Starting in January, 2011 "First Page" will be a regular column feature in The Writer Magazine. Look for it!

Sunday, June 20, 2010

The Common Era

There are two principle ways in which characters are evoked in fiction: descriptively, through summary or exposition, or dramatically, through scene.

In this opening page of a novel about a popular young high school teacher with an unhealthy (or anyway dangerous) infatuation with one of his students, the summary method is employed with much skill and success. "Show, don't tell," goes the old writing workshop chestnut. But there's nothing wrong with telling: it just has to be done well.

Here, it's done well. The long second paragraph is packed with information about Stephan, the protagonist—information that serves not only to orient us about his status as a school teacher, but to authenticate that status through telling details (he founded the school's cycling club; his male colleagues wear plaid shirts). By the time I get to the bottom of the page, there's no doubt at least in my mind as to the authenticity of this earnest, long-haired, tieless, earringed high school teacher "seasoned by age yet unspoiled by its coming strain." I feel that I know him, and more than that: that I know something of what it's like to be him.

The advantage of summary description is that through it authors can convey lots of information in little space, as here. Summary description is expedient: it does the job quickly and efficiently. The disadvantage is that, unlike drama, which evokes character through action and dialogue, exposition renders it exclusively through language: i.e., we're forced to accept the author's word[s] for who this person is. As evidence goes—assuming that the narrator is reliable (as most narrators are)—it's solid evidence, but it falls short of being damning evidence. For damning evidence, nothing works as well as actions.

And in this opening the only action given to us is the negative one of Stephan "avoid[ing] the eyes of Mona McCullough." Through his not looking at Mona we learn something about him: namely that he has a thing for her, and also that he is afraid—with good reason—of that thing. The only other hint of "action" here takes the form of sweat breaking under Stephan's armpits — an action which, however involuntary, likewise speaks volumes.

From there we launch into the long expository passage. But wouldn't it be nice if the ratio of action to description in this opening were more balanced—if, for instance, the author were to lavish as much time and detail on the first paragraph as on the second; if we were told not just that he avoids looking at Mona McCullough, but what, precisely, he is avoiding. For instance, those eyes: were he to look at them, what would he see? What does she wear? How does she sit at her desk? Does she wear a skirt? What color? How short? Are her legs crossed? Does she pry off the heel of one saddle shoe with the toe of another (while gently licking the freshly sharpened tip of her #2 pencil)? While avoiding Mona McCullough's eyes, what does Stephan imagine? What inappropriate images does his lustful imagination cast before him as he pretends to examine the syllabus on his desk?

These and other specific details form—or might form—part of the present action of the opening scene, rendering Stephen—as well as the object of his downfall—vivid and unforgettable before we are dipped into summary background.

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