I’ve recently reread Writers and Lovers by Lily King. This novel offers a grief-stricken narrator, struggling to finish her first book, barely able to pay her bills, pining for a crush who deserted her, working a waitressing job under harsh conditions and verbal abuse. Casey, the first-person narrator, is such a richly layered character, and her journey is a textbook character redemption arc. Part coming-of-age, part writing life, part grappling-with-death, this novel hits a lot of my favorite themes.
Still, this is a “quiet” book club novel. There is no murder to be solved, no killer on the loose, no race against the clock to save the world from destruction. So how does King so effectively draw her readers in, from the opening page?
Here’s the first paragraph, in case the photo above is illegible:
I have a pact with myself not to think about money in the morning. I’m like a teenager trying not to think about sex. But I’m also trying not to think about sex. Or Luke. Or death. Which means not thinking about my mother, who died on vacation last winter. There are so many things I can’t think about in order to write in the morning.Writers & Lovers by Lily King
How do you feel, when you read this paragraph? Are you curious? Do you want to keep reading?
I do. I want to know why all of these thoughts—money, sex, Luke, death, her mother—plague her to the point of not being able to write.
What do we know about this narrator?
She’s a mess, but a lovable mess. She’s trying to be “good”- diligent about writing. But she has problems that she can’t escape. Money. Her mother’s death. Already I’m thinking about Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, how the needs of physiology, safety and belonging must be met before we can satisfy aesthetic or self-actualizing needs. All in the first paragraph!
King also establishes the narrator’s voice, which hints at the narrator’s personality. Casey is honest, young (or young-ish), still figuring out how to go through life. She creates pacts with herself. She tells us her thoughts. She’s vulnerable but determined. I want to learn more about her, to see her in action.
In the next few paragraphs, King satisfies this desire. We see an exchange between Casey and Adam, her landlord. Adam is dressed up for his meeting at the courthouse, while Casey has to write now because she’s “working a double” later. The contrast between their appearance, their speech, and their demeanor couldn’t be starker. Adam preens, and he disparages her to build himself up (in the way of all bullies). Casey wears sweats and hasn’t brushed her hair. The dog yanks her around, while Adam is nicely propped up by his Mercedes. Casey has lots of strong internal reactions to Adam’s nastiness, but on the outside, she plays nice. After all, he’s her landlord, and she can’t afford to lose the tiny room she rents from him for a pittance.
As a miniature character study, these two pages shine. King’s opener works, not so much by creating tension or mystery, as by establishing a character with needs (physical: money; psychological: healing from her mother’s death). By witnessing Casey with an antagonist, we feel immediate empathy for her. We root for her to overcome this haughty, wealthy, belittling bully.
King ends the opening scene with this zinger:
‘You know,’ he says, pushing himself off his car, waiting for my full attention. ‘I just find it extraordinary that you think you have something to say.’
Adam needs attention, all so that he can dismiss Casey’s writerly dreams. We loathe him! And we’re on Casey’s side. Go, Casey, go! Show Adam you can write the novel!
Reread this scene. Consider the work that each word choice, each detail serves. Now review your own opening paragraph, and then your opening scene. Are there ways you can heighten the characterization, perhaps by showing a stark contrast, as King does? Can you open with a conflict, the better to get the reader on your main character’s side? Can you show your MC’s wants and needs, so that we have something concrete to root for on her behalf?
I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.