Welcome back to Reading with Daniel
This is my craft commentary for chapters two and three of Jade City, by Fonda Lee.
- How to start a novel quickly without confusing your reader.
- The mysteries of third person POV.
(I'll send our schedule for reading the rest of the novel shortly.)
Reading with Daniel - Jade City - chapters two and three
May 6th 2022: little plots and third-person distance
Quick summary: Hilo discovers a clue about the trouble in the Armpit; the head of the No Peak clan, Lan, feels frustrated with his advisor's lack of respect. The other major Green Bone clan on the island, the Mountain, seems to be seeking out trouble, but Lan advises Hilo to be cautious.
Writers always want to know: how to begin a novel quickly? We worry that readers will get impatient; we’ve been told the benefits of “in media res” and the drawbacks of info-dumping, early flashbacks etc.
But then we hit a second problem: if we start the story too quickly, we will confuse or alienate the reader. Introduce all our main characters in chapter one? Reader may start looking for a family tree at the back of the book. Start with a massive party scene? Your reader may well feel unsure who they are supposed to be supporting, or if they are even in the mood to follow the complex back and forth.
Now, some stories really are simple. But what most of us want is to tell memorable, engaging stories that, by the middle to three-quarters point, have shown the reader a fairly complex picture of the main character, the rest of the cast, and the fictional setting.
In Jade City, it seems to me that Fonda Lee is using a technique I often find myself recommending to novelists: to begin the story quickly, but to focus our attention on a small piece of it. This approach is effective because it solves our problem: the story can kick off from the first page (satisfying our “get started quickly” goal) but because we are holding back most of the complex stuff, and just focusing the reader’s attention on a small piece of the tale, we are also avoiding confusing the reader.
In my course, Plotting and Planning Your Novel, I encourage writers to imagine this “small piece” of the plot as the main character’s own plot, their personal storyline or “project.” You might also think of it as a little plot, a false plot, a ___ plot – propose other names in the comments!
How do we meet Hilo, for instance? The very first line, once the POV switches to him in chapter one, sets out his “little plot”:
“Shon Ju says there’s been trouble in the Armpit,” said Malik Kehn…
No delay, no reflection, no backstory, and no waiting around for an inciting incident to hit: the very first line gives us the plot that Hilo is pursuing in chapters one, two, and three. And it’s a pretty simple plot that requires little exposition, explanation of history, or knowledge of magical things – it is simply “someone is causing trouble in our territory.”
This is the ideal little plot: simple enough that it can just get going.
And yet, readers can probably tell that this isn’t the “full” or “real” story of Jade City. We’ll have to wait for that. After all, it seems to me very unlikely that a five-hundred page novel is going to focus itself entirely on “the Armpit” and the death of Three-Fingered Gee. The very names seem to be hints not to fixate too much on those elements: don’t take them too seriously, Lee seems to be telling us.
Now, I’m reading this novel at the same pace you are, so I could be wrong, and I could imagine, I think, a gritty noir thriller that focuses the whole story on the death of a black-market gem carver. But I don’t get the sense that this is the plan here, especially as we have magical powers with capital letters ("Perception," for instance). That's not the tone Lee seems to be striking. So, most likely, this is just a “little plot” to get the story rolling, and while it’s definitely possible that by the end of the novel, we will have spent time in the Armpit and figured out who killed Gee, sooner or later, something bigger is going to come along.
This little plot is just the way in.
Important note: what makes this “little” plot work so well is that it isn’t a pure “McGuffin.” It isn’t some completely arbitrary plot device that Lee dangles in front us and expects Hilo to chase after – a glowing briefcase, a lump of unobtanium. Instead, it makes sense that Hilo cares about trouble in the Armpit because, as we see in chapter two, his entire job and sense of belonging in his family revolves around keeping the clan’s wider community safe, protected, and loyal.
After all, this is how he responds to the failed robbery / murder in the bar, the Twice Lucky. His primary concern is how his response to these jade thieves will affect the prosperity of the bar, and how will that will have knock on effects on his family’s security.
The Twice Lucky might be a No Peak establishment today, but if the worst came to pass and the owner was forced to switch allegiance in exchange for keeping his family business and his head on his shoulders, Hilo held little illusion as to what choice he would make.
This little plot is compelling and natural for the reader to follow along because it is tied to Hilo’s self-worth and view of himself.
If you are unsure how to design a compelling opening to your novel -- try this out. Add a "little plot!"
