Guiding Your Reader’s Eye:
The Choreography of Perception, Part Three
An especially enticing expository challenge occurs for us as writers when we open a story or novel with a complex social scene, one introducing a cluster of characters. How do we manage to “assemble the gang” and meet, as we do so, the multiple technical demands of such a scene, pretty much all at once?
How, for example, do we invoke a social dynamic that points the way toward subsequent developments, even while inducing our readers to play “catch-up”—sorting out who’s who among our panoply of characters and beginning to understand how they’re interconnected?
… And how, while doing this, do we engender dramatic tension? Or decide the best way to characterize our “gang”? Will we give our people names (first? last? which?), indicate their social or professional functions, cite physical attributes, depict mannerisms? …
And then: what impact will our choices have had on our readers—perplex or fascinate them? Stir admiration? Offer comfort or amusement?
There being no one “recipe” or set of easy instructions for assembling such a gang, let’s take a look at a variety of strategies writers have employed for addressing such questions.
Some fiction writers are unabashedly direct, as Shirley Jackson is in “The Lottery.” By the story’s second sentence, we learn (all italics mine), The people in the village began to gather in the square, between the post office and the bank, around ten o’clock…
By the second paragraph—The children assembled first, of course—the gathering grows more specific, names now indicated: Bobby and Harry Jones and Dickie Delacroix—the villagers pronounced the name “Dellacroy”… Then come the adults, more generically described in the third paragraph, the word gather repeated as the grown-ups assemble—the day’s fated victim, Tessie Hutchinson, arriving late ironically, many paragraphs later.
Jackson’s strategy works so well because her assembling seems, at first glance, peaceful. We are briefly wrongfooted. The story grows darker as all the townspeople, adults and children, prove to be candidates in the drawing ahead. Nervous expectation becomes intrinsic—the boys all stuffing their pockets with stones, or building piles of them they jealously guard. That the “gang” turns murderous at the conclusion of the story is, of course, key to its celebrated shock—especially jolting for us when we first read “The Lottery,” still disturbing long after.
“Dramatis personae” gang-assembling
An interesting variant of the straightforward approach appears in Updike’s “I am Dying, Egypt, Dying,” one of three travel tales that Updike collected in a small Penguin volume. Clem, the self-protective hero, finds himself on a Nile cruise during the Six Days’ War, one of twenty paying passengers, a mere score of souls against the ship’s crew of seventy, only one of whom, the ship’s tour guide, we learn anything specific about.
But Updike wants us to be familiar with these twenty—by name, by nationality, and in some cases, too, by their attributes and backstories. It’s a fairly hefty “gang” which he introduces to us in dramatis personae fashion, much as we’d learn about the cast of a play from a playbill or a playscript (the story’s title is a line from Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra). Without further ado, Updike gets right to it on the story’s second page:
… These twenty were:
Three English couples, middle-aged but for one mini-skirted wife, who was thought for days to be a daughter.
Two German boys; they both wore bathing trunks to all the temples, yet seemed to know the gods by name and perhaps were future archaeologists.
A French couple, in their sixties. The man had been tortured in World War II; his legs were unsteady and his spine had been fused to a curve.
. . . And finally, concluding the whole recitation:
A young Scandinavian, beautiful, alone.
This strategy works for Updike (granted, not all writers will have his cachet) because the members of his gang, so at variance with the townspeople gathered in “The Lottery,” are by definition strangers, thrown together at random, and his cast of characters is an unusually large one.
Inverse or “negative” gang-assembling
Against such straightforward if differently managed methods stands F. Scott Fitzgerald’s interesting strategy in “Babylon Revisited,” where the absence of a gang is what kicks off the action, an absence suggesting key themes of the story—of loss and failure, the ubi sunt of past times. The protagonist Charlie Wales (no stretch to see him as a “good-time Charlie,” though he thinks he’s reformed) has returned to Paris after the space of many months, and has casually stopped by his former haunt, the Ritz bar. The story opens this way:
“And where’s Mr. Campbell?” Charlie asked.
“Gone to Switzerland. Mr. Campbell’s a pretty sick man, Mr. Wales.”
“I’m sorry to hear that. And George Hardt?” Charlie inquired.
“Back in America, gone to work.”
“And where is Snow Bird?”
“He was in here last week. Anyway, his friend, Mr. Schaeffer, is in Paris.”
… He [Charlie] was not really disappointed to find Paris so empty.
It’s subsequent to this scene, which opens in medias res, that the story’s current gang will be assembled by Fitzgerald. Charlie is in Paris hoping to reclaim his young daughter Honoria, whom he’s left in the custody of his sister-in-law and her husband. Neither of them, rightly, is convinced that he has reformed. That ghost-crew at the bar, with its ever-strong lure, will prevail over Charlie before the story ends, incurring for him, both as man and as father, an irreparable loss.
Chaotic or “messy” assembling: a jumble of characters
Among the most frequent methods is the “messy” opening scene, where, for the reader—and often enough, for the characters themselves—exactly “who’s who” and how everyone is interrelated form something of a blur. Take Robert Coover’s “Babysitter,” a deliciously segmented tumble of a narrative that achieves febrile energy from its opening paragraph:
She arrives at 7:40, ten minutes late, but the children, Jimmy and Bitsy, are still eating supper, and their parents are not ready to go yet. From another room come the sounds of a baby screaming, water running, a television musical (no words: probably a dance number—patterns of gliding figures come to mind). Mrs. Tucker sweeps into the kitchen, fussing with her hair, and snatches a baby bottle full of milk out of a pan of water, rushes out again. “Harry!” she calls. “The babysitter’s here already!”
