This is part three of a three part series on editing, rewriting, and scene performance
©2013 by Robert J. Ray
Page One is a big deal.
That’s where you grab the reader.
If you’re writing a mystery, you open with a corpse. If you’re writing a thriller, you open with your agent in trouble.
But what if you’re writing a book about life’s little ironies? A book like Ian McEwan’s Amsterdam.
A quick look at Amsterdam: it’s short, around 200 pages. The story has no overt violence, no murder scenes, no car chases ,no hitmen, no automatic weapons fired by crazy people. It’s an adult book, no major characters under forty. The cast is adult, educated people with solid footholds in society. The dialogue is crisp, the characters subtle and snide. Amsterdam is a satire – a good model if you have a yen to write ironic – and its opening—Page One and After—gives every would-be novelist a lesson
Page One of Amsterdam opens outside a London mausoleum, where two ex-lovers, Clive and Vernon, are sparring over the memories of a woman named Molly Lane. She’s the character inside the mausoleum. If you turn the page, you meet more ex-lovers (one of them a Cabinet minister) and the husband, George Lane. The story of Amsterdam is the husband’s Revenge Quest on his dead wife’s lovers.
Your task is building a scene to open the book.
To make it easy on yourself, you construct a scene profile with these categories: Scene Name, Location in the book, Setting-Time-Weather, Ritual (burial of the dead), Characters, Action and Dialogue, Closed Circle and Intruder, Climax—and then you add notes on language (concrete nouns, important for word-pictures), Secrets, and Archetypes.
Here’s an example for Amsterdam. Read it over, jot your notes, and then create a scene profile for your Page One.
Name of the Scene: Molly’s Ashes
Location: Page One and After
Setting: Crematorium, Grounds, Garden of Remembrance, London
Time: February Afternoon
Weather: Cold, frozen, bleak
Ritual: Burial of the Dead
Characters: Lover A is Clive; Lover B is Vernon; Lover C is Julian Garmony; Lover D is Hart the American; Molly’s husband is George Lane; Molly (evoked through memory) is the centerpiece
Action: Walking, Talking, Shaking Hands, Shivering; Vernon answers his cell phone
Dialogue: Digging up the past; barbs; insults; snide remarks
Closed Circles and Intruders: 1) Molly is inside the crematorium, inside her closed circle of fire and ashes. 2) Vernon and Clive, both jilted by Molly, form their own closed circle of sad jilted lovers. George the husband uses the American ex-lover to penetrate their circle of bitter remembrance. 3) Lover C, the British Foreign Secretary, pulls Clive into his closed circle of fawning admirers. Feeling the discomfort of Lover C’s turf, Clive insults his stance on hanging; Lover C responds by evoking Molly’s words to question Clive’s manhood: “She told me you were impotent and always had been.”
Climax: Lover C’s insult climaxes the opening scene.
Concrete Nouns: Objects are cab, propeller, bed, cream, mirror, acanthus, bresaiola, and sickroom; body parts are backs and arm; landmarks are chapel, crematorium, and Dorchester Grill.
Secrets in the Subtext: the American Hart is the Secret Lover from Molly’s past. The husband thrusts Hart at Clive and Vernon like a spear. They are shocked by this unwelcome information. A new guy splits the memory of Molly into more pieces. The husband’s action reveals his vengeful agenda: the revenge that dooms the protagonists starts here in this opening scene.
Archetype and Core Story: Clive the composer is a Quester; fame is his Holy Grail. Vernon the editor is a Sick Man who will use photos of Molly and Lover C to boost tabloid circulation; his core story is Scapegoat Sacrifice. Husband George wants revenge on all Molly’s ex-lovers; his core story is Revenge Quest. Lover C, the British Foreign Secretary (his name is Julian Garmony) is a Wonder Boy; his core story is Coming of Age. Molly Lane, the female at the center of these empty men, is a Death Crone; her core story is King Replacement.
Lessons from Amsterdam
Lesson One is Molly and the Three Goods. The grid shows Molly Lane, a powerful female, alone with four adult males. As we learn later in the novel, Molly is a free spirit. She practices sexual liberation and careful mate selection.
- Vernon the foreign correspondent is bright (good genes); his life is filled with adventure (exciting behavior)
- Clive the composer is talented (good genes); he has a shot at fame (good behavior)
- George the husband is a rich man (good resources); he tolerates Molly’s behavior (good behavior); a meaner man would beat Molly up
- Julian the cabinet minister is powerful (good behavior); his children verify his good genes
Males compete for females. Molly is a walking resource base that draws men to her company. As she moves from one lover to another, Molly forces her lovers to share. She has control. They have no choice. Irony lurks in Molly’s mate selection: sex for recreation is not sex for procreation. But biology has power. Molly’s genes want genetic success. The genes keep trying, no matter what.
Lesson Two is the power of the Death Crone in fiction. As the novel opens, Molly is just a dead female with a history of King Replacement. At the climax, however, when she appears at the deathbeds of both protagonists, Molly’s Death Crone archetype is clear. The job of the Death Crone is to preside over the death of the hero. The Death Crone archetype is useful because of its powers of deception. On the surface, Molly is beautiful. Beauty is the perfect mask for a Death Crone.
Lesson Three is the importance of early planting. Amsterdam has five major characters: two protagonists (Clive and Vernon) and three antagonists (Molly, George, Garmony). All five are planted onstage in the scene that starts on Page One. The two other antagonists, Garmony’s wife Rose and a sly junior editor named Frank, enter the story later. With so many characters crowding your stage, you need a diagram like the one below to chart entrances and exits.
For more on Page One, see The Weekend Novelist Rewrites the Novel