Start with an impact
‘We want a story that starts out with an earthquake and works its way up to a climax’.
Attributed to Sam Goldwyn, the famous Hollywood film producer, it’s a plan that works well as a plot device. The Booker prize winning writer Ian McEwan is brilliant at this: think of the balloon drama at the start of Enduring Love, or the theft of a child at the beginning of The Child in Time. Both of these events are ‘earthquakes’ by Goldwyn’s definition. By the end of the first chapters of these novels, readers are completely hooked. Although those initial gripping events are expanded upon in subsequent, quieter chapters, there are still ‘climaxes’ to come in both stories. Critic Jason Cowley claimed Enduring Love is ‘written against the template of a thriller’ and it certainly keeps the reader turning the pages, although, being McEwan, the novel is far more than genre fiction. It’s no wonder though, that several of McEwan’s novels have gone on to become films. Full of suspense, and intensely visual, they translate well onto screen. We would do well to follow his example.
However, these devices only work if readers engage with the protagonists. If we don’t care about the people caught up in the ‘earthquakes’, then we are equally not bothered about what happens to them. The plot devices are just gimmicks. In McEwan’s case, we are appalled, like the troubled science writer Joe Rose, about the ballooning accident he witnesses and perturbed by its repercussions on his mental state and relationships. Equally, in The Child in Time, Stephen Lewis’ horror on losing his beloved daughter Kate in a supermarket, immediately engages our sympathy. We read on because we are desperate to know the outcome.
So although Goldwyn suggests a good recipe for an arresting plot, McEwan reminds us how to turn a potential gimmick into a convincing and powerful narrative.
That’s the real magic.