The Exorcist -- Page Two
by Bill Johnson
What follows is a review of the first page of The Exorcist to continue an exploration of
the principles that underlie
the creation of a well-told novel.
The following reviews the second page of The Exorcist, page 12 of the Bantam paperback edition. I begin with the first full
At approximately 12:25 A.M., Chris glanced from her script with a frown of puzzlement.
This line is suggestive because of that unspoken contract the author has created. We can sense that this is
the beginning of something, because this author delivers on what he suggests.
She heard rapping sounds.
Dramatically suggestive. What do these rapping sounds mean? At this stage, when the book first came out, the
audience wouldn't know their significance. But note the effect these sentences have. First, they introduce Chris,
then draw us into her character through her reaction to hearing the rapping sounds. This author never hesitates
to move forward with clean, quick economy in a way that draws his audience into the world and impressions of his
characters, whether he's offering a few lines about a Kurd or a curator we would expect never to see again.
They were odd. Muffled. Profound. Rhythmically clustered.
Again, words that are suggestive in the context of being in a "brooding" house which is clearly set up to
be a battle between good and evil. Just like we can imagine that Chris's attention is drawn to them, the author
introduces these sounds in a way that the audience of the story is also drawn to them with her.
Alien code tapped out by a dead man.
Frightening, prophetic words. We are truly at the beginning. There's no turning back now. That evil is now here
and must be dealt with. Just as the six pages of the prologue took us six pages deeper into the story, by the
second paragraph of the first page of the novel the audience has been cued that this battle between good and evil
has begun. Again, drama is both the setting up of an anticipation of an outcome and the dramatic journey to that outcome.
Character note, the characters introduced in this paragraph will be defined by how they react to what's at stake in
the story, so the author expends his efforts to get the story moving forward before describing them. Beautifully
written paragraph designed to take the story's audience deeper into this story.
The Exorcist, Page 12, third paragraph and scene, the following several lines are separate lines. This sets up
a quick pace of information. The reader skips down the page at a quicker pace, which mimics the mother rushing down
the hall. The sentences,
Chris is referring to the rapping. At first, it's just an odd noise. The word "funny" is in italic. It's a quick,
visual way to set out Chris's thoughts.
She listened for a moment; then dismissed it; but as the rapping persisted she could not
concentrate. She slapped down the script on the bed.
The description here is very visual. It's easy for the reader to take in and visualize her irritation.
Jesus, that bugs me.
That the sounds irritate Chris suggests her life is stressful. Again, instead of telling us that, the author shows us.
She got up and went to investigate.
She takes immediate action. She's an active person who responds to her environment, as opposed to a passive,
thoughtful person. It can be a struggle to create stories with a passive, thoughtful narrator who doesn't respond
to a story's events. Some authors create such main characters and then must find a way to not let that passivity
skew and destroy their novel. Blatty creates an active character who will serve his dramatic purpose.
She went out to the hallway and looked around. It seemed to be coming from Regan's room.
We are now clearly into the story's plot, the description of the events that will act out the story of this
battle between good and evil. First, the story is established and a sense of what's at stake in the story created. In
that context, Blatty creates a brisk pace to take us visually into the action of the story, and, via italics, quickly
into Chris's thoughts. Clean, direct writing.
What is she doing?
Chris's thoughts in italic again. Notice how Chris's thoughts are directing us to Regan's room before we get
there. The author is guiding us to keep our focus on what's important.
She padded down the hall and the rappings grew suddenly louder, much faster, and as she
pushed on the door and stepped into the room, they abruptly ceased.
Note the escalation for the rappings. They don't stay the same, they grow louder as Chris comes closer to Regan's
room. The storyteller always finds the small details that keep the action of the story fresh, interesting, engaging,
What the heck's going on?
Chris asks the questions that would be the question for the story's audience as well.
Her pretty eleven-year-old was asleep, cuddled tight to a large stuffed round-eyed panda.
Pookey. Faded from years of smothering, years of smacking, warm, wet kisses.
We've been set up for this "introduction" of Regan from page 11, the opening page of the novel. The author
mentioned her, then arranged this introduction. Note that the author is introducing characters in the order
of their importance to the story. Or, I should say that I trust these characters are the most important for
the story because I now trust the author's intentions. We are now on the second page of the novel, and the
manifestation of evil has begun. Again that issue of setting the story into motion, then setting out character
details via how they react to the story's plot events. Also note that by having Regan asleep, the author can
continue to keep the focus on Chris.
The author has clearly transitioned from setting out the dramatic issue at the core of his story -- this battle between
good and evil -- to the plot events that will manifest the acting out of this battle. Many writers struggle because
they create characters and a plot, but fail to introduce their story. They create an advance along their plot line
and along character arcs, but no movement along their story line.
Continuing, note that Blatty has taken great care to create a quality of narrative tension around his Jesuit.
This means that when he does show up at this "brooding" house, he will not back down from the battle. Note
that Chris is introduced as the mother of Regan and she loves her daughter very much. It's a subtle point,
but some writers attempt to create artificial scenes to "prove" why their characters have transparently
artificial relationships to each other. Again, by setting up a story with a character who exists in this
state of narrative tension, and setting out a mother who loves her daughter, the storyteller creates an
environment where he can pick out those words that best tell and advance his story, not those required
to shore up a sagging plot line and characters introduced to no particular dramatic purpose.
