Art of Fiction: Your Fiction’s Hardworking First Paragraph: Part I: Setting the Pace

December 29, 2006
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Coyote Morning, a Novel by Lisa Lenard-Cook
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The Art of Fiction: 

Your Fiction’s Hardworking First Paragraph
Part I: Setting the Pace

by Lisa Lenard-Cook
January 2007

Lisa Lenard-Cook is a regular columnist for Authorlink. She is an award-winning published author and writing instructor. This is another in the series, The Art of Fiction. Watch for her insights every month on Authorlink. Read more about Lisa.

". . . your fiction’s first paragraph needs to knock ’em dead . . ."
—Lenard-Cook

You already know that your fiction’s first paragraph needs to knock ’em dead so they’ll keep on reading, and reading, and reading. But your first paragraph does a whole lot of other work as well: It introduces your protagonist, sets up the situation, reveals the setting, starts the suspense, and finally, sets the pace for the rest of your fiction. That’s a lot of work for a mere paragraph, but when it works, the reader won’t realize how much you’re doing.

". . . setting the pace, is what I’d like to focus on this month"
—Lenard-Cook

That last aspect, setting the pace, is what I’d like to focus on this month. Before you begin, you may want to review my “Mind of Your Story” columns, which first appeared on Authorlink from December 2004 through April 2005, before you begin.

http://authorlink.com/skill-building/the-art-of-fiction-the-mind-of-your-story-2/

http://authorlink.com/skill-building/the-mind-of-your-story-part-2-managing-time-2/

http://authorlink.com/skill-building/the-mind-of-your-story-part-3-setting-the-pace-2/

http://authorlink.com/skill-building/the-art-of-fiction-the-mind-of-your-story-part-4-playing-with-tenses/

Ready? Okay. Let's begin by reading the first paragraph of my novel Coyote Morning:

On that Monday morning in April, Alison Lomez watched through her kitchen window as her seven-year-old daughter Rachel shuffled to the end of their gravel driveway, where the school bus would stop for her. At first, Alison thought it was a dog that trotted up and sat down next to Rachel, a small yellow dog that reached to Rachel’s chest. Dog and girl watched the empty road that wound down from the mesa. Whose dog? Alison thought, and then, what kind? and then, coyote. At this, the animal slowly turned its head, and looked Alison squarely in the eye. As Alison watched, Rachel bent to say something to the animal before resuming her vigil.

". . .to find out a fiction’s pace, the first thing you want to do is calculate its chronos. . ."
—Lenard-Cook

Calculate Your Chronos

Now, to find out a fiction’s pace, the first thing you want to do is calculate its chronos—its own particular clock. Here are the facts and figures you need to calculate Coyote Morning’s chronos: Coyote Morning’s “present tense” covers three days, or 72 hours. The novel is 196 pages long. Divide the time covered in Coyote Morning by the number of pages, which = .36, or about 1/3 of an hour. So, every page moves the narrative forward approximately 20 minutes.

". . . I will present each of Alison’s scenes, in kairos—emotional time—"
—Lenard-Cook

You’ll likely note, however, that the novel’s first paragraph, above, covers just one moment in time. This, in fact, is how I will present each of Alison’s scenes, in kairos—emotional time—with time seemingly elongated, as it is here. In this paragraph, in fact, it’s as if Alison’s adrenaline has kicked in, slowing the moment and increasing the horror.

". . .her chronos must nonetheless be true to the novel’s primary chronos. . ."
—Lenard-Cook

Richen the Brew

But Coyote Morning has a second protagonist as well. She’s a far more internal character than Alison, but her chronos must nonetheless be true to the novel’s primary chronos (Alison’s). Here are that character’s first three paragraphs:

Where Natalie Harold came from, the wildest thing she ever saw was the motion of an invisible bird in a tree. Everything was close there, close and grey, and so when she first saw the sky over the desert she knew it was the place she’d never even known to dream, and she knew she was home.

When Natalie was the first person to walk the ditch bank in the morning, as she was today, the S’s of night lizards would draw her paths for her. Small catches of coyote fur might dandle from chamisa; small patches of rabbit fur below suggested a recent repast. This early, the sun had not yet crested Sandia Mountain to the east, the mountain that the Indians called Turtle Mountain not only because of its shape but also because of its seeming motion, and some mornings, the air might still tang from a late evening rain, the sand still clot with the last of its moisture.

