Friday, August 31, 2012

Conveying a Character's Journey on the First Page of a Novel

Notes on Good Grief by Lolly Winston
by Bill Johnson
I teach that a story creates movement and the movement transport an audience. In many of the unpublished novels I read, I'm often 40 pages into a manuscript before I have any idea of a main character's journey. In some cases, I have to read to the end of a novel to understand that journey. This puts me (and readers) in the unfortunate position of needing to keep track of all the details about a character while I wait for some sense of purpose to become apparent. This makes reading a novel work.
Lolly Winston's novel Good Grief has a structure that clearly conveys the stages of grief that a young woman goes through when her husband dies and leaves her a widow. This external framework communicates that the novel has a clearly defined beginning, middle, and end. From its opening lines, the story has a destination.
Each stage of the main character's journey is divided into sections. The chapters in Part One are about denial, Oreos, anger, depression, escrow, and ashes. Each chapter that follows is about the main character's journey in dealing with her grief over her husband's death. The title, Good Grief, speaks to the narrator learning that there can be good grief (which revolves around passing through the stages of grief) and bad grief (getting stuck on the journey).
A review of the opening of Good Grief conveys how a main character's journey is set out.
The opening line:
How can I be a Widow?
The answer to this question comes in the opening paragraphs as the narrator sits in a grief support group. In a few paragraphs, the narrator explains why she's in the group.
My name is Sophie and I've joined the grief group because...well, because I sort of did a crazy thing. I drove my Honda through our garage door.
What's important about these lines is they show the narrator is not only in grief, she's being overwhelmed by grief. What set up the garage accident was an irrational thought that she needed to get into the house quickly to tell her husband something. Except he's deceased. She's in denial.
Continuing in a few paragraphs:
Maybe later I'll tell the group how I dream about Ethan every night. That he's still alive in the Eastern Standard Time zone and if I fly to New York, I can see him for another three hours.
The narrator tries to deal with her grief by going back to work, but she quickly finds herself overwhelmed. In the past, when she felt overwhelmed, she called her husband. The chapter ends with these lines.
The cursor on my computer screen pulses impatiently, and the red voice mail light on my phone flashes. My stomach growls and my head throbs. But I can't call my husband. Because, here's the thing: I am a widow.
She has started to come out of her denial about her husband's death. The first chapter is a clearly defined journey on her journey through grief.
Each chapter continues that journey until the narrator has passed through good grief to being whole again.
Highly recommended for writers who want to learn about structure by reading a well-written novel.
A fourth edition of Bill Johnson's writing workbook, A Story is a Promise & the Spirit of Storytelling, is now available for $2.99 for Kindle Reader at

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