?? A Story is a Promise: Notes on Harlan Coben's Novel The Stranger
A Story is a Promise

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Beginning a Novel With a Mysterious Stranger

Notes on the Opening Chapter of Hank Coben's The Stranger

by Bill Johnson

Beginning a novel with a mysterious stranger is one way to set a story into motion. Harlan Coben's The Stranger offers a good example of how to begin this type of novel.

The opening line...

'The stranger didn't shatter Adam's world all at once.'

The prime directive of the first sentence of a novel is to give the reader a reason to read the next sentence. Coben accomplishes that. The sentence conveys several questions: who is the stranger? What has he done to shatter Adam's world? Why not all at once?

Next sentence...

'That was what Adam Price would tell himself later, but that was a lie.'

This both introduces the novel's main character, Adam Price, it also raises the question of why Adam came to change his mind about the exchange. The reader is skillfully being drawn forward.

Next sentence...

'Adam somehow knew right away, right from the very first sentence, that the life he had known as a content suburban married father of two was forever gone.'

This raises several questions. What did the stranger say to Adam? Who is the stranger? How did what he say destroy Adam's life?'

Next sentences...

'It was a simple sentence on the face of it, but there was something in the tone, something knowing and even caring, that let Adam know that nothing would ever be the same.

'"You didn't have to stay with her," the stranger said.'

This begins to answer the question, what did the stranger tell Adam? But we now want to know more. And, why did the stranger speak in a caring tone? The answer to that question comes deep in the novel.

Note, who the stranger is and what he looks like is still a mystery.

The next paragraph conveys the setting of the story, Cedarfield, an American Dream town in New Jersey. Note we are drawn in to the world of the story ahead of getting the details of setting. And the description of the town also conveys that its version of the American Dream is also a lie, something the novel will explore. So even the details of place serve a purpose.

The next paragraph gives more details about the specific setting, Adam and the stranger.

The next paragraph describes the stranger. Again, note that the reader has been set up to want this description. Struggling writers often offer description ahead of giving readers a reason to want the details.

We then move into the conversation that changes Adam's life.

"She told you she was pregnant, right?"


"That's why you stayed. Corrine told you she was pregnant."

This begins to answer the question, what did the stranger say to Adam that changed his life?

Adam's response...

'It was right then that Adam felt some kind of switch go off in his chest, as if someone had tripped the red digital timer on some movie bomb and now it had started to tick down.'

After more description of the location...

"You felt obligated to stay, am I right?"


"She lied, Adam."


"It was all a ruse to get you back."

Why his wife needed a ruse to get Adam 'back' is a revelation that comes out much later in the novel, but the questions are clearly presented here. The questions are framed in a way that makes it easy for the reader to track their resolution and fulfillment.

The background of the setting of this opening chapter is now set out, why Adam is in this particular Legion Hall in place of his wife, to work through some issues around his son being in a local lacrosse league. All of these background details and characters will play out in a major way in the novel; they are identified in a way the reader can track these characters and how they will affect the outcome of the story.

While Adam struggles to try and comprehend what he has just learned about his wife and mother of his two boys, the stranger continues...

"You're free."

This is an important point about the stranger, that he apparently believes he's helping Adam. Why this matters to the stranger is a revelation that comes much later in the novel.

The stranger suggests Adam do a paternity test on his two sons, suggesting his wife could have lied about that, as well. He says...

"When a woman is willing to lie about something like this [the fake pregnancy], well, it's a pretty good bet it isn't her first time."

This line sets up a major issue in the plot, when the wife is soon accused of stealing money from the lacrosse league. When Adam discovers proof that his wife did lie about being pregnant and then having a miscarriage, Adam must wonder if she used the money she is accused of stealing to try and pay off the stranger so he wouldn't reveal her secrets to Adam.

That Adam is an attorney gives him the ability to try and find out why his life has been upended by the stranger and, when his wife leaves him, to search for her. And, just as important in this novel, he understands what questions he can answer or deflect when he's dealing with the police.

This opening chapter of Coben's The Stranger does an excellent job of setting the story and plot into motion. Every detail serves a purpose, even if that purpose is only conveyed later in the novel.

Excellent story mechanics.

Copyright 2017 Bill Johnson