Published September 22, 2011
Eighteen isn’t too young to run your life into the ground, but it’s not too old to fix it, either. The desire for change drives Willa Kirk from St. John’s, Newfoundland back to her hometown of Smiths Falls, Ontario, away from her mistakes and the place where her sister died. She’s looking for a place to settle and rebuild, but Jem Harper just wants to get out of town, back to the life he knew before cancer. By letting the tragedies in their lives define them, they are both dying a little more every day. Welcome to the wake.
Writing the Beginning
Beginnings are sometimes harder than endings, and I usually end up rewriting the beginning of a story once I’ve finished the whole piece. Some writers suggest opening a story with an action boom and using that to sweep the reader into the world of the story. I find those beginnings a little jarring, and it’s easy for a reader to feel excluded from the story if it’s impossible to tell what’s really going on.
Then there are the types of beginnings that most people will tell you not to write–the main character alone, thinking; the character in the middle of attending to a bodily function; the penultimate moment before climax; etc.
I like to start stories in the quiet, unremarkable moments that, when we look back on our days, don’t merit remembering or reflecting upon. The character is in a situation that most of us wouldn’t associate with being watched, unselfconsciously going about his or her day. It introduces an intimacy between reader and character by making the reader a fly on the wall as soon as the book begins.
Take the opening scene of Wake, for example. Jem is sitting in the back of a mostly empty classroom, slouched in his seat, waiting for the bell to ring and class to begin. It’s a moment that’s not worth reporting on, one where he is alone and the only interaction he has is indirect interaction with the reader.
Similarly, Willa’s first chapter opens during a quiet morning at home without her brother, and then moves to the mundane, everyday task of parking a car and walking across a lot. She observes people without interacting with any of them. Simply put, she’s inhabiting one of life’s “filler” moments in between memorable events.
I like to narrate moments like these because they’re very good at revealing character. What is this person like when they are alone and think themselves unobserved? How do they react to a situation without interacting with it? A lot of information about a character’s personality and mentality can be conveyed through the way these scenes begin.