Narrating into the “Heart of Darkness”

Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness begins with a first-person narrator on a yawl in the Thames with four other men. He sets the scene: “…the sky without a speck was a benign immensity of unstained light….” As night arrives, one of the other men, Marlow, begins talking. “‘And this also,’ said Marlow suddenly, ‘has been one of the dark places of the earth.'” 

That interruption is justified by narrator #1. “His remark did not seem at all surprising. It was just like Marlow.”

There is a narrative volley, as Marlow begins again at length, pauses—so we’re told by narrator #1—begins again, breaks off—again we’re told by narrator #1, who gives us another glimpse of the river: “Flames glided in the river, small green flames, red flames, white flames, pursing, overtaking, joining, crossing each other—.” 

Marlow begins again. We’re still on the yawl, listening, and he takes us on a trip up a different river into the African jungle, where, while working for a trading company, he met Mr. Kurtz, another trading company employee, who due to his unorthodox methods for collecting ivory and his great artistic talents has become a myth in his own time.

Lesson: Distinguish narrative voice through diction

Rivers, real and metaphoric, pull us through the story. Marlow’s river is unlike that of narrator #1. Marlow says, “We called at some more places with farcical names, where the merry dance of death and trade goes on in a still and earthy atmosphere as of an overheated catacomb; all along the formless coast bordered by dangerous surf, as if Nature herself had tried to ward off intruders; in and out of rivers, dreams of death in life, whose banks, were rotting into mud, whose waters, thickened into slime, invaded the contorted mangroves, that seemed to writhe at us in the extremity of an impotent despair.”

Marlow’s lengthy passages are in quotes, so we know he is the one speaking. But even if they weren’t in quotes, his words describe a river from an altogether darker point of view. 

Lesson: Use narrative structure for a story-telling effect

The first narrator occasionally breaks into Marlow’s narration, a device reminding us that Marlow has already returned safely and setting Marlow’s narration in storytelling context, leaving some doubt—is he exaggerating for effect? Natives attack, the jungle teems with menace. It’s Kurtz’s doing; the natives don’t want him to leave. Kurtz, who appears to have lost his sanity, comes on board and dies soon after with Marlow by his side. Kurtz’s last words stay with Marlow: “The horror! The horror!”

Marlow delivers letters to Kurtz’s intended and fudges the truth: he tells her that “The last word he pronounced was—your name.”  This is another story within a story, one that makes us aware that truth is subjective, as are stories and the telling of them.

Lesson: Shape narrative structure integral to theme

Marlow’s tale is a meditation on life and death, on greatness and failure. The encased narration gives the effect of going deeper into the layers of the story—the outer layer is the first narrator, the second layer is Marlow, and the third—at the heart—is Kurtz, the pearl in the oyster. Through the layered narration, readers are drawn into the story and witness Kurtz’s death. We are complicit when Marlow lies to Kurtz’s girlfriend about his final words, and we question whether or not we also would have lied.

When narrator #1 at the end takes us out of the story, we feel ourselves leave the rapture of the tale, as if waking from a dream. His description of the Thames reflects how the story has changed his point of view: I raised my head. The offing was barred by a black bank of clouds, and the tranquil waterway leading to the uttermost ends of the earth flowed sombre under an overcast sky—seemed to lead into the heart of an immense darkness.


The “I” That Binds “Joy Luck Club”

The stories of the four mothers and four daughters in Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club are all told through first-person point of view. This approach could be confusing, but Tan accomplishes her feat because she uses, actually, not eight points of view, but two: Chinese-born mothers and American-born daughters. The reader recognizes each narrator not so much through her distinctive voice as through the details of her life: the mothers are attached to their traditions; the daughters are 100% American.

The elder women have their Joy Luck, a mah jong become stock-market club. Suyuan Woo, who started the club, has died, and her daughter, Jing-mei “June,” begins the many-storied book by relating her mothers’ tale. Suyuan’s life was scarred; fleeing the Japanese invasion of Kweilin, she left her baby girls by the side of the road. This first story where June joins their club one night, initiates the narrative pull-through, introduces the other mothers, and mentions the daughters.

