Finch: A Primer on Novel Openings (Please Chime In)

>>This is the second post in a continuing series on craft centered around discussion of my novel, Finch.

Sometimes the most complex effects rely on simple decisions. If you don’t put thought and effort into such decisions, the foundation of your novel is flawed and nothing you build on that foundation will be truly sound. (See Vladimir Nabokov’s Cornell lectures, which discuss things like the floorplan of a house in Jane Austen’s work, for example.)

In Finch, I had several decisions on how to begin the novel, each of which would’ve made a big difference to its tone and its later effects.

Choices on where to begin included:

(1) John Finch, reluctant detective, standing over two dead bodies, at the crime scene. Beside him are his inhuman gray cap boss, Heretic, and a Partial (a kind of traitor willingly working for the gray caps).

(2) John Finch poised at the door to the apartment, inside of which are the bodies, the Partial, and Heretic.

(3) John Finch at the police station, receiving the call from Heretic about the murders, telling him to come to the apartment.

(4) John Finch in some guise giving readers an overview of the fantastical city of Ambergris in which the story takes place before being called to the crime scene.

I tried all of these openings. Only one stuck.

>>>If you’ve read the novel, you know what I settled on. Do you know why I chose it? I’d love to hear reader speculation.

>>>If you haven’t read the novel (or even if you have), what do you think are the pros and cons of each approach above?

(If you participated in one of these discussions during my book tour, it’d be great if you’d chime in after a day or two, allowing others to comment first.)

I’ve prescheduled a longer post for Thursday explaining my own point of view on the various approaches so that you can read my thoughts prior to me factoring in your comments, and then we can discuss further if anyone’s interested. (I’ll include further analysis of the opening two chapters, as well.)

If you’d like to read the beginning of Finch, the publisher has the first chapters online.

Comments

  1. says

    I’ll bite on this, mostly because Finch causes me to geek out in quite an unseemly way. The main difference seems (to me) to be the amount of narrative distance you’re putting between the reader and the inciting incident. With 1 you’re right there and everything is happening now. With 4 you’re far removed from the incident, slowly circling in.

    I know you didn’t go with 4, but it strikes me as interesting because that’s the approach Mieville took with Perdido Street Station (I’m listening to the audio version of that now so it’s top of mind) and I remember you talking about Finch being your most “New Weird” novel so far. We haven’t really spoken about our differing opinions of Perdido, but I’m quite a big fan. Still it’s always struck me that structurally Perdido is a little messy, especially up front. The first half is largely carried by sheer sensa-wunder, and on a re-read (re-listen?) things are a little sluggish (when I first read it, the shock of the new kept me going, these days I think it would be much harder to pull off). Finch, in contrast, always seemed much more immediate, a much more streamlined reading experience if that makes sense. It trades less on its setting – which isn’t to say that setting doesn’t seem important, it’s just not used as a narrative driver.

    3 – it just seems if you went with that you’d immediately get bogged down in relationships with secondary characters, and it would be difficult to get to the plot or even to Finch himself through the thicket of bit-players.

    Skipping to 1 – personally I think it’s a good place to start, but I think its a good start for a different story – a story that is much more interested in who, what, where, how and why, and less interested in Finch himself. All those elements are in Finch of course, but there’s a slightly different emphasis. If you start with the body then you’re starting with the case. If you start in the doorway you’re starting with Finch. And (the clue’s in the title) this is, fundamentally, a story about Finch.

    Am I close?

  2. Jeff VanderMeer says

    Yes, but will wait for others. I have to admit, btw, that I never made it through Perdido. All I remember of it is the opening.

  3. Jeff VanderMeer says

    I would say, though, that’s the classic dilemma shared by novelists using secondary world or historical settings: when and where to get that context in. I chose not to put it upfront for very deliberate reasons–and in part because of remembering the beginning of Perdido, along with several other novels. Which isn’t to say it’s not right for Perdido, which has multiple viewpoint characters right?, just that it provided an interesting lesson in the effects of putting that stuff up front.

  4. says

    As I remember it (I’m only about a quarter of a way through the re-read) the traditional inciting incident for Perdido hits close to half way through the novel. It’s really bizarre.

