A Glimpse of the Big Picture
The first thing that we need to think about this when you're reading. The first thing that we need is a glimpse of the big picture. This is the first thing we need. We need to know, where are going, what is this overarching problem? What is the conflict, what is the context, what is the scope? As humans, as humans, as readers when we start to read we know that a story is going to be about how somebody solves a problem that they can not avoid. And we expect to find out what that is immediately. Earlier, I guess about a year ago now I spoke at a writer's conference in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, which was wonderful. I'd never been there, and my dad was from Cedar Rapids. First time I got to go there and see where all of his stories came from, so it was really great. And I met an editor there, she was also speaking at the conference. And she said something that I thought was great. She said that when she was in college here mentor said to her that the first paragraph is a promise you make to your...
reader. We need to know that because you're asking a lot of us, right? You don't own us there in the beginning as readers, and you're asking a lot of us. You're asking us to commit to reading all the way through. Especially, since there are a lot of people out there who once they do start reading a book, even if they get bored will read it all the way to the end. We really want to be sure that it's worth taking that risk in the first three or four pages. So we're really looking for that. What we're looking for there is what is this overarching problem that is kicking into gear on page one, what is that problem? Now, keep in mind as I'm very fond of saying all stories begin in medias res, which is Latin for in the middle of the thing, the thing being the story. So page one of your novel that we're reading here is actually the first page of the second half of the story. When we talk about what overarching problem is kicking into gear it probably didn't come into being at that moment, but something has led up to it. So it's not something that's happening out of the blue, even though it might feel to your protagonist like it is often. You know, we get problems, and we think, oh, my God. That came out of the blue. But let's be honest, almost always if we look back we can go, oh, yeah I kind of brought that on myself. And I don't mean brought it on yourself like in a finger waggy, oh, you shouldn't have done that. But just in the way our life choices tend to sometimes, you know, make problems for us as we go forward. So, we're looking for what is that problem that's kicking into gear on page one. Think context, think context, this is the yard stick that your reader is going to use to read meaning into whatever's happening in terms of the problem. What is the context, what is the conflict? We are looking for a sense of conflict right there on the first page. Story is about what happens when our expectations are broken. I thought this one thing was gonna happen, and something else happens instead. Almost always that is what you want to get right there in the beginning. It's funny, I was asked recently about the first page. I was guesting in a class at Stanford community, community's not what I mean, continuing education, a writing class. And someone said, well, wait, you know, on the first page shouldn't I start with what a normal day for my protagonist, and then go into what's happening? It's like, no, no, no, no, you've got to start with something happening. So at least we know what the problem is first. Or else we're not gonna go forward because we're not gonna see a problem. We don't know that that's just an ordinary first day, and then just leading to something. We think, oh, I don't want to follow this person around. I could follow people in my own life around. I don't need that, what the heck is the problem. And scope, we're looking for scope, meaning how long is this gonna be? When is this problem gonna end? Also, it almost always means when is this problem gonna end, what's really at stake here? So, let's take a look at a few examples of this. And the goal is I'm gonna be going back and forth between that slide and this slide. Just give it all away, you want to give it all away in the beginning so we have some notion of where we're going and why it's important. And this might feel, since writers are often told not to, it can feel clunky to do it, I'm being too obvious. You're not being too obvious, you're giving us what we need to pull us in. The first one that we'll look at, first paragraph, is from Celeste Ng's Everything I Never Told You, which is a literary novel. It's also a best-seller, so it did very well, it's written in third person. And what is the first two lines of this novel? We'll get to it, the first two lines. It says, one, the first two lines are "Lydia is dead. "But they don't know this yet." "Lydia is dead. But they don't know this yet." Again, literary novel, "Lydia is dead. But they don't know this yet." Does that give us conflict, well, yeah, somebody's dead. I mean, there's definitely conflict in that. Does that give us scope? Not a lot of scope yet, but enough because we're pretty sure that we're now gonna find out, okay, who's Lydia for one thing, and what happened to her? And who are they, who don't know it yet? Do we have context, not quite? We do not yet have context, but we have enough to be curious. Again, this is not heavy-handed, this let's us know exactly what it is. So, let's read the rest of this particular paragraph. "Lydia is dead. But they don't know this yet. "1977, May 3, 6:30 in the morning. "No one knows anything but this "innocuous fact, Lydia is late for breakfast." Now, as I read the rest of this paragraph notice, also, which sentences pull you in, and which sentences regardless of how pretty don't. Like, where is the place where you go (gasps) I want to read forward. Okay, so Lydia's late for breakfast. "As always, next to her cereal bowl her mother's "placed a sharpened pencil and Lydia's physics homework, "six problems flagged with small ticks." Now, remember what I said a minute ago about seeds being planted on the first page. That's a seed, that is a major seed. That physics homework there with the six ticks plays into a big part of why Lydia ends up being the person who she is who got herself into the situation she was in when she died. That is a ton about her mother, Marilyn, here that we're gonna find out going forward about who she was, what happened in her life, why this was important to her. It's not just a throwaway detail. There is a great significance to this. Okay, let's see, "Driving to work, "Lydia's father nudges the dial toward WXKP, "Northwest Ohio's best news source, "vexed by the crackles of static. "On the stairs Lydia's brother yawns, "still twined in the tail end of his dream. "In her chair in the corner of the kitchen Lydia's sister "hunches moon-eyed over her Corn Flakes sucking them "to pieces one by one waiting for Lydia to appear. "It is she who says, Lydia, it's taking a long time today." Now, the senses that grab you the most are Lydia is late for breakfast, and then her sister saying it is Lydia who is taking a long time today, that