A big change in a character’s life sets them on a new path and on a new story. It’s an effective way to hook a reader at the start of a novel. Let’s see how Neil Gaiman uses the start of a new life to hook readers in his novel American Gods.
How author Susanna Clarke asks the right questions to hook readers and drive the story in the opening chapter of her fantasy novel Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. Also, how the philosophy of Romanticism comes alive in the story and setting, and what writers can learn from kids cartoons.
In Life of Pi, Yann Martel searches for the “spark that brings to life a real story.” Life of Pi itself uses first-person storytelling to light that spark. Let’s see how Yann Martel uses the power of first person in the opening chapters to hook the reader, and why the novel starts before the first page.
I can tell by the way the trees beat, after
so many dull days, on my worried windowpanes
that a storm is coming,
and I hear the far-off fields say things
I can’t bear without a friend,
I can’t love without a sister
The storm, the shifter of shapes, drives on
across the woods and across time,
and the world looks as if it had no age:
the landscape like a line in the psalm book,
is seriousness with weight and eternity.
What we choose to fight is so tiny!
What fights us is so great!
If only we would let ourselves be dominated
as things do by some immense storm,
we would become strong too, and not need names.
When we win it’s with small things,
and the triumph itself makes us small.
What is extraordinary and eternal
does not want to be bent by us.
I mean the Angel who appeared
to the wrestlers of the Old Testament:
when the wrestler’s sinews
grew long like metal strings,
he felt them under his fingers
like chords of deep music.
Whoever was beaten by this Angel
(who often simply declined the fight)
went away proud and strengthened
and great from that harsh hand,
that kneaded him as if to change his shape.
Winning does not tempt that man.
This is how he grows: by being defeated, decisively,
by constantly greater beings.
In The New Yorker, Ian McEwan argues in favor of the novella, that odd creature that’s too long for magazines and journals, yet often looked askance at by publishers:
I believe the novella is the perfect form of prose fiction. It is the beautiful daughter of a rambling, bloated ill-shaven giant (but a giant who’s a genius on his best days). And this child is the means by which many first know our greatest writers. Readers come to Thomas Mann by way of “Death in Venice,” Henry James by “The Turn of the Screw,” Kafka by “Metamorphosis,” Joseph Conrad by “Heart of Darkness,” Albert Camus by “L’Etranger.” I could go on: Voltaire, Tolstoy, Joyce, Solzhenitsyn. And Orwell, Steinbeck, Pynchon. And Melville, Lawrence, Munro. The tradition is long and glorious. I could go even further: the demands of economy push writers to polish their sentences to precision and clarity, to bring off their effects with unusual intensity, to remain focussed on the point of their creation and drive it forward with functional single-mindedness, and to end it with a mind to its unity. They don’t ramble or preach, they spare us their quintuple subplots and swollen midsections.
From Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell:
Eva. Because her name is a synonym for temptation: what treads nearer to the core of man? Because her soul swims in my eyes. Because I dream of creeping through the velvet folds to her room, where I let myself in, hum her a tune so—so—so softly, she stands with her naked feet on mine, her ear to my heart, and we waltz like string puppets. After that kiss, she says, “Vous embrassez comme un poisson rouge!” and in moonlit mirrors we fall in love with our youth and beauty. Because all my life, sophisticated, idiotic women have taken it upon themselves to understand me, to cure me, but Eva knows I’m terra incognita and explores me unhurriedly, like you did. Because she’s lean as a boy. Because her scent is almonds, meadow grass. Because if I smile at her ambition to be an Egyptologist, she kicks my shin under the table. Because she makes me think about something other than myself. Because even when serious she shines. Because she prefers travelogues to Sir Walter Scott, prefers Billy Mayerl to Mozart, and couldn’t tell C major from a sergeant major. Because I, only I, see her smile a fraction before it reaches her face. Because Emperor Robert is not a good man—his best part is commandeered by his unperformed music—but she gives me that rarest smile, anyway. Because we listened to nightjars. Because her laughter spurts through a blowhole in the top of her head and sprays all over the morning. Because a man like me has no business with this substance “beauty,” yet here she is, in these soundproof chambers of my heart.
I’m finishing the first draft revisions this weekend. Hey, I’m going to Turkey next weekend (!). So I have to finish it this weekend—personal goal, one of my 2011 resolutions. Whatever it is by this weekend, that’s what it will be–though it’s still a first draft. What is it like? A little bit of Salman Rushdie, a bit of Michael Chabon and a bit of Looney Tunes. My literary role models right now are Chabon and Nick Harkaway.
Now I know what I want to do: make interactive children’s books on the iPad. I’ve wanted our company to move in this direction. Maybe they haven’t been pitched the right idea yet. Maybe that’s what I need to do. Granted, the interactivity looks somewhat superficial, but I won’t know for sure until you buy me an iPad.
Style is a writer’s way of telling the truth. Literary success or failure, by this measure, depends not only on the refinement of words on a page, but in the refinement of a consciousness, what Aristotle called the education of the emotions.
–Zadie Smith, “Fail Better“