    The reason Perdido works/worked for me despite that fact was that I had, at that time, really come across anything like it. I’d been a huge fantasy reader up until 13 or 14 but then… I just felt like I kept reading the same stories over and over. So I was on a big sf kick for a while. Cyberpunk seduced me quite vigorously. And then, in my early twenties I was trying to write my own stuff and while I knew what I didn’t want to write, I didn’t know what I did want to write, and I’d just had a frickin’ awful experience revisiting the Dragonlance stories and then out of nowhere (for me) came Perdido. So I was quite happy to ignore the absence of direction and just wallow in something that was completely new, and that seemed to have the same issues as I did with a lot of big epic fantasy.

    But yes, there is a lot of POV switching, and lot of movement, but it’s a bit like narrative Brownian motion. And it’s interesting that in later novels there’s much less of that. Iron Council is narratively very tight, and I think a better book, but it’s always going to be less exciting for me compared to Perdido, because it wasn’t new any more.

    Tying it back to Finch, I think that part of it’s strength is in avoiding the whole sense of wonder thing as the narrative driver. It’s definitely there (I seriously don’t think Whyte’s transformation will ever leave me) but it knows its place, so to speak. The new-weird-shock-of-the-new (for the want of a better term) is out of the bag, or at least much more familiar to readers (I think) so I’m not sure any book could really trade on that as much as Perdido did (one of the problems with Badlands, now I come to think of it…).

  5. Jeff VanderMeer says

    Ha!

    I don’t recall why I stopped reading Perdido. I don’t know it had anything to do with not liking it. Sometimes things come up.

    Anyway, I do remember reading the opening and thinking “it’d be interesting to repurpose an opening setting description within the emotional compass of an actual character–make it do double/triple work.” So I think that is reflected in the “reveal” scene at the end of the second chapter of Finch. That’s just a technical repurposing, though. I do that a lot, and think many writers do.

  6. says

    That definitely gels with my experiences of both books. In Finch, Ambergris always went through the filter of Finch himself. There’s the idea of overlays that you mentioned at Borders in NYC – Finch’s impressions, ideas, responses are always overlaid on the city the reader sees. In Perdido the city is much more its own creature, the distance between reader and narrator is greater.

    I’m having trouble drawing many more conclusions than that. I have enormous respect for both books so it’s interesting for me to think about how they work in different ways in trying to work out what I can hideously steal from both you guys. I suppose, in both cases different goals are at work and different techniques help achieve those goals. Something I need to think about more…

  7. says

    Just from reading the post, I’d guessed 1 or 2, and I picked the wrong one.

    Having followed the link to read the first few chapters, I can’t say it makes much difference in my mind. Perhaps as Jonathan mentioned, it’s a subtle thing having to do with the focus of the novel. I’m afraid the first few chapters aren’t enough to base a decision on, so I can’t say whether he is correct or not.

  8. Dan Read says

    Jeff wrote: “I would say, though, that’s the classic dilemma shared by novelists using secondary world or historical settings: when and where to get that context in.”

    I’ve always been a big fan of the way A Clockwork Orange pulls this off. Probably because of what Orange does with language, I have always thought of this technique as the “immersion” approach, as an analogy to learning a language by immersion. Narratively, you just start telling the story as if the reader will get everything you’re talking about, and trust the reader to catch up. Burgess was smart enough to make sure he grabbed the reader right away with character and action in order to ease the shock and transition into the foreign world with its foreign language.

    “There was me, that is Alex, and my three droogs, that is Pete, Georgie, and Dim, Dim being really dim, and we sat in the Korova Milkbar making up our rassoodocks what to do with the evening, a flip dark chill winter bastard though dry. The Korova Milkbar was a milk-plus mesto, and you may, O my brother, have forgotten what these mestos were like things changing so skorry these days and everybody very quick to forget, newspaper not being read much neither. Well, what they sold there was milk plus something else. They had no license for selling liquor, but there was no law yet against prodding some of the new veshches which they would put into the old moloko, so you could peet it with vellocet or synthemesc or drencrom or one or two other veshches which would give you a nice quiet horrorshow fifteen minutes admiring Bog And All His Holy Angels And Saints in your left shoe with lights bursting all over your mozg. Or you could peet it with knives in it, as we use to say, and this would sharpen you up and make you ready for a bit of dirty twenty-to-one, and that was what we were peeting this evening I’m starting off the story with.”

