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Monday, September 13, 2010

Living With Lyle

A young woman runs into an old friend in a grocery store—at least she thinks he's an old friend. In fact the man Eleanor mistakes for "Lyle" is fresh out of prison, sent there for what crime we don't know. But rather than correct her, "Lyle" let's the mistake stand.

"I don't believe it," Eleanor responds. "After all these years . . . How insane is that?"

"More insane than you know," the narrator answers—and he means it.

This opening has a lot going for it, in fact it's hard to find fault with it. The first line thrusts us into the heart of the story, with the paragraph that follows setting the scene for the inciting incident—the unique event that wrests the character or characters out of their status quo and into something worthy of being called a story. Here, that unprecedented event is the meeting of not-Lyle and Eleanor, an encounter that turns on a case of mistaken identity. Not one but two lives are about to be derailed from their routines—or, in not-Lyle's case, from whatever passes for routine in the life of an ex-con fresh out of the slammer. The question now is what's going to happen with these two? It's the right question, the very question that will propel us through this narrative. Will he take advantage of her? Will she fall in love? Will she uncover his criminal past along with his deception? Is he a petty-thief, or a murderer? Will he love her in turn, or will he rob, beat, or kill her? Or combination of these things? The possibilities are, if not limitless, rich.

How would this story read from Eleanor's point of view? As a point-of-view character, pseudo-Lyle has his charms. But then he also knows he's an ex-con, just as he knows what sent him up the river in the first place. It will be much harder, and may require manipulation on the part of the author, to withhold his knowledge from the reader so as not to give a big part of the game away. If she manipulates too much, the author exposes herself to the charge of creating false suspense—suspense achieved artificially by withholding information from the reader that the character (or characters) are fully aware of. In that case it may be better to experience this relationship from the point-of-view of the character who's totally in the dark: Eleanor.

But in that case the author faces another challenge: namely, how to plausibly render a case of mistaken identity from the viewpoint of the person making the mistake. Will we be treated to Eleanore's perspective after she has already survived her experience—such that, as she begins the tale, she knows it is one of mistaken identity? If made such a choice would result in a great loss of tension and suspense. For a start we'll know she survives to tell the tale.

Hmm, maybe our author had the right idea: maybe it's better to stick to his viewpoint.

You see the sort of decisions writers wrestle with. There are no absolute or easy solutions. In the end, it may be best to rely on gut instincts. Here, so far at least, those instincts seem to be paying off.


  1. Thank you so much for reviewing my first page so promptly. I have never shared my writing with anyone before (other than my mom and husband who both biasedly love every word) so it took a lot of courage to submit it. I value your feedback and am pleased to see you support my use of not-Lyle as the narrator. I have never written from a male POV before so it's been interesting.

    In your book, 179 Ways to Save a Novel, you talk about the importance of writing tight and stripping a story of unnecessary words. When I found out I could only submit 350 words you better believe I tightened that sucker up to make the most of my word count. It really made me look differently at my writing and what words were truly necessary. I'm sure I could find even more if I looked again.

    Thanks again so much.

    Any other advice?

  2. First submission? Let's hope it's not just a case of beginner's luck, but I don't think so.

    Interesting thing about cutting: when push comes to shove, you always can.

  3. I found the opening line exciting in that it immediately puts the spotlight on two issues that combined could be very controversial. A relationship with a criminal. As you get farther into the page I found it hard to believe that this trance like state that the woman was in lasted longer then 20 seconds. The ending of the first page also pulled me in due to the the man so easily accepting the woman assuming he was someone else. Although this was good, the last line, "More than you know" seemed a little contrived.

  4. Thanks, Timothy. I understand that 20 seconds seems quite long. After I read your comment I asked my husband to stare at me for 20 seconds and it does seem uncomfortably long. However, this scene is inspired by an event I had at a grocery store when I thought for sure the guy I was staring at was my childhood best friend. I now live across the country from where we grew up so I had my doubts it was him but he was identical. I would say I was standing there about as long as I had my husband stare at me. In my real experience this stranger look alike approached me and asked if I was okay, so... haha I'm sure it was long enough to be uncomfortable.

    Obviously my reader won't know this detailed back story to the 20 seconds bit so do you advise I change it to be more realistic?