Another note, this story does not open with a character lecturing us about Exorcism via the storyteller
creating an artificial environment for that purpose -- a classroom or seminary class, etc. It sets the story
into motion by bringing into the world the evil that will require an exorcism. Therefore, at the proper
point along the story line and plot line that author will, I'm sure, cue us in to the process of
exorcism. Why am I so sure about this? Because everything that Blatty has set up, he's delivered on. The
failed novelist finds themselves caught in an odd trap. There story isn't quite grabbing the attention of
their audience. To rectify the problem, they create more plot events, characters issues, and
explanations. It turns the opening of their novel -- which should be engaging and dramatically
focused -- into a swamp. It's why an editor can often reject a novel based on its first five pages. If
a writer hasn't concretely set out a story line by then, it's an indication they don't understand
the craft of creating a novel.
While this isn't an explanation for why every novel gets rejected, anyone with an understanding of story
and story line reading through an agent/publisher's slush pile would see the problem over and over.
Because most failed or inexperienced novelists fail to create a story line, starting a story like The Exorcist
on page one without its prologue, they shift an unwieldy burden onto their character arcs and plot line. Blatty
sets out in his prologue that this will be a story about a deep rooted conflict between good and evil. Therefore,
when on page one of his story he writes that the rental house is "brooding," that single word, in the
context of the story, is chilling. Without the context of the story, to convince the story's readers
that the house is "brooding" would probably require more description. If the struggling writer takes
a paragraph to get across that point, while they are making that point, they further delay the introduction
of their story line. It's why the writer who thinks that they introduce a story via their characters
and plot can fail to perceive they haven't created a story line.
Second point, the story advances along its plot line by introducing the house and Chris reacting to
the rapping noises and hurrying toward her daughter's room. Consider that sequence sans the story's
prologue. It sets into motion a character acting along a plot line. But her actions, in isolation, have
no clear dramatic purpose other than her responding to the rapping noise. This means that to make the
rapping noises appear sinister and suggestive of a battle between good and evil, the writer would have
to load more information onto their plot line. This is what sets up that process of the struggling writer
loading additional information on their plot line in an attempt to give it a clear, story-like purpose.
The outcome of this failure to set up a story line is that the struggling storyteller sets up what their story's
about as a revelation. In this case, they would probably bring in the Jesuit from the prologue about page 41 of
their story, and the Jesuit would explain about the rappings and the odd events I'm assuming will escalate around
Regan. What that creates, however, is a novel that lacks a story line for its first forty pages, and a plot line
and characters arcs distended with adjectives and adverbs to give them a dramatic purpose they are not designed to convey.
One way the struggling storyteller tries to overcome this lack is with a prologue, but one quite different in its
effect than the one Blatty created. The struggling writer would create a prologue that has the Jesuit archeologist
finding the amulet and ends with him staring off into the distance with a preoccupied look. The amulet and the "look"
are intended to communicate that the story is a battle between good and evil. The problem is, it doesn't suggest that
at all. What the writer of that kind of prologue is working to set up is another revelation about what the amulet and
the "look" meant.
Many struggling novelists would defend that that kind of prologue constitutes the beginning of a story line.
Unfortunately, it generally doesn't.
Another example of this failure to establish a story line is a story that opens with a metaphor. For example,
something suggestive of a battle between good and evil. If the metaphor is too elusive and suggestive, however,
it doesn't concretely set out a story's story line.
Chris moved softly to her bedside and leaned over for a whisper. "Rags? You awake?"
This is Chris acting out that she's a loving mother, and it's also the calm before the storm. The rapping was
enough to tell the audience the story has taken over this house; the author can let the tension build during
Regular breathing. Heavy. Deep.
In this context, that Regan's breathing is so heavy and deep is not reassuring for the audience.
Chris shifted her glance around the room. Dim lights from the hall feel pale and splintered
on Regan's paintings; on Regan's sculptures; on more stuffed animal.
Because of the rapping sound in Regan's room, Chris has a reason to look around the room and take in what
she sees. The author has not created an artificial reason for Chris going to Regan's room simply to
introduce Regan and describe her room. Also note the use of the words, "feel pale and splintered
on Regan's paintings." It's the author again using specific words that suggest a kind of menace. Even a
reader not consciously pondering those words would have an unconscious reaction to them.
Okay, Rags. Old mother's ass is draggin'. Say it. "April Fool!"
Note the economy of what the author just accomplished with the sentence above. First, he tells us that Chris is
hard working and busy. Second, that mother and daughter have a relationship where they can enjoy a prank on each
other. It's another way of setting out the kind of bond the mother and daughter have, and drawing the story's audience
in to feel that bond without specifically stating that purpose out loud. By this I mean Blatty doesn't write something
like, "Looking at Rags, Chris felt how much she loved her daughter." Blatty ACTS OUT that moment.
And yet Chris knew it wasn't like her. The child had a shy and very diffident nature.
If Regan is very shy and diffident, it will make what's going to follow all the more dramatic and shocking.
On the second page of his novel, Blatty has continued with the sure, confident writing that draws
his audience deeper into his compelling story. He does this not by withholding the story and its promise,
but by making that promise and his ability to deliver on it concrete and enjoyable.
To be continued.
Continue to The Exorcist -- Page Three Review
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