Notice, too, how Lee uses this “little plot” to move us from location to location, even to facilitate the switching of POV. This is a complex novel with a lot of characters. But she does a great job of using the “little plot” to facilitate each jump in space and time.
Location 1: The Twice Lucky.
Location 2: the waterfront away from the restaurant
Location 3: the No Peak family residence
Why do we move from location one to two? So Hilo’s men can punish the thieves who disrupted one of Hilo’s clients (the owner of Twice Lucky). Why do we move from two to three? Because Hilo gets a lead – about trouble in the Armpit – that he thinks his boss, the Pillar, needs to hear about.
Even though we are moving around a lot, and shifting POVs, the little plot is helping us, as readers, stay on track.
Topic 2: The magic and mystery of third person POV.
(This topic will be particularly interesting to writers of historical fiction, social fiction -- anything where a primary concern is explaining how things work to the reader.)
One of the great strengths of third person POV is the easy way that the narrator / story can drift closer and away from the main character. When the main character can’t or won’t talk us through a situation, the narrator takes more of the responsibility. But when we are deep in the protagonist’s thoughts, the narrator vanishes as a presence and we are close up to the protagonist’s interior monologue.
There are moments in chapter two, for instance, where it’s unclear if the narrator is telling us something or Hilo is thinking it.
Take this moment, for example:
All eyes turned as Hilo crossed the room. He felt a stir of understanding go through the crowd. The nearest diners noticed what Bero, in his initial cursory glance, had not: Underneath Kaul Hilo’s smoke-colored sport jacket and the unfastened top two buttons of his baby-blue shirt, a long line of small jade stones was embedded in the skin of his collarbone like a necklace fused into his flesh.
The second sentence seems to belong to Hilo. He feels the shift in mood. But the long third sentence feels like the narrator speaking (using the character’s full name, even): the narrator is telling us what Bero missed and the restaurant-goers now saw (they realised that this was the fearsome Horn in their midst). It doesn’t feel like these are Hilo’s thoughts.
But a third-person narrator can complicate this situation even further. Take this passage:
A nervous ripple of laughter traveled through the dining room as people obeyed, turning back to their meals and companions, though they kept stealing glances at Kaul Hilo, the Maiks, and the two sorry teens on the floor. It wasn’t especially often that ordinary, jadeless citizens were witness to such a dramatic display of Green Bone abilities. They would go home and tell their friends about what they’d seen: how the thief had moved faster than any normal human being...
There is another passage like this, shortly afterwards. In both, it feels like the narrator speaking. The narrator is filling in the details how the people in the scene reacted.
But then a sentence appears:
The thought made Hilo feel better.
So actually, we are supposed to understand that these were Hilo's thoughts. The narrator was just speaking them for him, or translating his thoughts into "helpful narrator speak."
In other words, we can see multiple possibilities for third person narration:
- Close to the protagonist, hearing his thoughts, seeing what he sees.
- Distant from the protagonist, pointing out details beyond his normal range of awareness.
- Speaking as the narrator, explaining something in the narrator's tone and viewpoint, but then attributing those ideas to the protagonist.
These modes can co-exist in the same sentence. Look at this moment from chapter three:
“To a Green Bone, it was not quiet—Lan could hear the rustle of a mouse in the grass, the whir of a small insect over the pond, the crunch of his own shoes along the smoothed pebble path....”
“To a Green Bone, it was not quiet”: this feels like the distant narrator adding in some extra details -- the rest of the sentence feels like close narration.
It's a great way, if you are writing historical fiction, for instance, to weave in details of your historical world. Your narrator adds just a little more about the setting each time -- always related to what the POV character is experiencing -- dropping in a detail that the character would probably not think themselves in the moment.
Note: can you do this in first person? Definitely. But it means that sometimes the protagonist / narrator is speaking as an outside observer, remembering the events of the novel. Sometimes they are rushing around, doing things; sometimes they pause to explain what their town looks like.
Something like this:
“To a Green Bone like me, it was not quiet—I heard the rustle of a mouse in the grass, the whir of a small insect over the pond, the crunch of his own shoes along the smoothed pebble path....”
This narrator switches between a distant first person before the dash -- and a closer, more immediate first person after it.
Try this out, in a very simple way, with this prompt:
For now – what did you think of this newsletter? Interesting? Doubts? Questions? Send me a reply!
PS No spoilers in the comments, please!