2.09.2016

The Meaning of the Word Surfeit

The tall man wearing a velvet blue ascot, Harold, standing next to his wife with a line of rings on one ear, Madeleine, offers his hand to shake. In the next paragraph we are introduced to Moe and Sheila, an adorable couple from Seaside, don’t you know? Then Henry and Gretchen come strolling in on top of the next page, athletic and strategically underdressed for the occasion. Do you see what is happening? I’m already forgetting about Harold and . . . what was her name? I’m flipping back to check. Madeleine, that’s it . . . now, where was I? What’s going on in this scene, anyway?

The impulse behind gathering all of your main characters in an introductory scene seems logical. Once the reader meets them, they can all go on their separate ways, pursuing their various plot lines—but we know they’re all connected. The only problem with this idea is that a reader does not have the same familiarity with the personages as you do.

As the author you know, for instance, that despite his amazing vocabulary, due to the excellence of British schooling, Harold is actually quite stupid. But when you start his plot line, several chapters later, planning to show what a blockhead he is, the reader has probably already forgotten who he is. After all, Sheila was a very funny gal, and her plot line started in the very next chapter. So the reader may be left wondering, as she reads about Harold, why she should be bothering to read about such an affected jerk. You’re thinking, “I introduced him already, back in that scene,” but that was 20 pages ago. A lot, hopefully, has happened in 20 pages.

What I’ll call the launch meeting format does not work well in novels. In the early stages a reader is looking for reasons why he should read your book, not for your sparkling ability to quick-sketch character types. As the book progresses, you only have time to develop a handful of main characters. Single them out at first; have each one perform a piece of action that stirs our interest.

Once we can pick each of their faces out in a crowd, throw that party. Then see what happens. Knowing already that Harold is a dolt, we’ll want to know why Madeleine would marry him. From the very start of the scene we are laughing at what Sheila says, because we already know how funny she is. We’re interacting at the party, because we know where our core interests lie. You’ve pointed them out to us.

Exercise: The all-in-your-face-at-once approach occurs frequently in political novels. Don’t assume that “Defense Secretary” connotes any special meaning, because it doesn’t. Review all of the scenes in that plot line. How have you introduced us to your key players? We don’t have to meet everyone in an initial Cabinet meeting. Before that conclave, have the President meet individually those selected members we should follow.

“I own a '66 Jaguar. That's the guitar I polish, and baby—I refuse to let anyone touch it when I jump into the crowd.”  
—Kurt Cobain

Copyright @ 2016, John Paine

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