Monday, August 23, 2010
Promoting Blaggard's Moon: A Novel's Opening - August 2010 Christian Fiction and Fantasy Blog Tour, Day 2
With fiction and the great majority of nonfiction, the opening is the most important segment of the work, not because it may contain extraordinary literary deployment (though that could be the case, of course), but because if we lose on readers here, we’ll never get them back. In tennis we get a second serve; in most types of writing we don’t. We get only one chance to intrigue our readers, and we’d better make it work! – William Noble, Conflict, Action & Suspense, p 35.
The opening of the novel must accomplish at least two things:
(a) Capture the interest of the reader.
(b) Contain the seed of which the novel is the germinating flower.
If this is not done by page two, or at most by page three, the reader will be too ready to put the book down. Even if he survives an opening that fails on either of these two points, he will have a more critical eye trained on all that follows. It will take more to put the reader into a positive frame of mind toward the story. Mistakes that may come later (a historical inaccuracy, an unrealistic moment, a dull description, an unimportant detail, a subtle grammatical error, etc.), however small, will not be easily forgiven.
One of the ways to ‘capture the interest’ is to open with conflict and/or intrigue. Conflict is intriguing, but I’ll not grant that intrigue is conflict. Conflict is a clash between a character and another character, a character and his circumstances, or even a character and himself. Intrigue has more to do with the unusual and unexpected both of which may or may not be the result of conflict. To encounter a bee gathering pollen may be intriguing, but hardly a conflict (unless you consider the bee as struggling for survival in his pollen-gathering, which to some degree is true).
An opening scene which is rich with intrigue, and equally rich with conflict, is very astute. Blaggard’s Moon opens precisely in this way. The first paragraph, a single line, is so pregnant with intrigue that the reader does a mental double-take.
“On a post. In a pond.”
The reader stops, if only for a moment, to try and let the meaning of that sink in. Does it mean what it really sounds like it means, something (or more unexpectedly, someone) is stuck on a post out in the middle of a body of water? What is it/he doing there? How did it/he get there?
The reader wants and expects the author to reveal what this is about, and if the gratification of that ‘want’ isn’t met in short order, the intrigue will turn to frustration. But Polivka does not let that happen. The next paragraph tells just enough to begin to satisfy the need to know:
Delaney said the words aloud, not because anyone could hear him but because the words needed saying. He wished his small declaration could create a bit of sympathy from a crewmate, or a native, or even one of the cutthroats who had left him here. But he was alone.
Conflict is a sure source of intrigue. Two of the three types of conflict identified above are present here: between character and his environment (the individual stuck on a pole in a body of water), and between character and other characters (the pole-sitter and the cutthroats who put him there).
The abandonment on the pole is conflict, and it is so unusual that the intrigue is immediately palpable. The intrigue comes in the form of dread, and Polivka increases the dread by revealing the unthinkable scope of the conflict in the next three paragraphs. But the paragraph immediately following is a teaser:
It wasn’t the post to which he’d been abandoned that troubled him, though it was troubling enough. The post was worn and unsteady, about eight inches across at the top where his behind was perched, and it jutted eight feet or so up from the still water below him. His shins hugged its pocked and ragged sides; his feet were knotted at the ankles behind him for balance. Delaney was a sailor, and this was not much different than dock posts in port where he’d sat many times to take his lunch. He was young enough not to be troubled with a little pain in the backside, old enough to have felt his share of it. No, the post wasn’t the problem.
The focus of this whole paragraph is on the post. No action here. We don’t need any because we are entranced with the painting of a picture so vivid that we are tempted to wriggle in our reading chair to relieve the psychosomatic pain that developed in our own backsides as we read. We are revolted at the quandary of the post, and yet the post is not the real predicament. The scope of the dilemma grows and so does the dread (intrigue).
The pond from which the post jutted was not terribly troublesome either. It was a lagoon, really, less than a hundred yards across, no more than fifty yards to shore in any direction. He could swim that distance easily. He peered down through the water, past its smooth still surface and eyed the silver-green flash of scales, lit bright by the noonday sun.
The piranha, now, they were something vexing.
The dread of the predicament increases and reaches its climax in a single-sentence paragraph. Polivka’s use of that single sentence does two things: (a) it reveals the horrendous problem in a moment so that its realization is immediate, and (b) it is the verbal equivalent of a symphonic clash of cymbals – it jolts you.
Such a beginning is so intriguing, the potential of so many story lines, that the reader is struck with wonder of not only how the one in the predicament is going to get out of it (if he does), but where the story as a whole is going to go.
In terms of seed and blossom (or the building block which "must be sturdy enough, strong enough to support the story to come," Conflict, Action & Suspense, p41) it turns out that the sailor on the pole is the catalyst for a variety of ways in which the story is told, i.e., his recollection of events first-hand, or the recollection of the tales of a skilled pirate story-teller, whose delightful character is worthy of an article in itself.
This is ‘opening’ at its best.