count backwards from one hundred. But Zann’s passed out, the ‘blackness came’, before he’s even begun counting.
The character has experienced three things in the short passage. He’s experiencing a kidnapping. And he’s experiencing anger and self-loathing for being tricked into being kidnapped. That doesn’t look good on the resume of a chief of security. He doesn’t know the true identity of the people who’ve kidnapped him. Another cross against him as chief of security. How had his kidnappers fooled his security people? Even him? And he’s experiencing being drugged. This is perhaps a painless event, except for the initial needle jab in the arm, so he experiences it as a kind of going into the blackness.
As you can see from these examples of narrative, how the story is shown and told separate from the dialogue, and often the most rewarding aspect of any novel, depending on how it is written. The dialogue is simply what the characters say to each other. But in a novel, dialogue is more complicated than it seems.
“I know this man, a doctor, lived and worked here,’ he went on in French. ‘I … I wanted to see where he lived and to talk with somebody who knew him. They’re such impressive sentences that he wrote. Wise sentences. Wonderful sentences. I’d like to know what the man was like who could write such sentences. What it was like to live with him.” [Pascal Mercier, Night Train to Lisbon, p. 103, 2004]
Raimund Gregorius is talking to Adriana de Prado, sister of Amadeu de Prado, the man who wrote the book he’s talking about. Although Gregorius says he ‘knows’ Amadeu, stating his profession, ‘a doctor’, knowing that Amadeu ‘lived and worked’ there, he doesn’t really know him; he knows him only as the writer of ‘impressive sentences’, ‘wise sentences’, and ‘wonderful sentences’. And from the blurb on the back cover. He then clarifies his uninformed, ignorant situation, by saying ‘I’d like to know what the man was like’, ‘What it was like to live with him’. These are in essence questions, that may or may not be answered later. But it gives us some idea about Gregorius and what’s driving him. Why he’s come to Adriana de Prado’s house. But whether he gets any further depends on how Adriana responds to Gregorius’ surprising, sounding almost like adoration, approach to getting information her brother.
Here’s a bit of dialogue from The Directive, a paranormal/crime story I wrote in 2013.
“You know, Firth,’ Verone began, eager to discuss the encounter, ‘we both know that what you saw wasn’t what I saw, and that’s something you’re going to have to face.” [Robert M. Easterbrook, The Directive, p. 28, 2013]
Although this is a single sentence, it contains a lot of information. Vidocq Verone is the main character in The Directive. He’s an ex-detective turned private-eye. He’s talking with a former colleague, Senior Sergeant Firth Appleby. They’ve been colleagues since Verone was a detective. They’ve both recently had an encounter with the unknown, in the house next door to the one they’re in. They’re sitting in the kitchen of Mrs Felicity Butler, neighour of the house they just come from and had the encounter. They’re sitting drinking tea and discussing the event. Verone personalises the exchange with Appleby by using his first name, Firth. Personalising the conversation this way, Verone hopes as a friend to gently convince Firth that he is mistaken about what he saw. What did he see? Well, you’ll just have to read the book to find out. It also says something about Verone, how he operates. It also says something about Appleby and how he thinks. At this point in the story, Appleby is in denial and doesn’t want to face reality. Appleby’s scepticism sets him apart from Verone at this point – highlighting contesting views of reality. And this contrast sets the tone of their relationship for the rest of the story.
Getting the narrative and the dialogue working properly in novel-writing is what will make it a good story. I hope I have done that. If you have any doubts, just read my books and tell me. 😉