Lesson: Cohere your first person narrators

The glue that joins the stories comes from the deep misunderstandings and love that binds mother to daughter, old world to new. The older women dream of evocative past lives, and they chatter about discarded ambitions for their daughters. The daughters are not all best friends. There is rivalry, instilled by their mothers’ competition to have the best daughters. The daughters muddle through their contemporary marriages, careers, and divorces, unable to discard their heritage, always disappointing their mothers. June’s story weaves throughout and ends the novel. She goes back to China and finds the left-behind sisters. “Together we look like our mother.”

The American Heritage dictionary defines cohere as “To have internal elements or parts logically connected so that aesthetic consistency results. To cause to form a united, orderly, and aesthetically consistent whole. Interesting, cohere comes from the Latin “to cling.” In Tan’s narrative structure, the binding “I” is, ultimately, a hallmark of the book’s artistic integrity and the book’s gestalt. 

Together, Tan’s stories paint a vivid picture of clashing cultures and generations. The “I” that could have been confusing deepens the understanding between them all.

Strings Attached in “Vanity Fair”

William Makepeace Thackeray’s Vanity Fair is a romp, a performance, a puppet show told in sixty-seven chapters. The intruding narrator intermittently makes his presence and his control of the story known.

He anticipates and apologizes: “But as we are to see a great deal of Amelia…;” “…indeed I am afraid that her nose was rather short….” (p. 11, Penguin Books 2004 edition)

He admonishes: “How is this? Some carping reader exclaims.” (p. 125)

He challenges: “I throw out these queries for intelligent readers to answer….” (p. 251)

He abdicates: “Why was she so violently agitated at Dobbin’s request? This can never be known.”  (p. 252)

He assumes: “I doubt, I say, that Becky would have selected either of these young men….”  (p. 587)

He lectures: “…so an uninitiated man…had best keep his opinions to himself whatever they are.” (p. 589)

Subtitled “Novel without a Hero,” Vanity Fair has a heroine: Becky Sharp. She’s clever and spirited, self-centered and good-hearted, a wife and mother who is careless with her husband and child, a good friend to Amelia, the other heroine. The narrator is kind to Becky, looks out for her: “She has her enemies. Who has not? Her life is her answer to them. She busies herself in works of piety.”

A plethora of characters and events are packed into this novel: the narrator moves things along in quick summary or explanation, or drops back behind the action, but never for long. He comes directly into it: “It was on this very tour that I, the present writer of a history of which every word is true, had the pleasure to see them first, and to make their acquaintance.”

He’s omniscient (except when he feigns ignorance), but he’s also a character. He’s an entertainer. He’s the puppeteer, manipulating the story; and, as in watching a puppet show, readers are at times unaware, at times keenly aware, of the strings.

Lesson: Try it. Learn from it.

Writing an intruding narrator is a lot harder to pull off than it may seem. You may start strong, humorous, but not be able to maintain that level throughout the long form of a novel. Or the voice may divert attention from the story in an annoying way or become so intolerable the reader closes the book. Or you may write an acclaimed piece of contemporary metafiction.

The advantage of trying it is this: Once you’ve written that kind of narrator intentionally, you will probably be able to spot your own intrusions and residue of author’s notes more easily in your work when they aren’t desired.

Lesson: Use it incidentally for narrative control

You may decide to use a bit of intrusion in your work for narrative control. Ann Patchett does this in Bel Canto when she steps out of the story for a time bridge and begins again—So to rejoin the story a week after Mr. Hosokawa’s birthday party ended seems as good a place as any.

This jumped out at me the times that I’ve read Bel Canto. But it fits with the established narrative voice—omniscient, distant to close-third person point of view—fully in control, no nonsense (won’t waste our time), comforting, and wise.

Symmetry of “To Kill a Mockingbird”

As the story goes, when Harper Lee first submitted her manuscript for To Kill a Mockingbird in 1957 to J.P. Lippincott publishers, she was told it was a “series of short stories strung together.” She worked with an editor to shape the material into novel form, and the novel was published in 1960 to acclaim. It’s a good bet that few unpublished writers would get that kind of editorial help today, and it’s likely that some editors would reject this Pulitzer-Prize winning book on the grounds that the story wraps up too tidily and that some passages border on the polemic. Call me old-fashioned, I love the symmetry of this book and I can accept the author’s slipped-in moralities: failure of schools to teach, comparisons of Hitler’s Nazism to America’s racism, the detritus of missionary zeal in tribal cultures, hypocrisy of the “well-bred”—because of her handling of the narrative through Scout.

