Vivid Storytelling Requires Delivery of Experience, Not Just Information

Image: train tracks disappearing into the distance
Photo credit: WabbitWanderer on Visual Hunt / CC BY-SA

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.

First Page

In the morning, the soldiers will pack the women prisoners into cattle cars and send them away. A lieutenant stands atop a crate and snaps at the prisoners to form a line for rations. When a pained cry rises from the crowd, pleading with the officer as to where the army is sending them, it goes unanswered.

Lee Palmer muscles to the front of the line in case supplies are limited. Someone elbows her ribs. There’s a fierce yank on her braid. Despite the yelling and crying of the women, she overhears a whisper that their destination is Nashville. This would not be so wretched, she thinks, there are worst places to go.

Lee reaches the two privates who shove rations across a wide table in a mechanical, hurried fashion. Lee seizes the parcels and forces her way back through the crowd so she can examine her food in safety where no greedy hands will tug it free. Twenty ounces of salted pork in a cloth, hardtack crusted with weevils, three cans of peas. This is too much food for Nashville, she thinks. The army is not generous with its food. She closes her eyes as she remembers the railroad maps of this region. Travel time to Nashville with stops in Chattanooga and Murfreesboro: two weeks. This was before the war. Perhaps there is no longer a railroad to Nashville. For all Lee knows of the outside world, there may no longer be a Nashville.

Lee sits on the dirty wood floor amongst the other prisoners, but despite their shared condition, despite her years at the mill alongside them, she is not invited into their little circles of panic.

Nancy, her only friend, hops over the outstretched legs of an elderly woman, her hands clutching her measly rations to her chest like family heirlooms. She settles in beside Lee, and though Lee can tell her friend has been crying, she has to say it.

“They’re sending us somewhere far,” Lee says.

Nancy’s tears are immediate and furious. She curls up beside Lee, head on her shoulder. Lee strokes Nancy’s hair since that’s how Mama calmed her after a nightmare, but it does little to soothe Nancy.

They were four hundred women in total. All of them poor. Many without a full set of teeth, many without shoes. At the Roswell Mills, they spun cotton for rope and uniforms and stitched tents and stretchers in a room flush with hot cotton fibers in exchange for a place to sleep and one hot meal a day.

When the Yankee Army came to this corner of Georgia, it found little resistance. The Yankees seized the Roswell Mills without firing a contemptuous shot.

The only gunfire came from overzealous privates who shot out the windows of the barracks after the officers told the women, gathered in the center of the property, they were under arrest.

The Yankees then brought the women—now prisoners—to Marietta to wait in the abandoned military college there till someone with authority decided what to do with them. Now they know. They’re to be deported.

Lee continues to brush Nancy’s greasy hair while her mind reels.

Theo, you promised, she thinks. You said you would come back for me.

They’re sending us away. You need to come back before it is too late.

First-Page Critique

Though I know which side won, I’m no expert on the Civil War. And though I’d heard of the Roswell Mills, it was only after reading this first page of a work of historical fiction that I did some digging to learn the role it played in that terrible conflict. Located north of Atlanta near the Chattahoochee River, the cluster of mills produced textiles from cotton grown on nearby plantations. When the war started, the mills turned to producing a fabric of a uniquely drab color known as “Roswell Gray” and made into Confederate uniforms. On July 5, 1864, General Sherman’s troops seized the mill and ordered all four hundred of its employees—mostly women and children—arrested for treason and sent by train to a military institute in Marietta, where they were held for a week before being expelled to points north. During that week, many of the women were subjected to assaults by Union soldiers assigned to guard them. Subsequently their fates were no better. Left to their own devices, without money, contacts, or any prospect of employment, many starved to death.

That’s the background of this first page. But unless readers know it, they can’t be blamed for thinking they’re dealing with entirely different “cattle cars” in an altogether different war. That was my experience on first reading this page, at least up to the word “Nashville” toward the end of the second paragraph, by which time my imagination had already conjured a quite different scene. Possibly this was the author’s intent: to achieve a sort of lap-dissolve in the reader’s mind whereby an infamous twentieth-century wartime horror is supplanted by an obscure, nineteenth-century one. But though such a dissolve effect might be extremely effective on film, where it can be choreographed to within a fraction of frame, on paper it’s a recipe for confusion and the dismay and resentment bred by it. Unless absolutely warranted by the material, my general rule is never confuse your readers.

