Keep Your Promise

Ever have a dream where you’re being chased by a serial killer? You’re racing along, certain to be caught, your breath ragged with fear. But suddenly, you launch yourself into the sky. You have the power of flight! Woo hoo! Yeah, baby!

flying_man

Psychotherapists have many interpretations of this sort of dream. But this post isn’t about those. The flying dream came to mind as I thought about the way paranormal aspects are introduced in a novel.

I usually get into a snit when I’ve read several chapters of what seems to be a realistic novel only to discover a sudden turn toward the paranormal. Don’t get me wrong. I love fantasy stories. I also love realistic stories. But if several chapters where everything is normal go by before even one fantastical element is introduced, my bait-and-switch meter starts ticking. My irritation doubles if the book jacket mentions paranormal, but the first 50 pages of the book fail to show anything that could be construed as fantastical.

Bait-Switch

You can thank author Jen White for helping me understand why I feel irked. She wrote a great post at Through The Tollbooth that I highly recommend: “Survival Strategies of the Best First Chapters.” You can read that post by clicking on the post title. White talked about a promise made between an author and a reader. Here’s a quote from that post:

As an author you promise to stay in character and to stay in genre. You promise to keep story threads alive and fruitful. The first chapter says: This book is about…(and then stay true to that statement).

You promise . . . to stay in genre. . . . When a novel pivots toward a different genre than the one the first chapter sets up, the author has broken his or her promise to the reader.

In a dream, think of a sudden ability to fly as the introduction of a paranormal element into a story. The compressed time frame of a dream makes for a swift integration of the fantastical element. Our minds readily accept it. An author has to work harder in a book to get a reader to suspend disbelief. Though an author has more time to lay out a plot in a book, he/she has to help a reader see the integration of the fantastical elements and the realistic elements early on, especially if the book is set in our world. Otherwise, acceptance of the elements won’t come as readily.

DarkestPartoftheForest_coverHere’s the first paragraph of Holly Black’s young adult novel, The Darkest Part of the Forest:

Down a path worn into the woods, past a stream and a hollowed-out log full of pill bugs and termites, was a glass coffin. It rested right on the ground, and in it slept a boy with horns on his head and ears as pointed as knives.” (Black 1)

With a beginning like this, a reader would know that this world is not exactly like our own. And Black follows through on the promise inherent in this paragraph: that the reader will be taken on a fantastical journey. But does this mean every author has to introduce fantasy elements in the first paragraph? Nope. Instead, foreshadowing is a great tool an author can use. It’s like a promise an author makes to a reader early on that a story eventually will pivot toward the fantastic. For example, in the first chapter of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C. S. Lewis, when the Pevensie kids arrive at their wartime home, we’re told

It was the sort of house that you never seem to come to the end of, and it was full of unexpected places. (Lewis 4)

Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe

Unexpected places. With those two words and the introduction of the wardrobe in the same paragraph, Lewis sets up the promise of a fantastical adventure, one that he keeps in the first chapter. If that’s not enough evidence for you, look at the foreshadowing in the first paragraph of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s/Philosopher’s Stone. I won’t print it here, since I’ve quoted quite a bit in this post. Chances are, you have a copy of this book handy and can see for yourself. 🙂

3

Both of these books have delighted people of all ages for many years. Our books can do the same if we keep our promises.

Works Cited
Black, Holly. The Darkest Part of the Forest. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2015. Print.
Lewis, C. S. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. New York: HarperTrophy, 1950. Print.
Rowling, J.K. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. New York: Arthur Levine/Scholastic, 1997. Print.
White, Jen. “Survival Strategies of the Best First Chapters.” Through The Tollbooth. N.p., 09 July 2015. Web. 09 July 2015.

Book covers from Goodreads. Flying man from azokey.blogspot.com. Bait and switch image from theamericangenius.com.

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32 thoughts on “Keep Your Promise

  1. I’ve never dreamt I could fly, though I understand it’s quite common. I remember as a kid dreaming about bears for three consecutive nights. Not cuddly ones, either. And once, as a kid, I was writing a story for my school homework about vampires, and I dreamt about them all night. I loved it! I think these two examples tell you what kind of kid I was 🙂

      • I was convinced it meant that one day I would be killed by a bear. Bit difficult in our country, though.
        I looked up its meaning once in a Dream Dictionary that I saw in a shop. I can’t remember what bears signified now, although I don’t believe there are definitive meanings for everybody that dreams of the same thing.
        Still, I’m on my guard around zoos 🙂

      • That must make going camping very frightening. 😉 I sincerely hope that was just an undigested bit of beef as Scrooge always says.