Lesson: Use symbols well to shape the story

Symbols abound in first-person narrator Scout’s world, and they are used by Lee to shape the story from first page to last.


A broken arm, described by Scout in the opening sentence, ties Jem, her brother and unfortunate victim, to Tom Robinson, the Negro convicted of raping a white woman. Jem’s left arm is “somewhat shorter than his right” and Tom’s left arm, seen two-thirds of the way through the book, “was fully twelve inches shorter than his right, and hung dead at his side.” The fact of Tom’s disability should have saved him from the rape conviction, but it doesn’t. Jem’s injury, mentioned in the first sentence, is not incurred until 20 pages from the novel’s completion. The broken arm, seen by the reader through Scout’s eyes as “dangling crazily in front of him,” bookends a story of racism and love.

Oak tree

An oak tree with its knothole and jutting roots looms large in Scout and Jem’s small-town neighborhood. The tree lies at the edge of the Radley property, along the route to school (though there is some confusion here—early in the book there are two oak trees that seem closer to Scout’s home and later there is the one that is closer to the school yard—oh, well—this may be evidence of the novel having been a series of stories). One day the knothole beckons with foil-wrapped gum, then other gifts such as soap sculpted in the likenesses of Scout and Jem, but soon the hole is plugged with cement, effectively cutting off the cryptic communication between the children and the mysterious filler-of-the-knothole-with-presents reclusive neighbor Boo Radley.

In the course of the story, the children venture beyond their neighborhood and the phantoms of their imagination to the larger world of the courtroom, where their father, Atticus, defends Tom, and where the children witness a truly bad man—Tom’s accuser Ewell— and learn the horrific outcome of his intentions.

The novel is winging its way to a close when the children, headed for a school Halloween pageant, pass under the oak—a stand-in for Boo. The reader is alerted: Boo has a role yet to play. When, on the way home, barefooted Scout (her vision obscured by her ham costume) “felt the sand go cold under my feet and I knew we were near the big oak,” it’s as if Boo were there, but we trust the narrator and the author not to shock by making Boo a villain. The children are accosted and Scout is unable to see who is grabbing her or who has appeared on the scene to save them. The reader understands before Scout does that the rescuer is probably Boo Radley.

Sharp implements, gestures, flowers, food, feet, dogs, birds

The attacker is Ewell, the man who with his daughter invented the rape story to frame Tom Robinson. Ewell is killed with a knife. His own? Boo’s? Scout can’t possibly know—she was inside the ham! The reader pieces it together as Scout sees and hears Atticus and Sheriff Tate discussing scenarios of the attack and the killing. By the time Atticus asks her, “Can you possibly understand?,” the reader is certain Boo killed Ewell in defense of the children, and knows that Atticus and Tate are corroborating on a story that Ewell fell on his knife. They want to protect Boo from being subjected to prosecution.” Earlier she’d been told that it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird, because all they do is sing, and she makes the connection saying to her father: “Well, it’d be sort of like shootin’ a mockingbird, wouldn’t it?

Sharp implements—scissors, hedge clippers, knives—slice into the story from beginning to end. Comforting gestures—Atticus’ pat on Jem’s head, Boo’s petting of Jem’s head, Scout’s hand on Boo’s arm as she escorts him home—add a gentle touch. Flowers—a garden of azaleas, camellias with tops lopped off, rows of potted geraniums—define and connect women characters. Food is ever present—as nourishment, payment of debt, gratitude, love, and social strata clues. Shoes and barefeet keep the story grounded in a rural Southern place. Soap—as sculpture, a sign of cleanliness, a measure of poverty—is a tactile element. A rabid dog, shot dead by Atticus, hints at the human deaths to come. Birds, real and symbolic—mockingbirds, the good-hearted Finch family and neighbors, populate the story and keep hope aloft through the end.

Full circle

The dangerous man is dead, racism is alive but more open to scrutiny in the Maycomb community, and the children are safe. Atticus gets the last word: “Most people are [nice], Scout, when you finally see them.” The book comes full circle to Jem, asleep with his bandaged arm. Atticus is in his son’s room and “would be there when Jem waked up in the morning.” Sigh. The reader rests in that moment of resolution.

