It's time to read another novel!
We are now discussing Midnight at Malabar House, by Vaseem Khan. It is a historical mystery set in India in 1949.
Today we're just looking at the first chapter.
(Please feel encouraged to share this email with your writer friends!)
I'll give the weekly reading schedule at the end of this email, too.
Synopsis: Inspector Wadia is working on New Year's Eve, 1949, when the phone rings. She has to convince the incredulous caller that she is the highest ranking officer available: he tells her that "Sir James Harriot" has been murdered and she must come to the crime scene.
Craft lesson: the arc of a scene
In this opening, we can see the way the telephone call structures the opening scene in a pleasing and clever way.
On the largest scene-level, the phone rings on the first sentence of the chapter and the murder is announced in the final sentence. The loop opens from the first moment -- why is the phone ringing? -- and closes only at the very end -- because there has been a crime. As a reader, we are usually inclined to read until an open loop is closed: it just makes sense as a narrative experience.
Within that overall loop, Khan also uses the call to give the scene forward motion and movement. Wadia is sitting at her desk the whole time, not seeking something specific nor trying to accomplish something that existed prior to the phone call -- but the stages of the phone call give the scene energy and push.
These stages include:
- "A moment's hesitation" -- the caller can't believe a woman is answering this call.
- "May I speak with your superior officer?" -- he doesn't want to talk to her
- The request to visit Laburnum House
- The correction about her title
- The reveal of the murder
Within those beats, Khan then reveals elements of Inspector Wadia's life and her emotional reactions to this latest encounter with sexist attitudes: the loss of her mother, the national reaction to her hiring, her distance from the rest of the police force...
The arc of the phone call provides the forward motion; the backstory gives it meaning and weight. The two plot threads or elements of the scene are interwoven, alternating: phone call - Wadia's life - phone call - Wadia's life.
Now, this is not as easy to do as it sounds. Try it out: imagine an opening scene of a novel. You might need a pen and some paper.
In the first sentence, a puzzle is announced.
"Bob was surprised to see his wife was calling."
Then lead up, over five or so phone call "beats" or moments, to a reveal or twist or call to action. Between those five beats, add in information about your protagonist / Bob so that when we get to the reveal or call to action, we know how important this will be for Bob / your protagonist.
Share the elements (complete or incomplete) that you come up below.
I'm looking forward to reading what you invent!
Note 1: In our conversations about this novel, whether by email to me or in the discussion thread -- please, no spoilers. Don't reveal stuff or make amused comments about what is coming next.
Note 2: To everyone who follows my approach to plotting, I do want to be clear -- this opening is not what I call "character-first." This is, instead, the standard exception to the rule that everyone cites when they learn about my plotting system: the crime novel opening. The announcement of the murder, combined with the personal struggles of the detective protagonist, provides all the energy the story needs to get started.
In chapter one of Midnight, at least, there is no A plot -- there is only B and C.
But let's see how the story progresses! Perhaps an A plot will emerge.
The reading schedule for the novel -
Chapter one: today
To chapter nine: Oct 7th
To chapter seventeen: Oct 14th
To chapter twenty-five: Oct 21st
To the end: Oct 28th
Thank you, again, for joining me on this reading experience.