And then, abruptly, a triple-space break sets the pattern for the story—shards of narrative turning this way and that as in a kaleidoscope, leaving us to wonder to whose mind, exactly, those gliding figures have occurred. In this riotous story drenched in libido—Harry, the husband, lusts after the babysitter as does Jack, her boyfriend—the pheromones of fantasy entangle with reality, fermenting a cauldron of complicated intrigue. Coover’s story is a genuine tour de force.
David Gilbert’s recent New Yorker story, “Come Softly to Me,” deftly assembles such a “messy” opening gang, stitching together no fewer than eight named characters (if I’m counting rightly) together with “everyone” down in the yard. Gilbert has entangled us in a multigenerational web, all before that opening paragraph has concluded.
The difference of voice. A chaotic “gang” opening and the messiness created grow even more complex when the voice is first-person and the idiom of the story is in any sort of dialect. Gayle Jones’ “White Rat” superbly ensnares us in a headlong way in its first paragraph:
I learned where she was when Cousin Willie come down home and said Maggie sent for her but told her not to tell nobody where she was, especially me, but Cousin Willie come and told me anyway cause she said I was the lessen two evils and she didn’t like to see Maggie stuck up in the room there like she was. I asked her what she meant like she was. Willie said that she was pregnant by J.T. J.T. the man she run off with because she said I treat her like dirt. And now Willie say J.T. run off and left her after he got her knocked up. I asked Willie where she was. Willie said she was up in that room over Babe Lawson’s. She told me not to be surprised when I saw her looking read bad. I said I wouldn’t be least surprised. I asked Willie she think Maggie come back. Willie say she better.
We’ve yet to discern, having finished this paragraph, who the narrator is in relation to Maggie (if we guess “husband,” we’re right) much less who Willie is beyond “cousin” and female, or J.T. or Babe Lawson… and no guarantee that the story to follow will resolve all these questions! What’s so impressive in Gayle Jones’ craft is the challenge it poses for us—so naively does the narrator relate everything from inside his perspective—to disentangle what he takes for granted.
Deferred, progressive or “integrated” assembling
Often enough too—another recurrent pattern—a story begins not by assembling its gang, but by first establishing setting or context, and then integrating the gang into it. This pattern adheres to one of the “trinities” of story-building—namely, the sequence of context-action-reaction, which falls, for me, under the general rubric of the ordering of elements so important in fiction. Often, it’s of use to have context come first, the when-and-where of events, and then have events begin to flourish against that matrix. While of course there can be no fixed rule about this, it generally makes sense to have reaction following the action that’s provoked it.
We watch Willa Cather build an “integrated” opening in a leisurely way in O Pioneers! where she depicts the prairie town of Hanover, Nebraska, in figurative terms as a marina whose boats—the buildings in the town—are at risk of wandering off across the open prairie in the stiff winter wind. The struggle for control over an intractable landscape is immediately established as the novel’s central theme. Then comes the assembling of the important characters, their collective sense of stress quickly setting the novel’s tone.
Another brilliantly managed “integrated” assembling occurs at the beginning of Jean Stafford’s “In the Zoo,” where the setting preceding the main characters’ appearance offers its own “ghost gang,” oddly reminiscent of the one in Fitzgerald’s story. The gang, in this case, comprises animals at a zoo, a blind polar bear; grizzlies; black bears; an antic tribe of simians—all crazily and meaningfully anthropomorphized:
… There is a blustery, scoundrelly, half-likable bravado in the manner of the black bear on the polar’s left; his name, according to the legend on his cage, is Clancy, and he is a rough-and-tumble, brawling blowhard, thundering continually as he paces back and forth . . .
… Across a reach of scrappy grass and litter is the convocation of conceited monkeys, burrowing into each other’s necks and chests for fleas, picking their noses with their long, black finicky fingers, swinging their gifted tails on the flying trapeze, screaming bloody murder. Even when they mourn—one would think the male orangutan was on the very brink of suicide—they only fake depression, for they are firmly secure in their rambunctious tribalism and their appalling insight and contempt . . .
It’s against this feral, topsy-turvy setting that we’re introduced—and what a contrast it is!—to the story’s key protagonists, and soon thereafter, to the people important to them: my sister and me, two middle-aged women, as we sit on a bench between the exhibits, eating popcorn, growing thirsty. Not at all surprisingly, in the story that follows, the denizens of the zoo are paired with key figures in the sisters’ early lives—lives spent in sordid if seriocomic deprivation, both girls damaged by the “infection of influence” visited on them by their vile foster mother.
Few better ways exist of learning to write effectively than paying close attention to good writers’ practices—careful, absorbed, truly microscopic scrutiny. As Ben Jonson said, we writers ought to invade other authors “like a monarch”—stomping in to carry off all the loot, the craft-wisdom, we can lay their hands on! Two key questions can aid us while immersed in our reading:
What—we should ask—does this fine writer do that I seem not to be doing in the writing I undertake?
And, inversely: What do fine writers consistently shy away from that I’m too often allowing myself?
Such attentive self-comparisons, accompanied by the effort to articulate the principles underlying good craft—working, that is, to build to our own personal “rule-book”—will open to view the secrets of excellent writing as few things will… beyond the continuous act, of course, of writing itself!
The review in this craft note might serve you in a pair of ways: as a spur to identifying “gang-assembling” methods not treated here—and there will be many of them! And second, even better (no harm, remember, in finding models to emulate): practicing your hand at the creation of such gangs. T.S. Eliot once said that the writer must be in continuous practice to “keep the tools well-oiled” against the day when true inspiration strikes. Failing that, the inspiration might well come—but the tools will be too rusty to capture it.