Midnight Library the first page

Dear writers,

Welcome back to Reading with Daniel. 

I'm excited -- we are starting our next novel. This is my quick analysis of "A Conversation about Rain," the opening page / chapter of The Midnight Library. The free preview on Amazon contains the page we are discussing here.

Craft lesson: noticing the narrator

Discuss the lesson in the comments below! 

Synopsis: Nora and the school librarian are playing a game of chess. Nora expresses her desire to leave the area and her worries about her life. The scene ends with a phone call bringing tragic news for Nora.

Craft lesson: how to design a "talkative" narrator

The Midnight Library is the third novel we have read together as a group, and the choice of narrator in this novel is immediately striking.

Unlike Cherish Farrah, we are in third person, watching Nora rather than listening to her narration. In a sense, that brings us closer to Jade City, which also had a third person narrator. 

However, this narrator is also very different to Jade City's. This narrator seems to self-aware that they are telling us a story. 

We see this in the very first sentence: "Nineteen years before she decided to die..." This is specific, precise information that only a narrator could know. Nora has no way of knowing her own future and neither does the librarian. It is 100% "telling" (not "showing") and it is very effective at creating reader interest and urgency. 

The first sentence, and the scene that follows, seem to say, "This moment in Nora's life, although quiet on the surface, is actually critical to the story that will happen to her later."

Most of the scene that follows is told in more conventional "close third POV." We are able to watch the scene of the chess game AND overhear some of Nora's thoughts -- but not the librarian's. We only experience Mrs Elm's interior life through her actions and expressions (and Nora's commentary about her). 

The talkative, self-conscious narrator returns at certain points, however, most noticeable with the line, "And it was then that the phone rang." Several of the words in this sentence could be considered superfluous. Haig could have easily written: "The phone rang." Haig's editor could have shortened that line in the interest of brevity, too. 

But the longer sentence reminds us that we are reading a story and this scene has been carefully chosen for us. Nora will decide to die nineteen years from this moment, we've been told, and the narrator is alerting us to the significance of that moment ("And it was then that...").

There are people on Facebook and creative writing teachers everywhere who would say that this is "bad" writing. Why not let the moment stand on its own, with no leading commentary? Didn't Hemingway tell us about icebergs, and letting the reader deduce the meaning of stories on their own? 

But, of course, readers everywhere love this kind of writing. It feels warm, soothing, welcoming: you feel like someone is taking care of you. The narrator is promising us that there is a plan for our reading experience, that we won't be confused or have our time wasted. This short scene might seem unimportant to the uniformed observer, we learn, but the narrator's voice reassures us that it is not only significant, but that its connection to future events will be explained to us. You can get comfortable; you can put away your note-taking pencil; you will be given all the information you need to make sense of this tale.

Both Jade City and Cherish Farrah, in a sense, threw us into an unfamiliar world. Jade City opened with characters in motion, seeking violent aims in the very first scenes; Cherish Farrah invited us to decode Farrah's cryptic self-descriptions. The Midnight Library, on the other hand, seems to welcome us in. 

There is so much more to say about this first page! I will keep talking about it next week.

For now, here is a craft challenge: imagine you were adding a narrator like this to your novel. Write one sentence in that narrator's voice and, if you like, share it with us below.

Your narrator could be third person, like in this novel:

"Bob could never have know how this day would change his life."

or it could be first person:

"I had no idea that this day would change my life."

-- the key is just that the narrator informs the reader, if only for a sentence, that they are reading a story.

  • diana.dale says:

    I’ve settled on a third POV aligned for my story and at times I feel this sense of dread like I am revealing too much only to edit and discover I haven’t said enough. I do hate the fact that this POV feels a bit too predictable

    • Felicitas says:

      I so know that feeling of saying too much and then being told be test readers that it wasn’t enough.

    • celindalabrousse says:

      What do you mean by too predictable?

  • Yes, the first page welcomes readers, holding the door wide open to draw us in.
    My sentence: “As John James Armstrong walked into the Hospital with his father and brother, he was completely unaware that the events of the day would completely change his life.”
    Looking forward to seeing others’ sentences, and to next week’s lesson.

  • jaemanuel says:

    As I reached out and my hand passed through the lightly billowing long full sleeve of her dress, I knew and lowered my gaze.

    • celindalabrousse says:

      The multiple descriptions distract from the fact that the character is still touching the dress at the end of the statement. Is it lightly billowing, long or full? becomes the question the reader is left with instead of Why would they look down instead of lowering thier hand? Also, changing this into two sentences where you stop the first at dress, add some tactile description about the feel of the fabric to start the second then state the line “I knew” would develope the narrator in this scene.

  • At the time, she put it down to some bored kid dialing random numbers to spook people but later she realized that phone call was when it all began.