Narrating “To Kill A Mockingbird”

There’s at least one great reason that To Kill a Mockingbird has been in print for 50 years: Scout. From the novel’s first sentence, this lovable, mischievous, innocent, hard-headed, and wise first-person narrator (aka Jean Louise Finch) takes us firmly by the hand and escorts us through a story spanning three years of her childhood and racial prejudice in a small Southern town. Her lost innocence and growing awareness is our own, again and again. Her matter-of-fact assessment “Well, it’d be sort of like shootin’ a mockingbird, wouldn’t it?” which comes at book’s end and is spoken to her father, Atticus, is as startling, provocative, and revelatory on rereading as it was the first time we came upon it. Why would anyone kill a mockingbird, when all it does is sing?

Whose story is it?

Harper Lee’s Scout is a masterful teacher for studying point of view and narrative voice. Writers are often confronted with the question: “Whose story is it?” The answer can lead to decisions about narrative structure. With Scout, the better question is “Whose story is it to tell?” Scout is at the center of story and it’s very much about her, but it’s also about her brother Jem, her attorney father, a recluse named Boo Radley, a black man unjustly accused, and the town of Maycomb, Alabama—a fictional microcosm of race and class prejudice in the Depression-era deep South. Scout can tell it not only because she witnesses most of it, but because she’s the innocent and can ask, “Well how do you know we ain’t Negroes?”

Published in 1960, To Kill a Mockingbird encapsulates a time and place before the civil rights movement. Scout’s narrative voice and point of view has kept the story relevant for current times. Issues of race, class, and morality continually challenge us and to see them fresh we need an unbiased, open perspective, such as Scout’s. Ultimately, it becomes again and again our story and ours to tell.

Lesson: Distinguish the voice through diction

It’s clear upfront that the story is being narrated after the incidents: “When enough years had gone by to enable us to look back on them…” The voice is adult—”Jem’s fears of never being able to play football were assuaged…” How many six-year-olds say “assuaged”? Lee’s mastery is in how that narrative voice dips easily back into Scout’s in-the-child-moment presence, so that we are there with her. Scout is intelligent and precocious, an avid reader who is told by her teacher not to read because she’s too far ahead of the class. The setup allows for young Scout’s intelligent observations and rich vocabulary of remembered descriptions, and also for authenticity. Because she’s a child living in a small town in the South—no matter how well she’s been schooled by herself or her self-schooled attorney father—she says things like “Dill’ll wanta come” and “Then I’m goin’ with you. If you say no you’re not, I’m goin’ anyway, hear?” and “Ain’t you feeling good?”

She’s childlike but not childish, and she’s a reliable source of information when it comes to knowing what’s important to children. She relates in high vocabulary an incident involving Jem and a cantankerous old woman—”I wasn’t sure what Jem resented most, but I took umbrage at Mrs. Dubose’s assessment of the family’s mental hygiene.” Two pages later, angry with Atticus for making Jem apologize to Mrs. Dubose, she slips from child wisdom —”I hated him for that, but when you are in trouble you become easily tired; soon I was hiding in his lap and his arms were around me.”— to child wondering—”I said I didn’t see why we had to keep our heads anyway, that nobody I knew at school had to keep his head about anything.” 

Lesson: Don’t tell all you know

As narrator, the adult Scout knows the answers to the child Scout’s questions, and she could tell us from her adult perspective. But, bless her heart, she doesn’t. Who put the carved soap figures in the knothole of the tree? Who saved Jem’s life?  The adult Scout lets the reader have the satisfaction of figuring many things out ahead of her childhood self. We know she knows all now, but understand what she didn’t know then. She pulls the reader through the story by sustaining the suspense as she experienced it in childhood. “Something crushed the chicken wire around me. Metal ripped on metal and I fell to the ground and rolled as far as I could, foundering to escape my wire prison. From somewhere near by came scuffling, kicking sounds, sounds of shoes and flesh scraping dirt and roots.” She’s in the ham costume, so logically she can’t see and tell in the moment. For this reason, among many, the ham costume is a masterful narrative prop. It keeps Scout and us in the dark and allows an omission of information that readers will accept, as they keep turning pages.

Lesson: Telescope

At times she speaks from the long view: “I never saw [Boo Radley] again.” At other times, she moves in closer to the action—“Christmas came and disaster struck”—and closer still— “I felt the sand go cold under my feet and I knew we were near the big oak.” This telescoping keeps us engaged as readers. It gives us the bigger picture for context and draws us into the details with sensory writing. 

