A Story is a Promise
Bill Johnson's A Story 
is a Promise & The Spirit of Storytelling book cover
Essays on the Craft of Writing

About the Author


Writing Literary Fiction

by Bill Johnson

I teach that genre fiction is a roller coaster ride, while literary fiction asks, 'why do people ride roller coasters?'

That said, the underlying mechanics of storytelling are the same for both types of fiction. The opening pages to Lidia Yuknavitch's The Small Backs of Children demonstrates this.

The first chapter is titled The Girl

First line...

   One winter night when she is no longer a child, the girl walks outside, her arms     cradling a self, her back to a house not her own but some other.

The Prime Directive of a first sentence of a novel is that a reader is pulled forward/drawn forward to read a second sentence.

Breaking down this opening sentence...

   One winter night when she is no longer a child...

A clever way to ask, why is the story starting now with this girl who is no longer a child? What happened to her when she was a child (this potentially relates to the title of the book).

   ...the girl walks outside, her arms cradling a self.

Wonderful, mysterious language. I'm intrigued. How/why does she cradle her self. This suggests a story about self.

   ...her back to a house not her own but some other.

But if she's outside this house, the question is, why? Does her self she carries not identify with this house?

   It is a year after the blast that atomized her entire family in front of her eyes.

Powerful image, intriquing question. Who killed her family in such a fashion? Why? How did she survive?

   She is six.

This is something concrete about the girl. Notice it came after the more intriguing language.

Struggling writers often begin a story with a collection of concrete details that have no context. They quickly become a burden a reader must carry forward until the details serve some story purpose.

First I'm led to want to know more about the girl, then I get a small piece of that information.

   It is a house she has lived in with a widow woman who took
   her in – orphan of war, girl of nothingness.

We're getting more concrete information here, but it also conveys questions: what war? Why is she a 'girl of nothingness?'

Yuknavitch's first paragraph has a lyrical expressiveness, a full command of language. Her writing conveys she is a storyteller in command of the story she is telling.

Continuing...

   But that night has never left her...it is an unrelenting bruise.

Can this unrelenting bruise heal? Note how the phrase frames the question clearly.

   It's blue-black image pearling in and out of memory forever. Nor
    will it ever leave her body, the blast forever injuring her spine, a sliver of metal
    piercing her and entering her, so that all her life she will carry that
    moment between her vertebrae.

If her wound was uncomplicated, something that would heal, something that could be left behind, it would risk not marking her as a character who could carry the dramatic weight and force to carry the story forward.

She is a deeply wounded character, the kind of character a novel needs.

Next lines and new paragraph...

   And then her mind moves to the moment of the blast,
   the singular fire lighting up the face of her father,
   her mother, first white, then orange and blue, then black,
   then nothing, her head swiveled by the force of the
   blow away from them. This does not frighten her.
   what used to be nightmares transformed into color and light,
   it is with her now. Lifelong companion. Still life of a
   dead family.

Again, wonderful, lyrical language that also offers more detail about what happened to the girl.

A wonderful opening to The Small Backs of Children.

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To read some of my longer reviews of popular movies, check out my writing workbook, A Story is a Promise & The Spirit of Storytelling, available on Amazon's Kindle and Barnes and Noble's Nook.