Monday, June 15, 2009

The First Death Knell: Change Must Happen

In a good novel, the death knells come early. The first place we should hear them are in the first chapter. In The Pilgrim’s Progress we hear them on page one. “…I am certainly informed that this our city will be burned with fire from Heaven; in which fearful overthrow, both myself, with thee my wife, and you my sweet babes, shall miserably come to ruin, except (the which yet I see not) some way of escape can be found…” This statement is like the death knells ringing for Christian’s death and that of his family.

Stories are about change. This being the case, we begin each story with something that needs to change. But just any change is not sufficient for a novel. We could begin with a husband and wife needing to change the wall paper in a bathroom. I might make an entertaining chapter, but it isn’t big enough to carry the whole novel. The need for change must be such that the reader sees it and believes that if change doesn’t happen then death will come. We see a very obvious death in The Pilgrim’s Progress, but what about other books—books without physical death on the table?

Ella Enchanted begins “That fool of a fairy Lucinda did not intend to lay a curse on me. She meant to bestow a gift.” Listen. Do you hear the death knells. Yes, it’s early, but as we keep reading we discover the nature of this gift/curse—the gift of obedience. Ella struggles with this gift, because while she always obeys, she doesn’t want to obey. At times, this obedience puts her in danger. It doesn’t take us long to realize that this gift will kill her psychologically if not physically, unless something changes.

The death knells come in the form of ice and parsnips in The Owlstone Crown, which was one of my favorite books as a kid. Timothy and Verity Tibbs have lost their parents. The people they are staying with are forcing them to work, in the cold, digging parsnips out of the frozen ground. Their life is a slow lingering death, unless something changes.

We don’t always have to put death knells on the first page. We can use a good hook and a little action to bridge the gap, but we need death knells somewhere early in the book. By doing so, we show the reader what is at stake if change doesn’t happen or if it doesn’t happen in the right way.