Lesson: Write a lovable narrator

Narrators don’t have to be easy to love, and they may be hard to like. But in this case, To Kill a Mockingbird has sold tens of millions of copies and is called “One of the best-loved stories of all time” because readers like spending time with Scout. She’s at the center of the story, but she’s not self-centered, any more than a child is naturally. “It was plain that Aunty thought me dull in the extreme, because I once heard her tell Atticus that I was sluggish.” She’s curious, feisty, and forgiving. “Yeah Walter, I won’t jump on you again. Don’t you like butterbeans? Our Cal’s a real good cook.” She’s humble enough to wear a ham costume in public—”Jem said I looked exactly like a ham with legs. There were several discomforts, though: it was hot, it was a close fit; if my nose itched I couldn’t scratch, and once inside I could not get out of it alone.” (This description sets up her inability to escape in the subsequent scene where she’s accosted while walking home wearing the costume.) She’s brave enough to take the arm of a man whom she’s been terrified of for years—”Mr. Arthur, bend your arm down her, like that. That’s right, sir.” She makes sense of the world, as much as can be made, for her in her time and for us in ours.

More Story Seeds

As a fiction writer, I’ve been intrigued by how something of apparently little consequence, whether overheard, experienced, or imagined, can generate an overwhelming desire in me to start a novel, becoming an “essential,” as Alice Munro puts it. The American Heritage dictionary defines essential as “Constituting or being part of the essence of something; inherent.” In my own work, I’ve been surprised at how that seed or essence implants and then grows a story within which the seminal force may be buried, perhaps forgotten as I write, but still traceable.

Begin with Overheard Conversation

For instance, once I was in a cluster of conversation at the California Historical Society where the director, standing near me, said, “The Pomos had a name for everything.” This comment describing how the Native Americans would name features of their landscape—rocks, trees, hills—struck me as incredibly beautiful and powerful, and served as inspiration for what several years later became a contemporary novel set in Northern California. In the manuscript, a character speaks the incidental line of dialogue—I wanted to retain the novel’s seed within—but it’s the reverence in the context of the statement that guided the making of the story, which became not at all about Pomos, but much about people loving one another and living with a sense of place. 

Munro’s “Essentials”

In the Introduction to her Selected Stories, Alice Munro reveals the seeds that germinated several of the selections. The revelations are brief, suggesting only an image, conversation, person, or situation that sparked the stories, and they’re fascinating. Munro’s clues to her stories’ beginnings tease me to want more, to follow her from where the sprouting began to the full bloom, to guess how the seed spawned the story. Perhaps this guesswork is risky or misguided, but it’s also instructive.

Begin with a Gesture

“Simon’s Luck,” Munro says, began with “the girl in the costume dress bending over the kittens.”

Begin with an Image from Another Person’s Memory

Two pages later in the Introduction she says the story “came from a story told me at a party by a man who had been hidden in a railway car, as a Jewish child in France during the Second World War.”

Begin with a Hybrid: One + One = Much More Than Two

Here we have a hybrid, a common occurrence in writing. Putting two or more essences together sparks a more complexly layered story. In Simon’s Luck, Munro gives her character Simon the railway car story for his own. Simon meets Rose, the story’s protagonist, at a party for faculty of a community college where she teaches drama. Before meeting Simon, Rose had been in the bedroom of the party’s hostess and observed the hostess, the girlfriend of the host, kneeling by a basket containing a tortoiseshell cat suckling four tiny, blind kittens. “’That’s Tasha,“ the girl said. “We can look at her kittens but we can’t touch them, else she wouldn’t feed them anymore.” 

Simon and Rose strike up a conversation and, through subsequent narration that includes the railway car story, we’re taken to a scene in Rose’s house, where she is in bed with Simon after the party, and she is telling Simon he is lucky to have survived. Simon is a sexy, attentive man, ready to fix her furnace as The Humble Workman, or make “triumphant smacking noises against her navel” as The Mad Satyr. Rose allows herself to fall for him. He cooks “a remarkable supper from the resources provided, while Rose did nothing much but stand around watching, and change the sheets.” He offers to plant her a garden, digs up the yard, and works the soil. She is delighted with him and cries out, “Oh, Simon, you idiot, you’re the man for my life!” She expects him to call her and return the next weekend, but she doesn’t hear from him.