    Now that I think of it, I would say, Jeff, that Finch uses a similar “immersion” technique, and even has a unique language style, and also anchors the reader in the main character.

    Dan

    P.S.
    Great comments, Jonathan.

  9. Jeff VanderMeer says

    Atsiko–well, that’s an interesting perspective, but it makes much more than a subtle difference. The point of good technique is to do things behind the scenes that shape the mood and the impression of the text. The reader may think they don’t add up to much, but they do–and reader reaction usually confirms this.

  10. Jeff VanderMeer says

    Dan–I’m not sure I really do the immersive thing. But my Thursday post covers that–covers allowing enough space for the reader to enter.

  11. dadafountain says

    I actually guessed wrong having just read the thing, which maybe wins me an award for Distracted Post-Holiday Brain. I had remembered it as starting with the 1.5 bodies on the floor, starting right in on the whole pervasive-New-Weird-body-horror thing with a look at grey cap insides.

    But this one makes sense. Technically, I suppose, the VERY beginning is that contextless interrogation excerpt. Leaping straight from all the questions it raises into a closeup of Finch, alone with his anxiety and trying to make himself stand up and do the detective thing yet again (complete with a hint of the setting with the dissolving fungal paper)–well, that’s an elegant way to do it. Sure, you get to the parts I remember soon enough. But “whodunnit?” isn’t the first mood that hits you, and that’s important.

  12. says

    I imagined you started us off the way you did because Finch is the first thing we need to understand, at least a little bit, and then the case, and then the larger context. You wanted us a little disoriented, because Finch is a little disoriented even in his day to day. Plus, the act of going through the door at the very beginning (with all its spoilery thematic associations) then sets off the whole book — it shows us Finch for a moment before, and then the book watches how he changes from that point on. Starting right over the bodies would lose that moment when he, Finch, actually enters the story himself.

    There’s a recurring theme of doors throughout the book — I’m thinking, here, especially of all the doors Finch and Wyte go through on those boats, in the excerpt you sometimes read — and starting Finch outside of one gets that motif moving immediately. It plants a seed. Plus, it symbolically takes us, the readers, from someplace understandable — an apartment hallway — into the weirdness of the fantastic world we’ll be exploring, as manifested in the crime scene.

    If nothing else, it lets Finch get off his “I’m not a detective” routine first, which is vital characterization given his role at the crime scene. As I said in my second review, almost everything in Finch’s Ambergris is two things at once, like Finch himself — the not-a-detective detective.

    Am I close?

  13. says

    Thanks for posting this series! Without knowing the book, I would have picked the first choice based on the “always start with a body” rule that I heard somewhere. Though the second choice gives a chance to set up some of the internal conflict before (pretty quickly at that) getting to down to business with the bodies.

    The third choice is the least interesting to me. Phone calls aren’t exciting to watch, especially from only one end of the conversation. They also appeal primarily to only one sense, hearing. What is Finch supposed to see, smell, feel while on the phone? Independence Day by Richard Ford is filled with phone calls, and I found the book to be just about unbearable.

    The fourth choice is interesting, but makes it hard to ground the reader in something specific to care about. I didn’t recall Mieville taking so long to get to business until reading Jonathan’s comments, but as others have said I spent the whole beginning of the book marveling at all the cool stuff. The example that first popped into my head for this broad intro approach is Dickens, with his “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness” from Tale of Two Cities. The book even sort-of qualifies as a secondary world story, published in 1859 but set over a century earlier during the French Revolution.

  14. says

    Caveat: I haven’t read Finch yet (nor other readers’ comments). But since Finch is a detective investigating murders in the secondary fantasy world of Ambergris, I’d place him at the door of the apartment. It provides immediacy AND context. Crime scenes, in some sense, are also a detective’s raison d’etre. I want to see him enter the scene, to watch him at work, to see how he processes the world, which gives me clues on how I, as a reader, should process the world.

