Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Day 6 - Opening a Novel with Narrative

"Marley was dead: to begin with."

That's how Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol begins. The narrator just straight out tells you an important fact. He doesn't tell you why it's important, but he goes for quite a while, and in extensive detail, about how dead Marley is.

We get the idea that this plain fact -- that Marley was dead -- will soon be in question.

This is the great thing about "voice," and it's something you can only get with narration; It isn't just that we're given dry facts, but we are given a point of view.  In this case, you might even call it an obsession. "Listen! He's dead! Remember that or you will miss important stuff later on!" And because we have voice, we not only get facts about Marley being dead, we get with them everything we need to know about the characters and situation for the whole book.

AND, because we've got this wonderful opinionated voice, Dickens gets away with telling us outright about his protagonist: "Scrooge! a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner!"

Of course, it was easier to get away with that authorial voice in Victorian times when omniscient was pretty much the norm. But even more modern fiction also uses authorial voice - just a drier more subtle one. I see it more on the hard-boiled side of the aisle, in the dry but intelligent voice of the omniscient reporter.

But right now I want to stick to the cozier side of the spectrum so I'll leave some of my favorite hard-boiled examples for later. What I found in just casting about for an ordinary example of classic and cozy fiction was not really omniscient. In The Emperor's Snuff-box by John Dickson Carr, for instance, there wasn't a strong personality in the voice. It does begin with summarized narration, though:

When Eve Neill divorced Ned Atwood, the suit was not contested. And, even though the charge was infidelity with a famous woman tennis player, it created far less scandal than Eve had expected.

As with A Christmas Carol, this one goes on with the same theme for a bit. If you don't pick it up in those two sentences, you see pretty quickly that Eve is disappointed with how easy the divorce turned out to be. It's not a particularly exciting opening, but it does it's job: it orients you with what the issues are, and who the protagonist is. The subsequent paragraphs give a lot of information about time and place and situation and personalities. It quickly dips into small fragments of scene to keep it interesting and vivid.

But, as I said, it's a slow starter. There isn't a lot of personality there, and the promise the writer is making is subtle and slow. Eve's problem at this point, is that she is dissatisfied, and that's about it. Dissatisfaction can lead to great things, though, and I would continue reading for a while. But it's a quiet interest.

Of course it's a lot easier to have a really strong and interesting narrator's voice if you write in first person. You can be opinionated and seductive and even irrational and untruthful. (You can be interesting, in other words.)

Probably the best example of a cozy narrative voice comes from a series which is not a mystery at all. P. G. Wodehouse was a real master of narration. And he usually did use a first person narrator, although often that person wasn't a part of the story, just a storyteller.  (His stories about golf, for instance, were generally told by an old man in the club house who told stories about other members he once knew.)

Here is the opening for Jeeves (from Chapter 1 "Jeeves Exerts the Old Cerebellum"):

"Good morning, Jeeves" I said.

"Good morning, sir," said Jeeves.

He put the good old cup of tea softly on the table by my bed, and I took a refreshing sip. Just right, as usual. Not too hot, not too sweet, not too weak, not too strong, not too much milk, not a drop spilled in the saucer. A most amazing cove, Jeeves. So dashed competent in every respect. I've said it before and I'll say it again. I mean to say, take just one small instance....

This story does not start with any kind of problem at all, but it's interesting because the narrator, Bertie Wooster, is so dashed excited about how great his valet is. Just as Dickens works to convince the reader to pay attention to the fact that Marley is dead, so Bertie is working to convince us that Jeeves is a miracle man. They are both telling us straight out that this is an important fact. The heart of the story hinges on it.

I think that's why the opening for John Dickson Carr doesn't work as well for me as the other two - because the voice is more neutral, the reader is not really sure if the opening information is just character development, or critical to the story. I think, when you have a narrated beginning, where you are just told information, you have to have a sense that this is important. Even if it's just a teaser that you don't understand.

I think it's possible for a narrated beginning - a summary of facts - to have some of the kind of inherent drama that a dentist dangling out the window of the twelfth floor of the Waldorf-Astoria hotel might have. Drama could act as cover to hook the reader when you don't want the reader to know the real reason you're starting where you are.

One example of that (which I don't have on hand at the moment) is The False Inspector Dew by Peter Lovesey. That book starts with some scene setting - a recounting of the sinking of a cruise ship in World War I and some other historical events. Those events turn out to have some bearing on the story, but for the opening, they are just a dramatic hook to set the scene.

Tomorrow I'll talk about a couple of books that open with dry dialog - exactly the kind of opening that drove me nuts with those books I bought the other day. Only in this case, the openings work.

Here are the direct links to each post in the series: Intro - how to start a novel badly 1.) In the middle of the action, 2.) Narration or storyteller's voice, 3.) Disembodied Dialog.

No comments: