One of the great gifts I received as an apprentice writer was the opportunity to study for several years under a man named Jerry Stern. Among other things Jerry gave his students a language with which to talk about writing. One question that he would ask was always particularly helpful: What’s at stake?
This was a question I posed to a writer recently. She’d written a beautiful beginning to her book that was full of tension and atmosphere, and yet I couldn’t find the thread that would take me through her book.
Now, let me back up and say that we often don’t have the thread at first. It takes a while for the writer to find it. But when you do find it, you need to go back to the beginning and plant it there for the reader to grab hold of and follow.
I used an analogy in the memoir workshop I gave this past weekend. I said that transformative writing is like cave diving. You dive down into the dark shadowy places of your psyche; and writing is the life line that leads you back out. I suppose that analogy can extend to readers as well. They need something to hold on to while they follow you through the depths of your imagination.
I often frame the idea this way: you begin your book with a question that doesn’t get answered until the end of the book.
My dear friend Gil Ballance did this to great effect in his book, Leah’s Journey Home. He starts his book with a young woman in 1904 watching a ship wreck off the coast of North Carolina.
Fascinated, or perhaps horrified is a better word, Aunt Mary and I stood on the beach and watched. It was late March, and a three-masted, coal-burning freighter, which I later learned was the Elmira, was thrashing about, helpless, in a surging, wallowing sea off Currituck Beach. Virginia lay behind. And the ship was headed south toward the Graveyard of the Atlantic off the North Carolina coast. From the looks of her, I didn’t believe she’d escape. She was in the clutches of a violent, surging sea gone mad.
And I? Unmarried and in the family way at twenty, I silently prayed for the ship and its crew. Passengers, too, if there were any.
There are two implicit questions in this short passage. The first question is, what will happen to the people on the boat. This question provides the immediate tension for the story. But it is not the question that will keep us reading the book. That question is, what will happen to this unmarried, pregnant woman and her child? How will she survive without money or means in a time when women have so few rights, and an unmarried mother will not even have the support of her family and community?
This is a principle that mystery writers know. If you have a dead body in your first chapter, readers will keep reading to find out “whodunit” or why or how the killer is going to get away with it. So I like to think of the question you plant at the beginning of your story as the dead body.
Some readers may feel that they have a quieter story than that — no dead bodies, no car bombs about to explode. That metaphoric “dead body” can be anything as long as it matters a great deal to someone. In my memoir, the “dead body” was a performance of my mother’s requiem. The question I posed in the beginning of the book was, would my elderly mother live long enough to hear her requiem performed? I didn’t figure out that this was the thread of the book until I was nearly 2/3’s of the way through. Then I went back and planted it in chapter one.
Jerry told us in a novel-writing workshop that readers need to be motivated to keep reading a book. That is true now more than ever when we have so much competing for our time. Give your readers a reason to keep reading. Make sure something is at stake.
Some journal exercises:
- What would you (or your character) go to jail for? Write about it.
- What would you (or your character) die for? Write about that.
- What is your heart’s deepest desire? Write about a time when you really wanted something and either did or did not get it.
- Read the first chapter of your favorite book. Can you find the implicit question?