Constructing Novels: Part One
Whenever I am a guest teacher for an hour or so in a high-school or middle-school English class, I usually pull a novel off of the shelves in the classroom – something like To Kill a Mockingbird or Tale of Two Cities – and read the first page aloud. The students and I then talk for a few minutes about whether or not that was a “good” opening, and why or why not. And whether or not the author might have made it even better.
I then read the first page of the third chapter of The Face of the Enemy, the first novel in my Rebecca Series. I explain that that page – page 28 of the novel – was originally the first page of the novel (when it was still just a manuscript). Next, I usually read the actual first page of that story, and we then discuss which “start” works better as the novel’s opening: page 1 or page 28?
That leads us to talk about the fact that, in many novels, the first two or three chapters are completely interchangeable, because each of those early chapters introduces different characters, different scenes, and different issues. As the novel proceeds, the two or three different starting points are gradually brought together, so that eventually the reader is following all of the components at the same time, the components having been woven at last into a single narrative.
Not all novels have this kind of construction. For example, in the first two novels in C. S. Lewis’s Ransom trilogy – so called because a man named Ransom is the main character – this multiple-site approach is not used. We, as readers, follow Ransom from one scene to the next without ever switching away from him.
Between writing those first two Ransom novels and beginning the third, C. S. Lewis became acquainted with Charles Williams’s stories. These novels influenced Mr. Lewis in several ways, including novel construction. So, in the third and final book in the Ransom trilogy, titled That Hideous Strength, Mr. Lewis takes us back and forth among three sets of characters and sites, gradually linking them as we move nearer and nearer the climax of the novel.
As I mentioned in an earlier blog post, That Hideous Strength serves as the prototype for all of my adult stories. And that is the case, not just because that book is a wonderful combination of mystery, action, and Christian affirmation, but also because of the construction of the novel, its movement back and forth among three different sets of people, places, and problems.
And that approach – the multi-character, multi-scene construction, moving back and forth from one to another – leads me to a problem that I’ll want to talk to you about in the next blog post. That will be “Constructing Novels: Part Two.”
See you there.
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