Whether he realizes it or not, a writer makes his readers a promise, or actually a string of promises. In the first line, the first paragraph, the first page, scene, and chapter, the author is promising, promising, promising. Will the story be funny? Is the character irascible? Will the setting determine the outcome? Is the mood gloomy? Does the point of view character tell the truth? And on and on go the questions to which the author answers with promises.
Interestingly, these answers are only important in so far as the author keeps his promises. If he lets readers know on page one that this story has a jaunty, humorous flavor, that decision is no better or worse than if he lets the readers know the story will have a dark, brooding flavor. What the author must not do is promise one thing and deliver something else. In other words, he must not promise a jaunty, humorous story and switch to a dark, brooding tale half way through.
At first glance this idea of promise may seem suspect. After all, things change during the course of a story. Why can’t a character suffer loss and become sullen instead of happy-go-lucky? Actually, he can. Change works as long as that change is motivated.
If a bird can’t fly on page one, then he shouldn’t be able to fly on page 151 … unless something has happened which makes it believable that yes, the bird can now fly.
This “believability” is actually “story believability.” If the author has created a world in which animals can receive transplants, then a wing transplant would be a believable cause for the bird’s change in flying ability. If, on the other hand, the author creates a world in which animals trust people, it would be believable if an avian aficionado finds an injured bird and nurses it to wholeness.
Put another way, whatever motivates change in the story must be true to the rules of that particular story world. Essentially the author lays down those rules in the early pages of his novel. In essence, he is promising that the rest of the story is going to continue within these parameters, according to these particulars.
Some weeks ago in the discussion about backstory, we looked at the opening of Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” Here’s the first paragraph again:
- Once, long ago, there lived an Emperor who loved new clothes. He loved clothes so much that he thought of nothing else all day and spent all his time and money in acquiring more and more, ever more beautiful clothes.
The promise here is that the central character has this particular obsession with clothes. If halfway through the story, with no believable change to the story rules, the king no longer cared about clothes, the author would have broken his promise to readers.
In The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, if Aslan the great lion who reigned in Narnia stopped being a talking lion, C. S. Lewis would have violated his own story rules. He would have broken faith with his readers who came to understand that in Narnia, Talking Animals were not only possible but the norm. In a later book, in fact, Lewis creates a reason why fewer and fewer animals are of the talking variety. The change, then, becomes believable and consistent because it adheres to the change that occurred within the story rules.
Is your character logical and even-tempered? Then he must remain so unless something consistent with the way the story works, brings a personality altering change.
Earlier this week over at A Christian Worldview of Fiction, I invited visitors to look at the openings of six different novels. Why not take a few moments to drop by and see what promises you think the authors of those excerpts are making to their readers in those first lines.