In a Facebook thread, a…

In a Facebook thread, a writer was complaining that it was clunky to have to describe his non-white, non-standard protagonist in the first paragraph of his story -- it interrupted the flow, etc. I wrote this in response:

Try this experiment -- your book opens with: "The well-dressed lawyer entered the waiting room, frowning, sheaf of legal documents in hand."

Okay, now how many of you pictured a lesbian, wheelchair-bound dark-skinned woman after that sentence? Or did you picture a generic tallish white guy, almost certainly straight? That's what Delany means, when he talks about the 'mythical norm'.

It takes skill to draw a picture of protagonist in such a way that it flows with everything else the first few paragraphs are doing. But if you don't do it, and your protagonist isn't a member of that mythical norm, then your reader will have a certain amount of mental whiplash when they realize they've mis-assumed.

It's not the end of the world if they experience that, but unless you're trying to make a political point at the reader's expense, I'd generally recommend avoiding mental interruptions that will throw the reader out of the story. Anything that might keep them from turning pages is deadly!

9 thoughts on “In a Facebook thread, a…”

  1. If a story began with the sentence you quote, I’d assume the protagonist was someone other than the lawyer who was watching the lawyer come in (because the lawyer isn’t named – if s/he were the protagonist, it would have started with her/his name). In that case, the protagoist would have described the lawyer through his/her own opinion (because all setting/description is opinion).

    If the lawyer is the protagonist, then naming him/her immediately helps towards the gender question, as well as ::possibly:: the skin color question. Another easy way to establish gender would be to tweak the sentence and have him/her frowning at the sheaf of papers “in his/her hands” rather than “in hand.”

    If the lawyer were in a wheelchair, s/he wouldn’t have been described as walking.

    Information is also meted out as it’s needed in the story. When does it become necessary to mention she is a lesbian? If it’s not necessary for the scene, why would it need to be mentioned in the first paragraph, etc?

    Just some thoughts….

  2. Dayle, just a nitpick:

    If the lawyer were in a wheelchair, s/he wouldn’t have been described as walking.

    S/he wasn’t; the verb is “entered”.

  3. I think writers can do whatever they want, as long as it works. 🙂

    Monique Truong’s Bitter in the Mouth is a great example of someone who does exactly that. It’s fantastic, the best novel I’ve read in years.

    SEMI SPOILER ALERT: For the whole first half of the book, you follow your mythical norm, and you think you’re reading about one type of person. Around page 150, wham!

    And it’s perfect.

  4. There are a few exceptions that prove the rule. I’ve done it too — I wrote a very short story called “Morningsong” that functions the same way. But it makes the story *about* that very subversion, which is not something you’re trying to do most of the time. 🙂

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