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Tuesday, October 19, 2010

That First Glimpse

If plot is the backbone of fiction, that which gives fiction its structure and movement, then scenes are plot's vertebrae. A concatenation of causally related scenes add up to a plot. But beyond their technical function, scenes are what we're most likely to remember about a work of fiction; at the very least, they are what we're most likely to discuss with others. Remember that scene in (fill in title) where (fill in event) happens?

Think of a particular novel or story and what you remember most about it, and odds are you'll remember a scene. I'm thinking of Catch-22, of the scene where Yossarian rips open wounded Snowden's flak vest and the "secret" he's been keeping spills out of him in the form of a heap of shredded intestines. Or the scene in Ken Kesey's Sometimes a Great Notion where Hank Stamper tries to save his lumberjack brother from drowning by breathing air into his mouth under water. Or the scene in Anna Karenina where Vronsky rips his shirt open.

Of all the scenes in fiction, none play a more crucial role than "First Glimpse" scenes—scenes were key characters see each other for the very first time. Here, too, examples spring to mind, like this one of Ishmael's first glimpse of Ahab:
He looked like a man cut away from the stake, when the fire has over-runningly wasted all of the limbs without consuming them, or taking away one particle from their compacted aged robustness . . . His bone-leg steadied in that hole; one arm elevated, and holding by a shroud; Captain Ahab stood erect, looking straight out beyond the ship's ever pitching prow.
Another first glimpse, this one from Zorba the Greek:
. . . the stranger opened the door [of the cafe] with a determined thrust of his arm. He passed between the tables with a rapid, springy step, and stopped in front of me.

"Traveling?" he asked. "Where to? Trusting to providence?"

"I’m making for Crete. Why do you ask?"

"Taking me with you?"

I looked at him carefully. He had hollow cheeks, a strong jaw, prominent cheekbones, curly gray hair, bright, piercing eyes.

"Why? What should I do with you?

He shrugged his shoulders. "Why! Why!" he exclaimed with disdain."Can’t a man do anything without a why? Just like that, because he wants to? Well, take me, shall we say, as a cook. I can make soups you’ve never heard or thought of. . ."
And another—from Elizabeth Smart's novel (extended prose poem?) By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept, where the first glimpse is of the wife of the man with whom the narrator is hopelessly in love as she de-boards a bus:

But then it is her eyes that come forward out of the vulgar disembarkers to reassure me that the bus has not disgorged disaster: her madonna eyes, soft as the newly-born, trusted as the untempted.
The first glimpse scene offered by this author's first page presents us with Ewan, a fellow student at the narrator's university "in a small town in Illinois." About Ewan by the end of this first page we know very little; that he is a fellow student we can only assume, since we're not told as much; in fact we're hardly told anything. We don't know what he looks like, or how he walks, or—when he speaks—how he speaks. We're told that he's a "guy"—something we can surmise from his name, and that at some point he will "latch on" to the narrator: but that point exists in the future, and has no bearing here.

If Ewan emerges as a character it's through his dialogue. "Are you for or against Pro-Choice, Lilli?" he asks the narrator one afternoon as she sits at the counter of her favorite coffee shop. If these aren't Ewan's first words to her, they're close to being so; anyway they successfully evoke a man who, to put it nicely, has little patience for decorum. Those less generous would call him tactless.

If only we could see Ewan as clearly as we hear him, the way we see Zorba strut into that cafe. Since Ewan's words are what characterize him, my inclination would be to lead off with his in your face inquiry, and take it from there.

As for the first paragraph, I'd cut it. It indulges the author with a gratuitous wish that her novel were a movie—and not just any movie, but one directed by Gus van Sant. But this fantasy gives nothing to readers: in fact it discourages them. Not only is the wish doomed; it's the wrong wish to hold out to lovers of fiction. If the novelist is really so intent on Gus van Sant and Matt Dillon, she should be writing a screenplay.


  1. Does it make you want to read more or toss it aside?

  2. I think it's too soon to be asking that about this work-in-progress. As an editor or teacher whose job is to help an author achieve a final product, I might keep reading; as a reader intent on experiencing a finished, polished, successful work of art, I wouldn't.

    But this isn't a finished product; it's a work-in-progress. If you're a cook baking a cake and you ask someone to taste the batter, even assuming they think the batter is fine, you wouldn't want them to keep eating the batter!

    Once the work has been revised (more than a few times, probably) and polished, then you can expect it to hold a reader's attention. Until it's been through that process, there's no reason to hope it will. Unprofessional readers look for many things in a writer's work, but "raw" genius isn't one of them.

    Does that make sense?

  3. Indeed it does.
    Sincere thanks.