As always, Natalie walked slowly and, like most Valle Bosqueleños, she carried a big stick. The stick was to ward off loose dogs. She walked slowly in case today was the day she would finally see a coyote, her long-held and most cherished dream.

". . . like Alison’s opening section, Natalie’s also covers only a moment in time."
—Lenard-Cook
Note that, like Alison’s opening section, Natalie’s also covers only a moment in time. But the pace in this section is slower than in Alison’s, the words and sentences longer. Along with Natalie, the reader sees more details, visualizing the place as eternally separate from the moment even while Natalie (and the reader) is in it. Nonetheless, the chronos — the novel’s every page = 20 minutes pace — remains the same.
". . . there are other voices in Coyote Morning as well."
—Lenard-Cook

Other Voices/Same Pace

As if I hadn’t set myself a difficult enough task, there are other voices in Coyote Morning as well. Each chapter opens with a “Coyote Fact” which also establishes the chapter’s focus in some way. Then, there are letters to the editor of the small village’s bi-weekly paper, which act as a sort of Greek chorus, and, while they can fit within the novel’s chronos, really exist outside it. There are also occasional “Coyote Logs,” courtesy of the village’s Animal Control Division. And finally, there’s a third voice, Alison’s seven-year-old daughter Rachel, whom you met briefly above. Her sections end each chapter. Here’s the end of Chapter 1:

Did you get a dog? says Suzy Charles. Rachel doesn’t know what she means when she says that, so she asks her, What do you mean? Suzy says, I saw you waiting for the school bus with your dog, so then Rachel says, That wasn’t a dog that was my coyote, and then she laughs because she wants it to be her coyote. Suzy Charles laughs too and Rachel decides she can be her friend today. His name is Chris, Rachel says. No, Suzy says, that’s your daddy’s name, and Rachel decides she’s not her friend today anymore and maybe not tomorrow, either.

Now, without me telling you, what do you notice about the length of time this paragraph covers? That’s right: Just like Alison’s and Natalie’s sections, it takes place over a only a moment. In other words, all three of Coyote Morning’s voices use kairos in the same way.And meanwhile, the novel’s chronos keeps ticking, at — that’s right — 20 minutes per page.

"Once you understand how chronos and kairos work, you can begin to make imaginative leaps just as I do. . ."
—Lenard-Cook

Once you understand how chronos and kairos work, you can begin to make imaginative leaps just as I do in Coyote Morning. In fact, the exercise below may show that you already have.

". . . there are other voices in Coyote Morning as well."
—Lenard-Cook

Manage Your Time

There’s a good chance you have instances of chronos and kairos in something you’re working on, but simply haven’t thought of it in this way before.

For this exercise, choose a fiction of your own for which you’ve completed, at the least, a first draft. Now, establish the following: The fiction’s chronos: How much time does the fiction cover from beginning to end? The fiction’s length: How many pages long is the fiction? Time elapsed per page: Divide the time (#1) by the number of pages (#2).

Next, pick a scene that’s pivotal to the fiction. (Actually, every scene should be pivotal, but because this is a first draft, there may one scene that’s particular vivid or strong.) Now answer these questions about the scene: How many pages does this scene take? How far has the fiction’s chronos ticked during this scene? Does your story’s mind resume the correct number of pages farther along in its chronos?

Finally, consider the scene itself: How much time elapses in the scene?

Is this a pattern that you follow throughout the fiction, or do some scenes cover moments while others cover years?

". . . these questions can help you determine what sort of chronos your fiction should have. "
—Lenard-Cook
If your fiction has been feeling “off,” and you haven’t been able to figure out why, answering these three sets of questions may provide the key. If you’ve handled pacing well, they will nonetheless provide you with a formula to make sure the rest of your fiction maintains the same chronos. Either way, these questions can help you determine what sort of chronos your fiction should have. Have fun!
About
Lisa Lenard-Cook
Lisa Lenard-Cook's novel Dissonance was short-listed for the PEN Southwest Book Award, a selection of NPR Performance Today's Summer Reading Series, and the countywide choice for Durango-La Plata Reads. She lives in Corrales, New Mexico, where she is currently adapting Dissonance for the stage.

 

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