sets us up. There were some very pretty sentences in their otherwise. There was the one about the brother being, you know, still entwined in the tail of his dream. Does that matter, if that was gone would you have cared? Would you have gone, wait, that was something, no. And that really pretty sentence about the way (laughs) that sort of disgusting way the sister is eating the Corn Flakes. It was a very beautiful way to talk about sucking Corn Flakes to pieces in your mouth. But, I mean, does that really matter, no. What pulls us in is what's going on and where the conflict is. Because now we know who they are, they are her family. Lydia is, or was, the 15, almost 16-year-old daughter of a family of five, now a family of four. They are her family, so now we have a lot more. Do we have scope, yeah, we have much more scope because, again, we already knew that it was gonna be about, you know, let's find Lydia and what happened to her. But now we know, and we can feel it's also gonna be about the effect of her death on her family. What we don't know is it's also about how her family became, how each character in her family, because there is a ton of backstory in this novel. In fact, if you ask me who the protagonist was in this novel I would say it was Lydia, as we'll discuss, even though Lydia's dead as we already mentioned. But we're gonna find out who they were. And how like for instance with Marilyn there, and putting the physics homework in, we're gonna find out why that was important to her. We're gonna find out who she is in her life, and how that contributed to what happened to Lydia. So we're gonna go backwards and forwards, and that is the scope of that novel. Notice, also, that because the writer began with Lydia is dead. But they don't know this yet. The opposite of that, the writer going I know something you don't know, instead, it's we know something they don't know. And that makes us empathize with them. We know Lydia's dead, they think she might have just overslept her alarm. They don't know anything at that moment, which is why you want to give us that. Because if the novel had begun with just Lydia's later for breakfast, and then that same paragraph, who would really care? I mean, would there be conflict? Well, not really because, again, she could have just overslept her alarm clock. Would you have any notion of the scope or where it was going? Absolutely not, it's just like, well, I don't know, which is the only thing you'd have to read forward on would be the beauty of the paragraph, and the hope that, well, gee she's asleep. I'll tease the reader, I won't tell them what's really happened, and they'll read forward. You want to give it all away. Let's take a look at another opening. This is from a young adult novel called All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven. It's a really wonderful novel, it's also pretty literary. Well, a lot of lines are literary actually. The first line, and we could just even look at here's the chapter heading. It says Finch: I Am Awake Day 6, so already we're a bit curious. What's the first line of this novel? "Is today a good day to die?" Is today a good day to die, does that give us conflict? Well, yeah, somebody's thinking of killing themselves. Does it give us scope, not that much, although some, because it's like, well, is he or isn't he gonna, what's gonna happen? Already, but you notice how this is point blank telling us where we're going in a very simple. And some writers who struggle with this, they could go that's a clunky inelegant sentence. Actually, the meaning makes it really pretty elegant. So, let's read the rest of this paragraph. "Is today a good day to die? "This is something I ask myself in the morning "when I wake up, in third period when I'm trying "to keep my eyes open while Mr. Schroeder drones on and on." And that's, by the way, another seed because Mr. Schroeder is gonna play a part in this novel. "At the supper table as I'm passing the green beans, "at night when I'm laying awake because my brain "won't shut off due to all there is to think about. "Is today the day, and if not today, when?" Okay, now we've really got scope. And now we've got more context because we figure this is a high school student, which it is. Now we've got that context and we've got scope because we really know we're gonna read forward to go, well, is or isn't he? You definitely want to be pulled into that story. Also, there's another tell here goes toward the past. With Lydia, obviously, Lydia's dead, a lot happened to bring them up to that problem. Here it is, let's see, where was I here? "At night I lay awake because my brain "won't shut off due to all there is to think about." That also is a seed or a tell that tells us why. Because what we're gonna find out, going along with that I am Awake Again Day 6, which is up here at the top, and you're thinking what do you mean awake again day 6? Do you mean you've been awake for six days, what does that even mean? And what this character's struggling with, which we're already starting to put together because he's also clearly suicidal, is mental illness, he's bipolar. So, that is a tell to that, and that's where they're going. Now that we have, I mean, first we had someone who's dead, now we've got someone who wants to die. Let's do one more, and we'll do something a little less painful. This one will just be blackmail. This is from another young adult novel. It's called Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda, it's by Becky Albertalli. It was also made into a movie called Love, Simon, that was really wonderful. And the first two lines of this novel are "It's a weirdly subtle conversation. "I almost don't notice I'm being blackmailed." Again, gave it right away, gave it right away right there in the beginning, now we know. Now, this could've gone on with all sorts of conversation until it worked up to that. But would we have read forward, probably not, probably not. Again, does that give us a conflict? Well, yeah, (laughs) somebody's blackmailing them, that's a lot of conflict. Context, yeah, blackmail gives us context. And scope, what we're gonna go forward to find out, you know, what are they being blackmailed for? Or how are they gonna get out of it, what's going on? That is what you are looking for all the way through. The point is you've got to give it all away. But in order to give it all away you have to have it, which means all sorts of stuff. Again, if this is in medias res that happened before. Because Simon here has already got something to be blackmailed for, that happened in the past. Lydia is already dead, that happened in the past. Poor Finch wants to kill himself because he's been struggling with mental illness, that happened in the past. All of their pasts brought them to this moment, this defining moment where things are going to kick into gear. And those paragraphs gave us, okay, I have a notion. I can sort of see where this is going. So, that's what you want to do, you want to give it all away, but first you got to get it. (laughs) You can't give away something you don't already have. So, that is what we're looking for. And watch now when you read the books that pull you in. You will see that that is right there.