You’ve heard me say, over and over, that reading will make you a better writer. It will. And I’m just talking about reading for pleasure and absorbing things by osmosis that will show up unbidden in your writing later.
Now let’s try something else. Let’s try reading—still for pleasure—but let’s be intentional. Let’s observe the artist at work. We can learn something.
A few weeks ago I finished Ian McEwan’s The Children Act and was struck by how intense and accomplished it is—and in such a small package. At just 221 pages, you won’t have to invest a lot of time, and there is a lot of punch packed into this relatively simple story.
Reviews were mixed. Neither New York Times reviewer liked it, while both from the Guardian loved it. Here’s the setup, from the dust jacket:
Fiona Maye is a leading High Court judge who presides over cases in the family court. She is renowned for her fierce intelligence, exactitude, and sensitivity. But her professional success belies private sorrow … There is the lingering regret of her childlessness, and now her marriage of thirty years is in crisis. At the same time, she is called on to try an urgent case: a seventeen-year-old boy is refusing for religious reasons the medical treatment that could save his life, and his devout parents echo his wishes.
I enjoyed it, as I have many of McEwan’s novels. But remember, we’re studying. In this one, I noticed how seamlessly McEwan handles the writing craft, things I’ve seen other authors struggle with:
• meaningful (but not overweighted) first chapters
• introduction/placing of the inciting incident
• layering in backstory without being obvious
• keeping the story moving (pacing)
• making every single scene and detail count
• interesting plots that don’t get bogged down in complication
• believable plot devices
There’s more, of course. We could discuss characterization, the lovely but unpretentious prose, the absence of dialogue tags, the symbolism and themes, the unexpected scenes that made me squirm. But I think structure is what you can learn from The Children Act.
After you’ve read it, think about it.
Go back and have a look at that first chapter, at the introduction to the protagonist. Do you have a sense of her? Of time and place? I loved how the room is observed as Fiona’s eyes move across it: “The fireplace not lit in a year. Blackened raindrops falling irregularly into the grate with a ticking sound against balled-up yellowing newsprint.” It’s “written in the third person, but it’s all narrated from inside Fiona’s awareness,” the Guardian tells us. We know the cases she is working on. All the backstory—precious little—you’ll need is artfully layered into the first pages, so when these details appear later, they’re completely organic, completely believable. And not a wasted word.
There’s a dramatic inciting incident—Fiona’s husband announces he is planning to have an affair—right near the beginning, where it should be. Now Fiona knows she has a problem (that’s the purpose of the inciting incident) but retreats to the comfort of work—other people’s problems—to avoid it.
The novel moves right along at a clip. Boom: husband’s threatening infidelity. Boom: an after-hours petition for an emergency hearing is filed, and Fiona’s the judge on call. McEwan keeps it simple: there are only these two incidents—a plot and a subplot—but tension builds and surprises come in spite of the fact that you think you know what’s happened. The story arc in this novel is as plain as the nose on your face.
And that’s why I think you should study this one. Let me know what you think.
Tweet: McEwan seamlessly handles the craft: pacing, backstory, making every scene & detail count.
Tweet: Read this book to study the meaningful (but not overweighted) 1st chapter. It’s all there.
Tweet: You’ll learn structure from The Children Act. The story arc is as plain as the nose on your face.
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