Writing the Dramatic Truth


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A hallmark of powerful fiction is writing that rings true in a potent, vivid way. Writing rings true in a novel because the storyteller has provided a context for the truth of a novel, generally through setting out a story's promise. Without that context, a story's readers are forced to memorize details until the details have a clear sense of meaning. After a few pages, this lack of contact makes reading many unpublished novel manuscripts a chore, not a pleasure.

Christy Yorke in her novel Magic Spells offers a great example of how to begin a story with the introduction of a promise. This powerful novel opens with these sentences.

At one time, when Alex was two and she was just beginning to panic about his lack of speech, she had thought she could love words into him.

This sentence speaks to a mother's dramatic truth, that she has a son with a disability and she wanted to believe she could somehow heal him with the power of her love. The sentence raises the question, why did the son fail to develop the power of speech? Would her love be enough to heal him?

In one sentence, Christy Yorke has set out the promise of the story and established a context for everything that follows. The rest of the novel unfolds from this first sentence. The purpose of the first sentence of a novel is to give the reader a reason to read the second sentence. Most unpublished authors fail to do that.

Second sentence. . .

But she, more than anyone, knew what a risk it was to pour all your love into one body. Tragedy, when it came, had only one place to strike.

These two sentences suggest the mother's loss and raises the questions, what tragedy stuck her life, and to whom did she give all her love? A reader is being drawn forward to get the answer to these questions.

All that love had done nothing. In almost seven years, Alex had not said one word. Jane had taken him to every doctor on the East Coast, but she knew they would not find anything. She knew what had happened. Alex had gotten her life by mistake.

These sentences begin to develop an answer about the son's inability to speak, and raises the question of what the mother might have done that her son would suffer this problem. It also speaks to the great tension she feels around finding a cure for his problem. She is a dramatically driven character. If the mother were indifferent to her son's problems, the novel would fall apart immediately.

He had nightmares while her dreams were black as space. He felt guilty over something he didn't even know about.

The author continues to develop the idea of some past tragedy, and the impact it still has on the mother. The language here is beautifully lyrical and descriptive, and it also rings true.

Alex was riding off down Sycamore Lane. “Don't go too far, " Jane yelled. “Don't go on the highway. "

These sentences foreshadow what tragedy befell the mother, and her concern about keeping her son close. The author also gives the mother a name. First, Christy expresses a truth about her main character, then she begins to offer some details. Struggling writers generally start with the details ahead of establishing a context for what they mean.

He had already turned the corner. Jane looked down at her clenched fists. She wondered when the day would come when she wouldn't imagine all the horrific things that could happen to him when he was out of her sight. She wondered when he would stop squeezing her heart, or when she would cure him the way a mother should, with a snap of her fingers, just like that.

This passage sets up the plot question of the novel, when and how the son will find his voice, and how the journey to that place will squeeze the heart of his mother with greater and greater force. The story question for the novel, about finding healing, is clearly presented.

This story opening has powerfully set the story into motion.

Christy is an author who knows how to get to the real heart of her characters. Her latest novel, The Secret Lives of the Sushi Club, is another great demonstration of how to write the truth in a novel. I highly recommend both novels to anyone who would like to study the craft of storytelling by reading the work of a published author.

Bill Johnson is author of A Story is a Promise (http://www.storyispromise.com ) and office manager of Willamette Writers (http://www.willamettewriters.com ).


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