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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Monday, April 16, 2007

scene 1, continued

A light drizzle falls outside; Kimmie's short Easter-time vacation is over, and she's soon to head back out the door to Mother Corporation. Time also for writers to pick up their tools dropped nine or ten days ago and resume work tunneling through the granite mountain of their project.

But I wanted to finish my thoughts on chapter 1, scene 1 of Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code. In my last post I looked at how I (not having read the whole novel) might approach the backstory to the scene. That job can be done only provisionally in one's first draft. You won't really know--or be able to know--what your story is truly about until you've finished a draft. Only then can you go into a scene with a knowledge of its real function in your story. Only then can you make sure it has the right things in it, and that the characters are loaded with the right motivations.

So with this work I'm strictly at a first-draft level; I don't yet know anything more about these characters than what I read in the first scene. My ideas and suggestions therefore rest only on that limited basis.

I'd like to look at the writing in a bit more detail. Here's the opening again:

Robert Langdon awoke slowly.

A telephone was ringing in the darkness--a tinny, unfamiliar ring. He fumbled for the bedside lamp and turned it on. Squinting at his surroundings he saw a plush Renaissance bedroom with Louis XVI furniture, hand-frescoed walls, and a colossal mahogany four-poster bed.

Where the hell am I?

The jacquard bathrobe hanging on his bedpost bore the monogram: HOTEL RITZ PARIS.

I've already commented on the opening sentence. Because of its softness, its low impact, and the fact that we don't yet know who Robert Langdon is, I might cut it. I have found that the quickest way to a stronger opening sentence is simply to delete it, and open with your second sentence. This is true not just of fiction, but of almost all works of writing. Often the first sentence is a kind of warmup; the second sentence starts getting to the point. Opening your work that way is much more vigorous. Try it.

Sentence 2: A telephone etc. It's a bit wordy, and also contains an awkward repetition of the word ring.

Sentence 3: He fumbled etc. It's okay: prosaic, purely expositional. One thought I have is that it's not self-evident that one would switch on a lamp in order to answer the phone in bed. Would I, especially if very tired and groggy, hoping to get back to sleep? I might, if I felt some disorientation and anxiety about being in an unfamiliar bed--or plain old fear of the dark.

Sentence 4: Squinting at etc. Hm. I suspect we don't need the word plush, since any "Renaissance" bedroom with a telephone in it is not likely to be a flophouse. We already know it's a bedroom, so that word is not strictly required either. I don't know what Louis XVI furniture looks like--but that's okay. To me it suggests "old, French, and expensive", which fits the bill. Again, "hand-frescoed walls" is redundant, since fresco is the art of painting on wet plaster, and as far as I know there is no machine process for this. As for the colossal mahogany bed, that's certainly expensive-sounding, but I feel a vague doubt that mahogany is Louis XVI, since mahogany is a tropical wood. It might be genuine (colonial forests), or possibly someone made a Louis XVI-style bed out of mahogany, although that seems unlikely: why make expensive period furniture out of nonperiod materials? What would they say on The Antiques Road Show? If the author has seen a Louis XVI mahogany bed, then no problem. Or if the hotel were in Las Vegas instead of Paris, then I would not expect them to care about the authenticity of the furniture. But if I were writing it, I'd play it safe with a European hardwood.

Sentence 5: Where the hell etc. This feels a bit out of sequence for a guy who has already turned on the bedside lamp and looked around. He found the lamp, which must be of different type and location from the one at home. If it were me, I would have thought this before I groped for the lamp. To have such a sustained experience of not knowing where you are is uncanny-feeling and anxiety-provoking. We should see this in the character.

Sentence 6: The jacquard bathrobe etc. It's the bathrobe that answers Langdon's question about where he is. This also feels late. The French Renaissance bedroom is a tipoff he's not in Kansas anymore. Possibly he travels so much, and stays in so many hotels, that he can't bring the name of this one to mind without help. But I suspect that the writer has used this detail as a mere expositional device, to tell the reader where Langdon is. This is bad: the writer has sacrificed character authenticity for a minor bit of exposition. In reality I think Langdon would recall exactly where he is when he switches on the lamp. If he doesn't know at that point, he's in a dissociative state. Sure, he might be a sleepyhead, a non-"morning person" who can't get it together so quickly upon being wakened, but then I think the writing should lead us to that conclusion more definitely. The narrator implies that Langdon is lucid enough to note the Renaissance style of the room, the mahogany of the bed, the jacquard of the bathrobe, while still not knowing where the hell he is. For me it just doesn't add up. I see "expositional device", and that would be enough, probably, to put me as a reader off the whole book. This writer does not see his character as a person--so why should I?

Well then, there's some more detailed criticism of scene 1. Next time, perhaps, Vitols the writer will turn his own hand to rewriting the opening of one of the best-selling novels of all time...


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1 Comments:

  • Oh dear, Brown really mixes things up: Louis XIV is not Rennaissance but Rococo, and I doubt he means frescoed walls - stuccoed, rather, because that goes with the time. Fresoces had long been replaced by tapestries at the time of Louis XIV.

    Must be a hotel room in Las Vegas. *grin*

    By Blogger Gabriele C., at April 19, 2007 4:10 PM  

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