Hurt and unable to face what she perceives as abandonment by him, she leaves her rented house and drives, abandoning her life and the phantom of love. In Vancouver, “Luck was with her,” and she lands a part in a TV series. A year later, she discovers that Simon died of pancreatic cancer, something he’d had for a long time. 

Where does a seed go? How does it grow into the story?

The railway car story seed is easy to trace, but what happened to the girl bending over the kitten basket? Where did that essential image go?  An essence is hard to put into words, which is why people write thousands of words trying to get at just what is there in a gesture seen, felt, and remembered.

The dialogue line could be a clue: “We can look at her kittens but we can’t touch them, else she wouldn’t feed them anymore.” Or there could be a clue in the lines of narrative: “She knelt down by the basket, crooning, talking to the mother cat with an intense devotion that Rose thought affected…” and “Rose knew by now that when she found people affected, as she did this girl…it was usually because she, Rose, hadn’t received and was afraid she wouldn’t receive the attention she wanted…she might be doomed to hang around on the fringes of things, making judgments.” Here, perhaps, is a build on the essential image, a way of understanding Rose’s character. She needs attention: Has she been poorly mothered? Abandoned? We learn Rose has a seventeen-year-old daughter, Anna, who has a paternal grandmother. No maternal grandmother? And where is Anna living? With her father, Patrick? Not with Rose. Has Rose neglected her? We learn Anna is “so silent, so fastidious, so unforthcoming” with her Rose. 

Lesson: Write & Read to Discover Psychological Underpinnings

Do the potentially abandoned kittens resonant in Simon’s character? We know he was separated from his mother at an early age. Is it his sense of abandonment as well as Rose’s that keeps each of them from allowing their feelings of a weekend to flourish into a real relationship, no matter how short or long term?

Waiting for Simon’s call, Rose tells herself, “Better lose him now.” She’s fantasized that he’s gone to Europe, camping, or to get married. As she drives, she imagines that maybe he’s turning into her driveway at that very moment. But she argues with herself: “Even so, even if that were true, what would happen some day, some morning? Some morning she could wake up and she would know by his breathing that he was awake beside her and not touching her, and that she was not supposed to touch him.”

Now we learn more about poor Rose. “Never since Patrick had she been the free person, the one with that power; maybe she had used it all up…” She imagines that if she were with Simon, she’d hear him one day at a party telling his railway story, saying, “And then I knew I’d be all right, I knew it was a lucky sign.” She imagines Simon having power over her to hurt her. In leaving, she avoids giving him that power. 

Lesson: Enrich Meaning through Narrative and Action

We’re told from the start of the story that Rose “gets lonely in new places.” She easily abandons home, easily gives up her own power. She’s done it before. Will she do it again? Munro puts us in the car with Rose as she drives away from the pain of what she perceives as Simon’s abandonment of her. She finds her own luck in the TV show, the new start, but it appears she’s repeating her patterns. In the end, when she learns of Simon’s dying, she thinks it unfair, preposterous, that “even at this late date [she] could have thought herself the only person who could seriously lack power.”

The story’s essence comes from that basket of kittens, vulnerable and completely helpless to prevent being abandoned, and the mother cat, powerless to overcome an instinct that if her kittens are touched, she will abandon them. Rose’s fears—of touching and being touched, of giving someone power over her by being touched by him or touching him, of truly giving and receiving love—make her powerless and helpless. She is the cat and the kitten.

See “Gatekeepers & Story Seeds” for more Munro.

Master Craft Juggling

Writing a book is like juggling balloons. You pay attention to one element or the other, while a centrifugal force in your mind keeps them floating together in a big balloon cloud above your head.

Master Fiction Craft Juggling

A graphic depiction of learning fiction craft mastery


 In Read to Write, we begin with first sentences (front gatekeepers), because that’s where we begin as readers. A writer may, in fact, begin in any number of places—with a story seed (whether consciously or not), a character, place, theme, or any other craft element. This diagram shows how the course structure works for your manuscript draft or revision or to gain understanding of an author’s mastery. As we start at 1, thinking about beginnings, we’re also looking to the end (last sentences, gates swinging shut or opening out past the story) and to all that comes between. When writing a book, each craft element influences the development of all the others, and as the book builds from its essential reason for being, the cumulative effect of the elements reaches out to re-influence each element again individually.