  • h.douglas says:

    “During her four-hour evening flight from her home in New York, Zoe Taylor couldn’t help reminiscing over the fun-filled summers she spent in Tolemac Valley and the tactless boy she refused to marry ten years ago.”

  • goatwriter3 says:

    I’m excited to be rereading this book. The first time I read it about a year ago I read it on my Kindle and didn’t realize that it hadn’t opened on page one. I actually began at ‘The Man at the Door’ and, for whatever reason, completely skipped the first pages ‘A Conversation About Rain’. When Mrs. Elm shows up much later in the book she was a completely out-of-the-blue character for me on my first reading. I still loved the book but I checked out the hardback version from my local library for this reading and I was floored to find those important opening pages. I’m trying my hand at rewriting the opening scene in my current work in progress in 3rd person and finding it harder than I expected.

  • Celinda Labrousse says:

    Marigold sat among the marigolds waiting for a death that wouldn’t come.

  • Dona Stein says:

    You want me to tell you about my memories of Pearl Harbor?

  • “Craft challenge: imagine you were adding a narrator like this to your novel.” (I recently added the narrator.) “Instead of watching a public fireworks display on the 4th of July, Wally put a sparkler in Michaela’s hand and lit it, telling her to pray for the Lutheran Church because it had just voted to allow women to be pastors.”

    • celindalabrousse says:

      I’ve read this twice and I’m having a hard time finding a narrators voice in this sentence. Maybe something like: “Wally turned his back on the fireworks to push a sparkler into Michaela hands.” There is a lot of information in your original sentence, but little focus on which part is important. Also, there is no gender reveal on the characters. Is wally a man or a woman or other? Wally could be gender neutral. I thought it was a mother/daughter relationship when i first read it because you ask the reader to care about “women” pastors. It seems like you as the writer want the reader to believe this is a bad thing with the prayer statment, but its hard to tell. A way to reduce the ambiguity would be to have Wally make a statement in the next sentence like, “You’d better pray.”
      The look on Micheala’s face drove Wally to continue, “cause the vote went through.”
      Changing this into three sentences with dialog captures the reader, provides a mini mystery of who voted for what and builds tension.

  • When I started reading The Midnight Library the other day, this first sentence stood out to me so much, I read it to my husband. There is something whimsical and playful about it. It made me excited for the journey this book is going to take us on. It also made me rethink how I want to start the book I am currently writing.

    Craft challenge: Minerva couldn’t know that this silence would define her life for years to come.

    • Felicitas says:

      So funny, I read it to my husband, too! It’s one of the most striking and intriguing first sentences I have ever read.

      I like your sentence, too. Only would I be wondering why “this” if no specific silence has been mentioned before?

  • “Craft challenge: imagine you were adding a narrator like this to your novel.” Boarding the bus, Iraj fears he will be late, the jackhammer in his head foreshadowing another grueling, disastrous day in court. A day that will end with his sentencing.

    • Felicitas says:

      Oooh, I first thought “… with him being sentenced” that would make for a goosebump twist. 😀

  • Blind to the ultimate betrayal of their donor, Estelle clutched the long-stem roses to her heart, as if to lend them her own innocence.

  • Anger, that hot heady feeling of home, would be her ruin.

  • I have always liked this king of stories, where you get to know before the characters that something big is coming. I didn’t understand the reason until now, so thanks Daniel!

    Could this intervention come as a question? For example: “Everyone had the same understanding of the system, but not Tom. Why couldn’t he accept that, too? And more important, why did he care so much?”

  • Helen McNeil says:

    I love that idea of the reader being welcomed. Especially in the opening lines which are crucial.
    Here’s the opening sentences of the novel I’m working on at the moment.
    “The sun’s red glare reaches right to the back of Saffron’s skull through her closed eyelids, filling her with orange heat. She’s held in a crucible, melting into the world. No need to shrink herself deep inside for protection; here she can open her senses wide and feel free – and safe.”

  • Granda Sinclair had promised Henry he’d marry a selkie one day.

  • Felicitas says:

    I have been enjoying this novel from the first sentence (or actually even from the two quotes before that). Those three short paragraphs together already provide a huge promise of a deep and thoughtful story. I am very excited to see how the author will make true on this promise.

    The first sentence is one of the most intriguing I have ever read. And this one together with “And it was then that the phone rang” made me as a reader immediately more attentive to hints that might be hidden in metaphors and backstory. It truly served as a hook for me.

    I am so happy, Daniel, for picking those two narrator sentences to make your craft lesson. It’s freeing what you say here! I have met so many German speaking editors and coaches who would have told me in such instances “this is a mistake in POV, it must go”. But I totally agree with you that when it is well done, it is not disturbing the reader – after all it is nothing like head-hopping. Instead it’s making the whole story more valuable. It’s great to see this approach here as a “living example” to have an argument ready when discussing with an editor.

  • Felicitas says:

    I would never have thought that the filthy town I was stuck in would become the doorway to the greatest adventure of my life.

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