Keeping It Grounded

James gave a fabulous run down yesterday on the principle of the ‘big grab’ needed on the first page of any novel. Today, I am going to focus on the issue of ‘grounding’ – a necessary aspect of ensuring a reader gets a strong sense of time, place, as well as character. Even if you are going to throw the main character’s life in total upheaval, a reader still needs to know (and care) about what that life was life to begin with. This doesn’t mean we need heaps of details – what we need is just enough for the reader to believe the world the reader has created and have some sensory point of reference that resonates as well as intrigues.

Today we’re critiquing the first page of a novel called SINK and I think it illustrates the difficulty of grounding a reader. Here’s the first page – my comments follow as bullet points.


Day 1

Gold wire wrapped around a ruby. Almost like a star. The wire hides the center of a heart-shaped stone. Ayu wonders vaguely why gold always has a slight warmth. As if it retains the memory of being melted. The bottom of the pendant comes to a point so sharp she imagines a heart cutting flesh as it jumps out of the owner. Naoki’s heart. Ayu starts shaking, her throat bubbles and laughter explodes from her instead of tears.

The windowless interrogation room looks like the ones she’s seen on TV, except much smaller. Everything in Tokyo is. The damp air makes Ayu sneeze and Ms. Shimizu, her homeroom teacher, shifts her chair closer. Ayu didn’t tell her aunt and uncle that the police wanted to see her; she called Shimizu instead.

“We found that on the body. Are you sure you haven’t seen it before?” Across the table, Assistant Inspector Kameda presses her thin lips together. Her dull gray suit matches the streaks in her hair. This coloring and her small eyes give her a pigeon look.

Ayu takes a sharp breath. “No.” She weighs the jewel in her hand. It’s dense. Like the flat gold chain around her neck, the one that belonged to her mother.

“Why were you laughing?”

“I have no idea.” Ayu presses a fist against her mouth. She’d meant to take back yesterday’s words at homeroom. Except he hadn’t shown and she’d blamed him for that, too. “Maybe it’s not Naoki.”

“His father made a positive ID.”

It must be someone who looks like Naoki. Wears the same Diesel jeans and jacket. “Can I see the body?”

  • Starting off with the description of a pendant is an unusual choice and one I’d be fine with, if it didn’t leave the reader feeling totally ungrounded. Initially, I was intrigued but then ultimately I was just bemused as the first paragraph ended. I couldn’t visualize ‘a heart cutting flesh as it jumps out of the owner’. I also immediately didn’t like the protagonist – why laugh instead of cry? I needed to know more to feel both grounded in the story – at this stage I’m not even sure where Ayu is or the significance of the pendant. The memory of it being melted didn’t have any relevance to me- the memory of it piercing flesh, now that would have been at least sinister.
  • In the second paragraph we get some more details that ‘grounds’ the reader – we know we’re in an interrogation room in Tokyo. The observation, however,that ‘everything in Tokyo seems smaller’ seems incongruous – would a local really notice or think that? Then the reference to the homeroom teacher leaves me thinking that Ayu is a young teenager – but how young? Again, I have nothing with which to ground me as a reader. It doesn’t need to be much, but it does need to be there – even if it is something like. “At sixteen Ayu didn’t tell her uncle and aunt she phoned Shimizu instead.” It needs to clear whether this is a YA book or not – so the age of the protagonist may be important (depending on the rest of the book. I don’t know if this is YA or not).
  • “She’d meant to take back yesterday’s words at homeroom. Except he hadn’t shown and she’d blamed him for that, too.” This could be interesting but as a reader I was just mystified – we need more to care about these characters and the past fight they may have had.
  • “Can I see the body?” – By this point I was really confused about the main protagonist – she laughs at the thought of Naoki’s death, she obsessively notes details about a pendant (the relevance of which is unclear) and then she is in denial that the body could be Naoki’s (even though up to this point the reader suspects she was there – the first paragraph reference to Naoki’s heart jumping out certainly makes suggests it) – and now she asks to see the body? I’m at sea as to who Ayu really is as a character.
  • In short, although this first page offers some intriguing information I’m too ‘ungrounded’ to understand or care about either Ayu or Naoki. How do you all feel? For me it’s a grounding issue but others might feel quite differently.

11 thoughts on “Keeping It Grounded

  1. I also think the description of the pendant is not the best place to start. Grounding us, as Clare puts it, is almost always best done by getting us into a character’s head as soon as possible. The opening line could be something like this:

    The damp air of the windowless interrogation room makes Ayu sneeze. Ms. Shimizu, her homeroom teacher, shifts her chair closer.

    “We found that on the body. Are you sure you haven’t seen it before?” Across the table, Assistant Inspector Kameda presses her thin lips together.

    This gets us into a character and, as I noted yesterday, a disturbance, right off the bat. Then we can get some of the details of the pendant, and other grounding details dropped in strategically as the scene progresses.

    Clare rightly warns about “not liking” a main character. From my perspective, I will say that the laughter of Ayu intrigued me, like it does the inspector. Because it’s not expected. I want to know why she laughed. I do like to see the “unexpected” in a story, and doing it up front is a good strategy. It makes me want to figure out what’s going on inside this girl.