Confusion aside, this little-known episode of the Civil War is terrific material for a historical novel, and overall the writing on this first page is more than competent. Still, there are ways in which it can be improved.

Let’s start with the first paragraph, written from a non-specific, neutral perspective. Who sees the Lieutenant? Who hears that “pained cry”? Whose experiences are given to us here, from what vantage point? Answer: that of a colorless narrator located everywhere and nowhere. We may as well be getting not experiences, but information. The difference between the two is the difference between bland and vivid storytelling.

In fact, someone must be hearing and seeing these things, and that someone, we soon come to realize, is the “Lee Palmer” who “muscles to the front of the line in case supplies are limited.” With that first sentence of the second paragraph a clear perspective is engaged. We are no longer reading information; we are sharing an experience.

We would share it even more solidly were the emphasis of the sentence not misplaced, with the subordinate clause serving as its punch-line, and the words “in case,” which convey motive rather than action, replaced by an active verb. The sentence would be stronger still if we had some idea who “Lee Palmer” is: not an officer or a soldier—in fact not a man—but a female prisoner of the Union Army. (On a side-note: it was not until after the Civil War that, in the Northern states, anyway, and for obvious reasons, the name Lee became fashionable.)

“Knowing how limited supplies were, Union prisoner-of-war Lee Palmer muscles her way to the front of the line.” Now not only do we have some idea of who Lee Palmer is, we know we’re in not World War II but the Civil War, so we can more-or-less form an accurate picture of the scene in our minds. And isn’t that the point of fiction, to create experiences for the reader precisely and clearly, so that the experiences become theirs? To that end what role does confusion play? Unless the experience is confusion, none.

This is why properly engaging POV is so crucial, since things are always experienced by a particular sensibility operating from a specific vantage point, rather than generally from a neutral, disembodied perspective.

The rest of this first-page engages its protagonist’s experiences tenuously and fitfully. “There is a fierce yank on her braid.” That’s half or two-thirds of Lee’s experience; it would be the whole shebang if the sentence were, “Someone yanked on her braid” or “She felt a tug on her braid.” In the next sentence Lee “overhears a whisper.” But to overhear a whisper you have to be close enough to the source to both hear and see the whisperer, yet the source of the whisper is unidentified, as if it doesn’t matter, or—less likely still—as if Lee Palmer doesn’t care, though she certainly would, since those whispered words may seal her fate.

The next paragraph (“Lee reaches the two privates…”) is the first one that thoroughly and consistently engages Lee’s experience, so by the time we read “The army is not generous with its food,” we read it not as bland information, but as Lee’s perspective on things. Things continue well through the next paragraph, until we get to the fifth paragraph and Nancy, Lee’s “only friend,” who “hops over the outstretched legs of an elderly woman.” “Hops” is the verb, but it should be “sees” or “watches,” and it ought to pertain to Lee’s experience, not Nancy’s. “Lee sees Nancy, her only friend, hopping over the outstretched legs of an elderly woman.” See the difference? As written, either the sentence engages Nancy’s experience, in which case it’s a jarring point-of-view shift, or it engages the author’s perspective, which is as good as none at all. Point of view is the difference between the author and the narrator.

Two sentences later we read that Lee’s stroking of Nancy’s hair “does little to soothe Nancy.” I believe it, but it’s information. Whose information is it? Lee’s. How does she know it? We don’t know, but we can guess. Perhaps by the look on her friend’s face as Lee strokes her hair, or by the tears still welling in her eyes, or the trembling of her shoulders. Those may be Lee’s experiences, the concrete evidence from which she derives her information. Instead of giving us Lee’s information, give us that evidence; let us draw conclusions from it.

Your First Page SelginSimilarly, Lee can’t possibly experience “400 women in total.” What she experiences is a throng of women. She might conclude—with remarkable precision—that they total 400; but the more likely explanation for that figure is an author injecting her own awareness.

Reread the rest of this page and see for yourself which moments authentically engage Lee’s experience, and which fail to do so. Then imagine, with her experiences thoroughly and consistently engaged throughout this already striking and gripping first page, how much more striking and gripping it would be.

Your turn: How would you assess this opening? (Be constructive.)

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