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 known 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.