    As the scene progresses, it will then be up to the writer, as Clare flagged it, to keep us from losing empathy for her.

  2. Starting to read fiction in present tense is a lot like learning how to ride a bike. There’s that initial wobbling and awkwardness and recalibrating of the brain. By the end of the page, I was up and running on two wheels with little fear of falling. There’s nothing wrong with present tense. It’s just that the majority of novels are written in third person, and that’s what readers are used to. So if you want to combine present tense with additional unique writing traits, be careful you don’t let the writing get in the way of the story. Make sure you have a good reason for writing in present tense.

    I agree with everything Clare pointed out—Jim’s comments as well. There needs to be some rearranging here to put all the ducks in a row. But I really like the voice of this piece. It’s edgy. And different (another reason to go with third person). I get the feeling that the writer knows the subject matter. Right from the start, I feel that this story will be interesting, different, and hopefully, original.

    “. . . why gold always has a slight warmth. As if it retains the memory of being melted.” This may or may not work here, but I think it’s a lovely line and fully intend to steal it.

  3. A slight comment. If you want to see about a way to ground the reader in time, please, and number of characters, pick up any Robert B. Parker novel, particularly the Spenser novels, and read almost any chapter. He very quickly and economically indicates where the character is, who else is there, and some details like the weather or something else. You’d think it would be monotonous, but it wasn’t.

  4. I agree with Joe about present tense. I find it takes me a lot longer to get into it for whatever reason, and I haven’t found a lot of authors who have been able to make me forget it’s present tense. To me, present tense feels like I’m watching, rather than participating, which might not be logical, but that’s the way I respond.

    I also agree that starting with such a long description of the pendant won’t get a reader into the character’s head

  5. I do agree that the laughter bit is unexpected and with a bit more behind it it will be an intriguing opening. I also agree that I like the edgy tone – I actually had no problem with the present tense. I like the immediacy of it.

  6. With the revisions suggested by the previous comments, I think this page will work. Just my personal taste, but I dislike reading novels that are written in the present tense–I find that tense tiring for some reason. I usually stop reading unless it is absolutely compelling. If you write in the present tense, it’s critical that you write at an expert level.

  7. Just to hop on the present tense deal, I personally don’t like it. I find it harder to read (sort of like slogging through mud). I don’t like it when it’s done in first person POV, but especially in 3d. It seems “gimmicky” to me. It’s no longer a stylistic innovation, so I just don’t see any compelling reason to do it. It may also be one thing more that an editor could say “no” to.

    To the writer of this piece, you CAN write. You have style and voice and an intriguing premise. I don’t want to see an unneeded obstacle put in your way.

    But, as always, these pages are YOUR call. You’re the writer. Take what helps from us, and do your thing.

  8. I don’t care much for present tense, even when a book is well written. That being said, I’ve used present tense in dialog when a character must relate a story to another character. It helps to lighten the mood. “So, I walk up to this guy and he has a dog…” I’m not sure that would work if the whole novel were written in present tense.

  9. The tone of the story, and the Japanese setting, give me a feeling that this could make a good Anime or Manga. The imagery I took from it reminds of some recent Japanese adult cartoons I have watched. (not the “adult” kind as in porn, the adult kind as in too scary/creepy/intense for kids).

    As a comic or cinematic piece these images you portray could be easily worked out, but as a novel I agree that it needs to be reworded. Unless of course your primary audience is Manga fans, then they would picture what you are saying because they think in comic book frames.

    And like Joe, I like the “memory of melting” line. I also did picture the concept of the “heart cutting flesh”. A bit of rearrangement and I would continue reading.

  10. I personally love starting with dialogue, although I know there have been mixed feelings about that expressed over the past week. So I’d start by moving the first two paragraphs down and opening with,
    ““We found that on the body. Are you sure you haven’t seen it before?”
    I think that provides both the jolt that Jim discussed yesterday, and it begins to ground you with the following description of the detective.

    I love some of the descriptive language here, the writing is beautifully done. But I think the “her throat bubbles, and laughter explodes from her…” sentence could use a little work. I understand what you’re trying to say, but it’s a little clunky. Maybe try just, “Laughter bubbles out of her throat,” then show byt the other characters’ reaction to her that it’s an odd response under the circumstances.
    One last note: she appears to be young, in high school I’m guessing. If it was her friend that was killed, having her say, “Can I see the body?” is unusually cold. Wouldn’t she more likely say, “Where is Naoki?” or “Can I see Naoki?”
    But all in all, a very strong opening that just needs a few tweaks.

  11. This is all amazingly helpful.
    I’ve enjoyed reading the first-page critiques so far and knew mine was up when I saw the word “grounded.”
    Grounding is definitely a weakness of mine.
    But I think your collective comments have shown me how to fix this and where some of the other problems (vagueness about age, about who Naoki is) lie.

    And I’ll reacquaint myself with Robert Parker.

    Thanks so much!

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