I am an amiable reader. I start out every book with hope in my heart. Sometimes, I am lucky, and I know by the end of the first paragraph that I am going to be very sad when I finish the last. Some books reveal themselves as complete trash, but by the end of the first page, I am hooked anyway. And, yes, in other cases, I have read the first paragraph and shut the book forever.
But what really gets my dander up is a literary convention of questionable worth, and yet even great writers use it. It’s that sentence that sets up the plot for some sort of twist, and the author phones it in by saying something like:
“The doorbell rang. Winifred’s life was about to change.”
It seems to me that this writer must have been at the end of a very busy day in which the dog got sick on the carpet, her children fought and managed to poke each other in the eye, or she got a call from the school about lice that made her so tired that it just took too much energy to move the plot along using paragraphs. Thus the telltale ding-dong.
Or even worse is the convention some writers seem to love–in which the character, by a sudden divine insight, simply knows that from this moment forward, he or she will simply never be the same:
“Veronica, stalled in traffic, sighed. ‘I will never get to the meeting on time.’ She glanced in the rearview mirror to check her lipstick. She saw him in the car behind her, and knew that at that second, her whole life would not be the same again.”
Really? I am a person of the Boomer generation. So I am getting old and am somewhat wise. I have lived a vivid life. But there was only ONE defining moment in my life, and that was due to a tragic accident of fate: my husband had a massive stroke. And on that occasion, my life did indeed turn on a dime. But I didn’t have an inkling about it beforehand.
But the average (and I mean average) novel is full of these pivotal moments. The ringing phone introduces many of them. But there are other popular ones: a stranger boards the bus, and whammo, Persephone is never the same again.
Or another favorite: “When the choir began to sing, Elspeth’s heart turned, and for the first time, she saw the meaning behind the words. When she walked out of the Church, she was in God’s hands.”
I could go on forever, but here is just one more. I might just use this one in a book sometime:
“Oswald sat in the library, turning the pages of ‘The Marquis de Sade,’ his cheeks burning, an uncomfortable disarray in his lap. Suddenly, a shadow was cast across his book. ‘You are in my light,’ Oswald growled, looking up. Lance, in red cashmere vest and brown nubby cords, his auburn hair falling over one searingly green eye, gazed down upon him. At that moment, Oswald knew he was in love with men.”
So where does this plotting “shorthand” come from? I think it is either because we, as a generation, watch way too much television and movies than are good for us. Every plot has to wrap up fast and neat in no longer than a couple of hours. Or maybe it’s the microwave mentality, in which if we have to wait more than a minute or so for an outcome, we get mad. It’s a pet peeve, I suppose. I write short stories, of course. So the plot turns awfully quickly in those. And essays, which I also write, don’t ever seem to require the significantly ringing phone.
But wait. There is a tingling in my fingertips. Could it be the harbinger of something? Will this column be the one that catapults me to fame? I may never be the same after this.