Tag Archives: Moby Dick

The First Five Pages

Some time ago, I addressed the subject of starting a novel in a post by the extraordinarily original title “How To Start A Novel.” 😉 In that piece, I made the case for beginning a story with an engaging character who wants something and with a clearly defined antagonist who will be the chief cause of things that thwart the character from reaching his desired end.

Scarlet wants Ashley, who becomes engaged to Melanie (Gone With The Wind by Margaret Mitchell). Captain Ahab wants revenge on the whale that took his leg, but Moby Dick continues to elude him (Moby Dick by Herman Melville). Grady wants to be loved, but Floyd, his father figure, ignores him, uses him, and betrays him (The Charlatan’s Boy by Jonathan Rogers).

With those key components, a story is about to happen. But how to start?

I’ve wrestled with this topic in my own writing. One piece of advice I embraced is that the opening of a novel should be the bridge between the story and the backstory.

To clarify: backstory is what happened before the point in time when this story starts — often called the inciting incident. But before the story can actually start, readers need some sort of introduction to the main character. Otherwise, whatever starts the story will lose importance because readers don’t care about the character.

The first five pages (or so) give the reader a look at what life was like before the inciting incident disrupts the story world. At the same time, the opening should give some picture of what the character wants.

Of course, the character should have both internal and external desires that are story-long. However, the author doesn’t have to rush those forward. Rather, the character’s opening-scene want may be a faint echo of what will become the deeper need.

The first five pages should also anchor the reader in the story in several ways. One is by creating a mood — humorous, stoic, lighthearted, dramatic, ironic, angst-filled, and so on.

Setting may contribute to mood and is another element that anchors the story. Even though settings change as characters move about, readers need to “see” where they are. Especially at the beginning of a novel, it is critical that readers are not confused.

In contrast, an author wants readers to be curious which gives them ample reason to continue reading beyond the first five pages. Curiosity and confusion have nothing to do with each other except that some writers mix up the two.

To create curiosity, a writer poses a question, inviting the reader to turn the page and find the answer. In the process of discovery, however, a new question will present itself, one with added weight, and the process continues.

On the other hand, if readers don’t understand who the players are or what is happening, they most likely won’t care to search for the answers to any questions that might suggest themselves. Their confusion stifles their curiosity.

Besides creating mood, providing setting, and fanning curiosity in the first five pages, the author should establish expectations, accomplished by his choice of point of view (first person, omniscient third person, close third person) and verb tense, by his creation of style (sentence structure, description patterns, the amount of narrative versus scenes, and so forth) and voice (the author and/or character’s personality infused into the story by word choice and “speech” patterns).

If you’re thinking that’s a lot of responsibility for the first few pages of a novel to bear, you’re absolutely right. Readers form opinions from those opening pages. They make decision — do I like this character? do I want to read more? do I care what happens next? should I buy this book?

Experienced writers have learned to put considerable effort into getting opening scene right. Fortunately, it doesn’t have to be right on the first draft, or there might not a novel at all. 😀

For further study, The First Five Pages by Noah Lukeman is helpful for beginning writers.

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Symbolism, Part 2 – Symbols in Christian Fiction

Christian fiction writers are often accused of being preachy, but in fact, secular authors also routinely write for the purpose of communicating some message about which they are passionate.

So why do Christians alone get tagged with the preachy label?

I think one reason is the familiarity with Christianity in the western culture. The western world has become, if you will, a Christianized culture. Not that this familiarity has resulted in the embracing of Christianity. Just the opposite. It’s as if western societies, instead, have been inoculated against Christianity by repeated exposure, because, as you know, “familiarity breeds contempt.”

What does this have to do with symbolism and the preachy label? I’m postulating that this Christianization allows for ready identification of Christian symbols and rejection without contemplation of the ideas behind them.

What’s a writer to do?

One possibility is to avoid using Christian symbols. Some writers make religion or faith the centerpiece of their stories, thus avoiding the dangers of symbolism.

For the fantasy writer, this solution doesn’t offer much. In a struggle between good and evil, how does one represent God without being transparent, without using a symbol that makes the Christianized skeptic roll his eyes and go, Here comes the evangelism pitch.

CS Lewis did a masterful job in choosing a lion to represent God—one reason his fantasy series still resonates. Not that Lewis came up with the idea on his own. Scripture calls God the Lion of Judah, and certainly Lewis drew upon that image.

Perhaps that’s the secret—choosing symbols that are lesser known, not so easily identified as symbols. Ones that require contemplation first by the author himself.

Interestingly, our culture is no longer as Biblically literate as it once was, which may explain why some Christians choose the symbols they do.

“Call me Ishmael” was the opening line of Herman Melville’s classic novel Moby Dick. With those words Melville announced that his story was more than just a tale about whaling.

How so? Because the name created an allusion to a familiar Biblical story. As did the name for Melville’s protagonist—Ahab. As did the White Whale antagonist.

Back in 1851 London, Melville’s readers would have been familiar with the stories about Abraham and his disinherited son Ishmael, evil king Ahab and his conflicts with God’s prophet, Job and leviathan, Jonah and the whale God used to chastise him.

Granted, rather than symbolizing, the names allude to these Biblical accounts, but they can serve my purpose.

There was a time in Western culture that the Bible was well know. The average person was familiar with Gideon, Joash, and Festus. Mention of manna, a burning bush, a lamb caught in a thicket, brought to mind whole stories and the truth contained within.

Times have changed. Through a complex set of circumstances, we now find ourselves in a society—with the exception of a core group of Christians—that is nearly illiterate when it comes to the Bible.

My guess is, what people do know is, Jesus born in a stable and dying on a cross. Adam and Eve eating fruit in the garden. David killing a giant. Moses parting the Red Sea. Ben Hur racing his chariot. (I did say there was near illiteracy, remember. 😉 )

Seriously, the average reader will no longer immediately recognize Biblical allusions or Biblical symbols. I am assigning no blame, just stating a fact. A pertinent fact for writers because our job is to communicate.

So what do we do if the reading public no longer recognizes Biblical allusions or symbols? Perhaps we rely on the core group of symbols and stories the audience does recognize.

And inoculation sets in.

Inoculation, when what we need to generate is contemplation. Meditation. Thoughtful self-scrutiny. Worship.

I’m not trying to be mystical about this. I really do believe that the best fiction is the kind that makes us think and rethink and days later remember and talk over what we read with someone else.

Producing stories that rework the same ground over and over will not accomplish this.

Does that mean Christian writers should no longer look to the Bible as a source for symbols and allusions that will communicate the ideas we wish? I think that question is worthy of further exploration another day.

Originally posted as part of a series on symbolism at A Christian Worldview of Fiction

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