This back-and-forth and circular dynamic enriches the writing and the book’s gestalt. Initial close examination of a few sentences sets the standard for mastery. The book is composed of sentences, paragraphs, scenes, and chapters, into which we infuse all the elements. The thrill and challenge of writing a book is in keeping it all juggling in the air, whether while writing or going about other activities and consciously or subconsciously tucking new thoughts and observations up into the individual thought balloons and the larger whole.

Books by masterful authors, whether read during the course of working on a project or echoing from having been read however long ago, continually instruct and influence a writer’s processes and projects. 

The diagram above shows why a book project may feel like its spinning totally out of control at times or like its humming along at other times. The writer must make each element serve the cumulative effect of the book. Elements out of balance throw off synchronicity. 

Writers go through a semblance of this craft process many times, perhaps many hundreds of times, when writing a book. And with each new project, they begin again. Call it revision, but it’s more than that. It’s mastery, for which there are no direct routes, easy steps, or guaranteed results. No matter how skilled or famous the writer is, each new book calls for juggling its own way.

Gatekeepers & Story Seeds

Gatekeepers & Story Seeds ~ Session 1 (2010) Followup

Watercolor of peapod by Christine Walker

In the Read to Write Books course in fiction craft, “Gatekeepers” is my term for the role that first and last sentences play. “Story Seeds” are the tangible or ineffable things without which a book would have a different essential reason for being or not exist at all.

Employ a Masterful Gatekeeper 

Mastery is knowing when and how to bring a reader into the story. At the reader’s point of entrance—the first sentence—the author can swing the gate wide—“Come on in!” —or tap it slightly to invite the reader to step in, then push the gate wider, step, push wider. Some books have layered gatekeepers—one narrator  kicks open the gate and eventually leads the reader to another narrator. Life of Pi and Heart of Darkness, which we’ll cover in Session 2, are examples of layered narrative.

Mastery is also knowing when and how to end the story, whether to close the back gate, leave it ajar, or swing it out to extend the story beyond the book.

Lesson: Choose a noun to do the work of several adjectives

Isak Dinesen’s first sentence from Out of Africa, examined in depth in an earlier post, contains the remarkable phrase “at the foot” (“of the Ngong Hills.”) It’s an instructive example of the heavy lifting a four-letter Anglo-Saxon word can do for a writer. “Foot” opened up vistas of discussion in the workshop sessions. It animates Dinesen’s landscape and lends a human quality. It evokes elevations. It’s a body part, but not a particularly lovely one. It’s serviceable. It connects us to the earth, as Dinesen felt connected herself and wanted her readers to feel connected. It grounds us, implies reverence and a glance up to the Ngong Hills, which echo throughout the story.

Close the gate firmly

In the last sentence, the glance is a long look back from her departing train—the hills are “levelled out by the hand of distance.” The back gatekeeper closes her story for us softly, yet firmly, on a time and place (her farm, colonial Kenya, Africa) that will never be the same again for her, or for us, other than in her memoir.

Lesson: Choose language and punctuation to entice readers

J.M. Coetzee’s first sentence from Disgrace doesn’t draw us in with its beauty. In fact, it does just the opposite. The first half threatens to shut the reader out: “For a man of his age, fifty-two, divorced, he has…” The commas constrain, the information doesn’t tantalize. We already may know more than we care to about this guy. Then Coetzee kicks open the gate: “,to his mind, solved the problem of sex rather well.” To his mind? We snap to attention. Is the narrator giving us insight to more than this man knows about himself? Does the man just think he’s solved the problem of sex, and the narrator is telling us he hasn’t. Or is this smug commentary coming from our protagonist? It’s suddenly compelling. And in what way is sex a “problem”? And only “a” problem? With “problems” of sex, might we lend our sympathy? And why the equivocation in “rather” well?

Coetzee infuses his intimate and difficult human dramas with encompassing concerns of the human condition. In Disgrace, sexual power, domination, vulnerability, and disgrace, as experienced by the characters whether male/female, black/white, stand for political and cultural power and control in post-colonial, post-apartheid South Africa. The story contains the larger themes, but its intimacy isn’t diminished by them. There is no polemic in sight.

The first sentence sets the pace and the constraints the man faces. By the sixth word, he’s boxed in by his age and gender; his life is faltering just as the series of commas sets a faltering pace. Due to having sex with a student, protagonist David is cut off from his university career, diminished by his choices to play by the rules or not, partitioned off from his daughter during and after her brutal rape by a trio of men. The rape leaves her determined to stay on her farm in spite of mounting racial tension and hatred directed toward her, a vulnerable white woman.

