Busy readers love novels that pull them right into a novel’s core conflict. You’re busy—let’s see how it works.
Example 1: Bel Canto
Here are the opening sentences to Ann Patchett’s breakout literary novel, Bel Canto [additional lush sentences cut for length]:
When the lights went off the accompanist kissed her. Maybe he had been turning towards her just before it was completely dark, maybe he was lifting his hands. There must have been some movement, a gesture, because every person in the living room would later remember a kiss. They did not see a kiss, that would have been impossible. The darkness that came on them was startling and complete. [paragraph continues]
After raising this question of why the lights went out, Patchett uses a couple of sentences to define the context—those gathered had not all been opera lovers, for instance, although they are now—and then brings us right back to the room:
No one was frightened of the darkness. They barely noticed. They kept applauding. The people who lived in other countries assumed that things like this happen here all the time. Lights go on, lights go off.
She follows this with “the pleasant scent of candles just snuffed, a smoke that was sweet and wholly unthreatening.”
The stated lack of threat is, of course, fiction speak for “the threat is real and imminent.” Why had the candles also gone out? By page twelve we will learn that the loss of light in this South American home is a prelude to an invasion of guerilla soldiers planning a military coup. While Patchett will cut away several times in this long first chapter to contextualize why people from all corners of the world had assembled there that night, her initial focus on the kiss and the music promises that the politics of this story will focus on interpersonal relationships.
Example 2: Someone Else’s Love Story
Joshilyn Jackson uses a similar method to plunge us into the opening action of her women’s fiction, Someone Else’s Love Story:
I fell in love with William Ashe at gunpoint, in a Circle K. It was on a Friday afternoon at the tail end of a Georgia summer so ungodly hot the air felt like it had all been boiled red. We were both staring down the barrel of an ancient, creaky .32 that could kill us just as dead as a really nice gun could.
Three paragraphs later she backs up to tell us what had happened earlier that day in the life of our first-person narrator, adding a full fifteen pages of additional context before telling us how she, her friend Walcott, and her son ended up at the Circle K convenience store. Unlike Patchett, Jackson does not continue to baste this backstory to unfolding action at the Circle K. She doesn’t need to; we sense the eye of that gun trained on this character even as she orients us to her other current dilemmas.
Setting genre expectation
Both novels plunge us into armed conflict in the first chapter, yet they are not thrillers, murder mysteries, or suspense novels. To thwart such genre expectations, their authors used an interesting technique: they embedded their endings into their openings. Why would they give away the endings? Ironically—because it drives me mad that I have friends who read the ending before they buy a book—I know the answer because I’ve done it myself. They do it to set genre expectation, which helps fine-tune the story question in the reader’s mind.
This sentence from Bel Canto is buried in the middle of a hearty paragraph on page 13:
It was the unspoken belief of everyone who was familiar with this organization and with the host country that they were all good as dead, when in fact it was the terrorists who would not survive the ordeal.
If the title Someone Else’s Love Story didn’t do the trick, Jackson wants to make sure you understand, from the bottom of the very first page, that this will not be a police procedural:
That afternoon in the Circle K, I deserved to know, right off, that I had landed bang in the middle of a love story. Especially since it wasn’t—it isn’t—it could never be my own.
These endings take the big-picture focus off the resolution of the immediate trauma at hand and redirect reader expectation toward how these circumstances will impact the relationships between the characters as the story progresses. Because these clues are planted up front, while the reader is still sorting through myriad details to gain orientation to the story , they will not create the buzz kill that I fear readers-of-endings might experience. In fact, with so much story to come, the giveaway line might seem all but forgotten, yet subliminally, it has done its work.
Is there a moment of high action or tension that represents your novel’s core conflict, which you could move to page one and then contextualize and return to? Would predicting your ending in some way help to set reader expectation? And more important: do you read endings before you start reading a novel? Why, pray tell? Let’s discuss.