Today’s post is by regular contributor Peter Selgin, the award-winning author of Your First Page. He offers first-page critiques to show just how much useful critical commentary and helpful feedback can be extracted from a single page—the first page—of a work-in-progress. Learn more about getting a first-page critique.
Henry winced and lowered his hands like a conductor shushing the strings.
“You’re talking too loud.”
Olivia adjusted the volume and continued to talk; it didn’t really matter what about, most likely a new poem, or a story she was working on, something she’d read in the paper that got her blood boiling; or maybe a juicy bit of gossip she thought he’d appreciate.
She knew she should have stopped after the wincing, definitely after the shushing. But she hoped that if she told the story just right, he would laugh, see the irony, share her outrage or amusement. As always, she hoped this time would be different; that something other than pathology would engage him.
Olivia had been told by experts to bury this hope, that Henry would never enjoy the give and take of conversation again, even though he was quite talkative himself, but this felt too much like a death. She allowed herself to be sucked in, say too much. She did her best to speak in simple sentences, to keep herself from spinning the stories he once cherished, the sort of thing the rehab people routinely told families to avoid. She resented the notion that a successful patient was one whose partner suppressed her personality for the good of the other.
“Calm down,” he said, glaring at her.
“I am calm,” she said, “just animated.”
“You do that to torture me.”
“My talking is torture to you?”
“You know it is.”
“Why don’t I just control my heartbeat.”
She hadn’t meant to snap at him; she never did. It wasn’t his fault.
As long as she could separate Henry from the angry stranger inhabiting him at times like this, she was okay. Brain injury didn’t give a damn that it was a summer day and she wanted to enjoy a walk with her husband, hold hands; maybe stop somewhere nice for lunch, preferably al fresco. Twenty-two years had taught her that. It didn’t leap out of bed and bound into conversation, especially with a wife who’d been up for hours, a writer who lived to tell stories …
First Page Critique
This novel opening presents us with a man and a woman bickering. The man’s name is Henry, the woman Olivia. Although eventually we learn that they are husband and wife, for the better part of this first page their relationship is mysterious, nor do we know in what setting their bickering occurs. Indoors, outdoors? At a restaurant? In their living or bedroom? What we do soon come to realize is that Olivia, whose perspective we share, is frustrated by her inability to converse as she used to with her husband, who—we also discover—has suffered brain damage.
Among a novelist’s chief challenges is that of determining what information to supply when and where: how to balance the desire to arouse suspense with the need to prevent confusion. In this opening the balance tips toward confusion. The nature of the relationship, the setting, even the precise subject of the conversation (something to do with Olivia’s writing) are withheld from us, as is the cause of Henry’s disability, how long he has been ill, and how long he and Olivia have been together.
Our ability to invest emotionally in the given scene, to care about these people, depends on our being supplied with at least some of that context. Otherwise we’re left with a couple of indeterminate conjugal status bickering in a vacuum owing largely to the husband’s unspecified mental condition.
What information to supply, and when to supply it: It’s a question not of plot, but of structure. Often as authors we know our plot; we’ve got all the causal-relation puzzle pieces. We just aren’t sure how to put them together, in what order. Supply too much information too soon, and you destroy suspense. Supply too little and you create false suspense, otherwise known as confusion.
To put to rest some of the nagging false suspense questions raised by the given opening, and establish the necessary context for it, would it not make sense to enter this story earlier, with the inciting incident, i.e. the event that resulted in the circumstance at the story’s center—namely, the incident or accident that caused Henry’s brain damage? Whether Henry’s affliction was caused by a tumor, a stroke, a car or sporting accident, or something falling from the sky, doesn’t matter. What matters is that we know what happened and aren’t made to “guess” when that “guessing” has nothing to do with the relationship under scrutiny. As openings go, it would also be more dramatic.
That’s the strategy taken by Ann Packer in The Dive From Clausen’s Pier, her bestseller about a woman’s conflicted sense of responsibility toward her fiancée after he breaks his neck and becomes paralyzed as a result of diving off the titular pier into a too-shallow reservoir. Packer’s novel begins, “When something terrible happens to someone else, people often use the word ‘unbearable.’” Though the accident itself is alluded to rather than dramatized, by the end of the first page Michael is comatose in a hospital bed: the inciting incident has been supplied to us.
Tom McCarthy’s Remainder likewise begins with an accident—indeed, one that alters his first-person protagonist’s brain. It begins:
About the accident itself I can say very little. Almost nothing. It involved something falling from the sky. Technology. Parts, bits. That’s it, really: all I can divulge. Not much, I know.
Though skimpy on details (excusably if conveniently, since the protagonist’s memory was affected), we have all the context necessary to proceed.
Another celebrated novel that open with memory and an accident is Stephen King’s Misery.
Memory was slow to return. At first there was only pain. The pain was total, everywhere, so that there was no room for memory.
Here, too, at first the accident that delivers author Paul Sheldon into the guest room (and the clutches) of a pathological fan is merely alluded to; we learn of the car accident only as Paul remembers it, through a fog of pain. If we’re confused, it’s Paul’s confusion that we share. The suspense is organic: it isn’t false; it’s real. King gives us everything we need to inhabit the moment of that opening scene.
Ian McEwan’s Enduring Love presents us with another writer (of science) whose emotional equilibrium is shattered by an accident—in this case, a stranger’s death in a freak hot-air balloon accident.
The beginning is simple to mark. We were in sunlight under a turkey oak, partly protected from a strong, gusty wind. I was kneeling on the grass with a corkscrew in my hand, and Clarissa was passing me the bottle—a 1987 Daumas Gassac. This was the moment, this was the pinprick on the time map: I was stretching out my hand, and as the cool neck and the black foil touched my palm, we heard a man’s shout. We turned to look across the field and saw the danger. Next thing, I was running toward it.
Though not a work of fiction, Floyd Skloot’s In the Shadow of Memory recounts his experience of disability as the result of brain damage caused by a virus. The author wastes little time getting to his “inciting incident.” Skloot’s memoir opens thus:
I used to be able to think. My brain’s circuits were all connected and I had spark, a quickness of mind that let me function well in the world. I could reason and total up numbers; I could find the right word, could hold a thought in mind, match faces with names, converse coherently in crowded hallways, learn new tasks. I had a memory and an intuition that I could trust.
All that changed when I contracted the virus that targeted my brain. More than a decade later, most of the damage is hidden.
Here, the author takes a less dramatic (scene oriented) approach, with the POV character confronting us directly, through exposition, with his situation. I can imagine a similar opening for the novel-in-question. But I can also imagine one in which, one way or another, we experience the cause of Henry’s brain injury. It might be a brief prologue or a new first chapter, one that sets up the given opening wherein we re-enter Henry and Olivia’s marriage however many months or years following the event.
However different, with each of the above examples, directly or indirectly, via summary or scene, the novelist gives us the inciting incident, the event that caused the conditions that set the plot in motion, thereby framing the question[s] that, presumably, the novel will go on to explore. And as Chekov said, the fiction writer’s job isn’t to give answers, but to frame the questions correctly.
Your turn: How would you assess this opening? (Be constructive.)