Leave the gate open

In the end, Coetzee lets us out the back gate and leaves it gaping. David speaks the last sentence: “Yes, I am giving him up.” He’s referring to the lame dog he’s brought to the kennel to euthanize, but he is also referring to his wounded self and to his damaged country. The gate opens onto hope that damaged people, damaged countries, with histories of despair and violence, can heal their souls.

Story Seeds

I call them “story seeds.” Alice Munro calls them “essentials.” Marsha Arnold, a participant in the Sebastopol 2010 course, uses the term “story seeds” differently in her teaching, so she suggested “heart of” for our discussion. That works. Story seeds may have a tangible or ineffable quality but, in my definition, they aren’t “ideas.”

To me, a story seed is sensory. It may come from an image, memory, gesture, overheard conversation—any number of sources. I may have an idea when I start a project, but it’s the story seed nudging something in my heart and mind that provides the guiding essence. I may not have an idea, and yet that seed planted whenever begins to grow into words and images. If I can’t disengage, if I trust the writing process, I eventually have a book—hopefully a good one!

Touching the Seed

In the Introduction to Alice Munro’s Selected Stories (Vintage Contemporaries, 1997), she reveals several “essentials.” She says, “I don’t talk about these beginnings or essentials very much, because they are hard to explain and tend to fade anyway after the story has been put out in the world and become a stranger to me…But I can tell you that in Walker Brothers Cowboy, it’s the father speaking to the tramp.” 

In the story, a little girl, on an outing with her father, is frightened of the tramp. She doesn’t understand what he says to her father and can only witness her father’s response and gesture:
“I’ll roll you a cigarette if it’s any use to you,” he says, and he shakes tobacco out carefully on one of the thin butterfly papers, flicks it with his tongue, seals it and hands it to the tramp, who takes it and walks away.”

Within this short scene, the essence of the story is established. There is dialogue—adult to adult—that we can’t overhear or understand because we are within the girl’s point-of-view. The offhand camaraderie between the father and the tramp excludes the girl; it shows her, and us, that there is a world in which her father moves where he is not fully known to her. 

Growing the Story 

The gesture foreshadows the pivotal scene in which the father, a traveling salesman, is feeling frustration and failure at his demeaning job. Accompanied by his daughter and son, he stops (outside his sales territory) to visit a former girlfriend, whom the daughter doesn’t know. The woman clearly has had a relationship of some kind with the father. Again, we see the scene through the girl’s consciousness; she intuits the sexual tension between the woman and her father. The girl is in the bud of her own sexuality, not fully aware, yet cognizant that the drinking and dancing and other things she witnesses are not to be mentioned to her mother. She does understand that the woman “digs with the wrong foot,” meaning the woman is Catholic, and thus different, not acceptable to the girl’s mother. Yet her father had befriended the woman, as he had the tramp. 

(Side note: Here’s “foot” again with another entirely different meaning. What a hard-working word!)

On the car ride home, the girl’s world has changed, opened, darkened—“like a landscape that has an enchantment on it, making it kindly, ordinary and familiar while you are looking at it, but changing it, once your back is turned, into something you will never know, with all kinds of weathers, and distances you cannot imagine.” She has glimpsed past her own tight childhood boundaries into an adult world—secret, forbidden, mysterious—and though she returns to her safe haven of home, we know this day has been a defining one, begun with that simple intimate gesture of her father rolling a cigarette for a homeless man.

A Masterful Lesson

How Munro went from the rolling of the cigarette to this powerfully imagined and deep story is her mastery. Kelly Shaw in the Petaluma Workshop commented on the craft involved in rolling a cigarette and the charity in the gesture. The father makes light of his gift —”if it’s any use to you” —creating an atmosphere of intimacy that infuses Munro’s writing.

Lesson: Mimic the Gesture

Try rolling the cigarette paper, thumbs sliding back and forth over fingertips, the tip of the tongue on the paper, the lightness of the cigarette between your fingertips as you hand it to the tramp. This sensation of touch and offering is something “kindly, ordinary and familiar” from which grows the extraordinary story—”something you will never know” but will keep trying to understand and imagine.  

See “More Story Seeds” from Munro.