Writers, Start Your Engines

Currently, I’m reading Sol Stein’s craft book, Stein on Writing, which contains a wealth of information and tips to improve one’s writing. Stein is a playwright, an author and has worked as a literary editor in New York for thirty-six years. I want to share one of the many pieces of advice he has, something that has been churning over and over in my head since I read it. It’s this:

A novel is like a car—it won’t go anywhere until you turn on the engine. The “engine” of both fiction and nonfiction is the point at which the reader makes the decision not to put the book down. The engine should start in the first three pages, the closer to the top of page one the better.

Stein gives a couple of examples, but they’re from novels or shorts stories I haven’t read. I wanted to check for myself what the engine was in a novel that I admired to see if Stein was right. So I chose one of my favorite books, The God of Smalls Things by Arundhati Roy. The book opens with the female character Rahel returning to her home town in Ayemenem, India. She is there to visit her twin bother, Estha, whom she hasn’t seen in many years. They are are not identical twins, but dizygotic, born from separate by simultaneously fertilized eggs. Roy writes:

They never did look much like each other, Estha and Rahel, and even when they were thin-armed children, flat-chested, worm-ridden and Elvis Presley-puffed, there was none of the usual “Who is who?” and “Which is which?” from oversmiling relatives or the Syrian Orthodox bishops who frequently visited the Ayemenem House for donations. The confusion lay in a deeper, more secret place.

This last line — The confusion lay in a deeper, more secret place. — is the first indication that something bad happened between Rahel and Estha. I want to keep reading and find out what it was. This is the engine. Roy doesn’t stop there, though. She keeps the motor running through page three by dangling little tidbits in front of the reader about Rahel’s and Estha’s story. Once I get through those lines, I want to drive off with the novel.

Let’s look at The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje. On page one, we have the lines, “Every four days she washes his black body, beginning at the destroyed feet.” Already, curiosity is piqued. How did this man burn? If that is not the engine, then certainly this short paragraph on page two is:

He whispers again, dragging the listening heart of the young nurse beside him to wherever his mind is, into that well of memory he kept plunging into during those months before he died.

In that line, we are the nurse, pulling up a chair to the patient’s bedside in order to hear his story. Let’s look at page one of The End of the Affair by Graham Greene. In the first paragraph, Bendrix, the main character, sees Henry Miles (the husband of Sarah, whom he’s had an affair with) coming across the Common in the rain. Bendrix debates whether or not he should speak with Henry. Bendrix tells the reader:

I hated Henry — I hated his wife Sarah too. And he, I suppose, came soon after the events of that evening to hate me: as he surely at times must have hated his wife and that other, in whom in those days we were lucky enough not to believe. So this is a record of hate far more than of love, and if I come to say anything in favor of Henry and Sarah I can be trusted: I am writing against the bias because it is my professional pride to prefer the near-truth, even to the expression of my near-hate.

“This is a record of hate,” starts the engine. For short stories, it happens sooner than in the first couple of pages — most likely within the first three sentences. Take a look at stories you admire and find the engine. Then look under the hood of your own writing. Find your engine and start it up.

Photo: Sheffield Tiger / Flickr Creative Commons

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8 Comments on “Writers, Start Your Engines

  1. I’ve read a few books by him on writing, and decided to see how well he uses his own advice by reading his novel, “The Magician.” It’s not the best book I’ve ever read, it is very outdated for today’s readers, it is litter with distasteful racially weighted lines, and it is slightly unrefined. But it sold millions of copies, and I read it thought without putting it down. I could see him using his advice throughout, and it really kept the pages turning. But there is still room for sheer talent and innate, untrained ability, because, although it read quickly, I was not blown away by it (English Patient) and my emotions were not wonderfully assaulted (anything by Jhumpa Lahiri).

    • I thought that the examples he gave of his own writing were not impressive and it made me think that his novels were not that great. But I haven’t read any of his writing. I agree that he has good advice, but I think you’re right that following the advice may not produce a great novel, such as the English Patient. Evoking emotion is the part of writing that’s the “art.” I don’t have a good sense of what it involves, but certainly getting the basics down is a good start in that direction!

  2. i have often heard, and in my own writing, try to ‘start in the middle’ or ‘hit the ground running’ readers have short attention spans and you have to offer them something up front.

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