        I looked stuff up in dream dictionaries online. Many were contradictory. 😦

  2. Never had that dream, but I get what you’re saying about the first chapter. World building has to start up from the beginning in some fashion. Even a subtle hint or a casual mention can help prepare the reader. I keep thinking of movies that have action-packed or romantic trailers, but end up being something different. I forget which one came out years ago with a big action-y trailer and then people realized that nearly all of the action was shown in that movie. It was actually a drama or something.

    • I would appreciate even a subtle hint as you mentioned. I put down a book that dragged on and on and on without a sign of anything paranormal. I gave it 90 pages, then called it quits.

      • Sometimes I wonder if a few authors pick categories or claim to be a part of them solely for the audience. Yet they don’t actually follow through with the promise.

      • Maybe they thought they were being mysterious. I read a werewolf novel that hardly had any werewolf action in it. I couldn’t tell if the werewolf was supposed to be a delusion or not. I couldn’t finish it.

      • A friend of mine loves zombie stories, but he’s read a lot where the zombies don’t show up until the end. They’ve also been background, a reason to run to the next scene, or something else that makes them rather unimportant to the plot. Kind of like the zombie apocalypse is a setting and the monsters are the equivalent of bunnies in the background.

      • Wow. I’ve never read a zombie book without zombies being more present! I would have put those books down for sure, unless they had some killer suspense ala the move Signs! But even with great suspense I don’t see why I should stick around without more evidence of peril. Besides, with zombies shambling around, how hard could it be to include them???

      • He’s a dedicated reader. Goes to the very end even if it’s terrible. I guess people think the inclusion of zombies means everything else has to get tossed away. Not really sure.

      • Wow. I admire his patience. I hope he’ll reward himself with one of Jonathan Maberry’s books. I like his zombie books.

      • Well, as long as he’s enjoying himself. 🙂 But if he wants to relax at some point, I recommend the Rot & Ruin series by Jonathan Maberry.

  3. I thought of Harry Potter before I read your reference. 🙂 As for dreams…I’ve had the one where I’m being chased by a killer but I’ve always had to resort to hiding or outrunning him.

  4. Sadly, I’ve never had a flying dream (that I can remember). Concerning the topic though, I suppose it’s a matter of patience. If I’m given the impression that there are some fantastical elements in a book and the first fifty pages say otherwise, I may still keep reading. If I get halfway through the book though, and still no sign, forget it! I’ve yet to run into such a book though, so maybe there aren’t a whole lot of them out there!

  5. I read this wonderful post early this morning, L. Marie, and have thought about through my day. Those opening lines of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe are among my favorite, though I haven’t thought about them as a promise of sorts until now. Thank you.
    Not quite relevant to your conversation here, but, one of my favorite opening lines is from Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle – “I write this sitting in the kitchen sink.”

    • Aww. Thank you. 😀 Such a classic book, Penny. And for some reason, people keep mentioning I Capture the Castle, so perhaps I need to reread it soon.

  6. This is interesting, I hadn’t thought about this before. I like the idea of setting up a promise with chapter 1 and fulfilling that promise.
    That said, I don’t know if it would bother me to have a book start as normal and then switch over to paranormal, so long as the switch was done well, and had a reason behind it. I can’t for the life of me think of a book that does that now, but I feel like I’ve read a book that did this effectively. If it comes back to me, I’ll let you know.

    I loved Holly Black’s opening paragraph by the way. It makes me want to read her book!

    • I recommend her book! She’s great with otherworldly creatures.

      The only book I can think of off the top of my head that starts off normal is Dracula . But even in the first chapter, Stoker included so much foreshadowing and suspense, you know something out of the ordinary is coming. And by the second chapter, Stoker headed toward the big reveal.

      • Hmm, I’m wondering if Something Wicked This Way Comes works, although now that I think of it, there’s foreshadowing. It does make complete sense that successful books would establish their premise (and promise!) right from the beginning and follow through with it. It’s just bugging me because I feel so sure I’ve seen that switch done to good effect, but I think you’re right, if I was to look closely there’d be some foreshadowing there.

      • Yes, there is foreshadowing. The arrival of the lightning rod salesman and his announcement. Bradbury is really good at foreshadowing.

  7. *nods* Yup. I redid my first chapter several times because of this. I kept trying to introduce characters first, but in the end it worked better to let that happen gradually.

    • I know what you mean, ReGi. I introduced just about every character in my book in one chapter. Completely overwhelmed a friend who critiqued the first few chapters. So I had to strip out half the people and focus on just the main character and a couple of people with whom she was in conflict.

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