One of the many interesting facets of writing fiction is the fact that, unless you are beginning a novel which starts when the central character is born (“David Copperfield” springs to mind), the fact is: you are generally starting the narration in the middle of events. In my new novel, “Five Days”, the opening scene takes place in the radiography department of a regional Maine hospital where my narrator, Laura, works as a technologist (i.e., the person who does the scans, the x-rays, etc). As the reader learns about Laura’s work – and two potentially distressing cases that are booked back-to-back on the morning in which the novel starts – the narrative begins to hint at other things going on in her life; certain complexities and sadnesses that seems to be lurking near the surface, and are (having been sublimated for many years) now beginning to cause her distress.
By the end of the second chapter we are au fait with some of the difficult dynamics in her life – two adolescent children in various stages of distress, one at college, the other about to also leave the nest within the year, and a marriage that is flat-lining. By the end of the third chapter we know even more about certain past events that have shaped her life – but though hints are given, much is held back until far later in the novel when…
Well, I am going to say no more about what transpires as the narrative shifts into a different gear, and an accidental meeting with a seemingly grey man at a weekend radiography conference in Boston sets her life on a hugely different trajectory. But we do eventually learn – deep into the novel – certain hidden stories and truths that have brought her to the place she finds herself now: so wanting some sort of change from a life that has become ossified.
Now I mention all this because the expositional aspect of fiction writing is, structurally speaking, one of the most challenging… and, as such, most interesting, component of structuring a novel. How do you grab the readers’ attention, move the action forward, and simultaneously begin to inform us about the back story that the central characters were living before the novel started? It’s a bit like getting involved with somebody: bit by bit you learn about so much that happened to them before you showed up on the scene. And typically not everything comes out at once. Secrets or deep wounds or all sorts of other shadowy stuff may not be revealed for some time.
In a novel you always must avoid the temptation to show your hand too early and reveal all. People are a mystery, after all – especially to themselves. Exploring the mystery of an individual life is my central fictional obsession. – especially a life at moments of crisis. All novels, in one way or another, are about crises, just as (and this is to borrow a line from the brilliant British psychoanalyst Adam Philips’s new book, “Missing Out”) all love stories are about frustration. As such, exposition is key to laying the ground work of the problems that are going to arise and send the narrative down a different trajectory. But, for me, the cardinal rule of constructing a novel is: never give too much away too soon, and always surprise yourself by not completely knowing where the story will lead you.
Writing fiction is what I call a structured improvisation: you have a sense of the road ahead, but you also know that, during the writing of the book, it is going to bring you places you never saw coming. Surprise yourself and you will surprise the reader. And always remember one basic rule: everything (even the most seemingly banal subjects) is interesting. Because every individual life is, in its own way, a novel.