* * *
Jill Corcoran blogged about ways to activate your story a while back, using Gayle Forman's gorgeous novel, If I Stay, as an example of a great beginning. She wrote:
Gayle does not start the book at the moment of the car crash. We first see the family together, we actually fall in love with the main character and her family so when the car crash happens, we are devastated along with the main character. Gayle starts the first line of the book with an intriguing sentence….a sentence that activates us to pay attention to this first meeting with the main character’s family. That foreshadows the doom and gloom to come:
Everyone thinks it is because of the snow. And in a way, I suppose that’s true.But the reason that sentence works, really works, is a tiny little piece left out of the quote. Here's how the novel really starts:
Everyone thinks it was because of the snow. And in a way, I suppose that’s true.
Do you see it? It's there in big bold letters. The ticking clock.
Because that clock is there, we know to combine "it" with a timeline. We know something is going to happen soon. We know "it" is bad, because why bother with a clock that precise if it isn't a countdown of sorts. And we know it has to do with the snow. Sort of. So now, we're hooked. We have to know what "it" is, and why it wasn't completely to do with the snow. And we have an implied promise that it isn't going to take the author long to get there.
As readers, we haven't thought through any of this. It's simply there, in the back kitchen of our consciousness, if I may borrow the phrase from Kipling. And once it's there, it has a hold on us.
Even a reader who wouldn't normally read a book about bow-tie-wearing dads, or little brothers who let out war whoops, or mothers who work in travel agent's offices--who cares about all that stuff at the beginning of a book, right?--is going to be curious enough to read a little further. Sure enough, Forman delivers on the promise. At 8:17 a.m., a dad who isn't great at driving gets behind the wheel of a rusting buick and.... Well, we know we only have a few more pages.
Even after the accident, the clock doesn't stop. It continues until 7:16 the next morning, because Mia is trying to make her decision, and all along, all through the twists and turns and intricately woven scraps of memory and medical magic, that clock keeps us focused on the fact that something life-changing is going to happen. Soon. Soon. So you can't stop reading.
Building Suspense with a Ticking Clock
Having an actual Jack Bauer 24-style ticking clock only works if something momentous is going to happen:
- An event, accident, or necessary meeting
- A deadline given to prevent consequences
- An opportunity that can, but shouldn't, be missed
- Elapsed time from a precipitating event
- Clear stakes (hopefully escalating
- Increasing obstacles or demand for higher thresholds of competence
- Diminishing time in which to achieve the goal