    The ability of a detective to read a scene shows the detective at work/in action. Action = character. Thus we get an inciting incident (murder) driving the narrative with an interweaving of character. Pretty dynamic way to launch into a novel.

    If this were a detective story in the mundane world, you could have him over the bodies.

    If this is a story with a subplot of Finch vs cops, I guess you could have him at the police station when he gets the message. But seems you could work that in later and go with “at the door” anyhow.

    Good readers are too sophisticated/impatient these days when it comes to giving an overview of a fantastical world’s setting, so unless some greater thematic purpose of a survey is at play, I’d not go with that option.

    So I’ll choose door number (2), Monty.

  15. says

    It’s a threshold moment, and just right–a moment later would be too late, a moment earlier, too early (and a lot of writers would start too early). I remember reading this opening online and finding it hard to penetrate. Later, reading with copy in hand, I didn’t have any trouble…possibly because of my previous encounter and the time I’d had to digest the manner of telling, which is more of an initial hurdle than the moment when it starts. The room is about to take shape for the first time for Finch, as for the reader; why would you want your reader to have to take in details of the hallway on their way to the waiting tableau? On the other hand, why would you want them to miss Finch’s hesitation at the threshold, which tells them much about Finch and his situation (beyond the simple fact of the room he’s entering). That’s the moment of equipoise, of everything about to change, the balance about to shift…it’s an ingathering, a zero gravity point, and just right for you to shift the weight of the novel onto the reader’s shoulders without them really noticing.

  16. says

    In the opening you chose, Finch begins alone — which helps define an arc in the novel when set against where he ends up. There’s the theme of doors as portals, yes; also in going through the door Finch takes the reader with him, we and he seeing the situation in the room for the first time, which requires him to set the scene for us. Choice is another theme of the book, and going through a door is a choice, as you emphasize in the opening. Making a choice is active, not passive, so generally a good way to begin a novel and especially so in this case — Finch’s reluctant acquiescence helps establish his character, the larger setting, and hits the right thematic note that those in control have not outright enslaved the populace, but rather control through surveillance, terror, and co-option.

    Some of the other openings do some of these, but only the opening you chose does all of them.

  17. Hellbound Heart says

    if i were to go with a beginning, i would go with 1) because you could set the tone for the narrative and the dynamic between the main characters and also it could make quite a confronting and uncomfortable beginning for the text.

    peace and love……

  18. Jeff VanderMeer says

    Yes, the progressions are meant to be for Finch on one level and for the reader on the other. It’s a stand-alone novel but it’s also in a series, so I have a few other sets of demands on what the narrative has to do so it truly can be not only stand-alone but not give the reader the bends.

    All the stuff about Finch’s character and the opening is spot on.

    More soon,

    Jeff

  19. Rachel Swirsky says

    I have a great love for beginnings like number 4, but on the other hand, I found Perdido Street Station to be boring (I know, I know; I love the politics; I disliked the prose; there’s probably something wrong with me as a reader), so maybe I don’t actually like #4-like beginnings as much as I think I do.

    I ordered Finch, but have not yet read it.

  20. says

    Placing Finch outside the door created anticipation and started building the fear/paranoia right off the bat. Agreed with the doors thang above: Finch is so concerned with doors and transitions, that the opening highlights John Finch’s identity as a liminal person–in his character, his job, his loyalties, and his very personhood. Choice (2) also creates a little bit of distance. Also, it doesn’t fit quite as well into standard genre openings.

    (1) has a total CSI/police procedural feel. It would have highlighted the action at the start of the book, when that’s not the most important part of the book. I’m imagining Heretic as some grizzled senior cop with a cigar, laying into Finch for showing up late and in a rumpled trenchcoat… You could have subverted this in some way, maybe made Finch a less reliable narrator.

    (3) would have centered the station and Finch’s identity as Detective in a formal sense. It would have thrown in probably some character interaction with the other detectives right off, which would have humanized him, gotten readers settled into Finch’s “normal” life, such as it is. That would have provided something pleasant for Heretic to destroy/problematize/threaten right off.

    (4) feels either Generic Fantasy or a Memoir of the Detective in His Last Days. Too homey, too settled, too authoritative. Again, you could have done things to subvert it, but it feels more run-of-the-mill genre than you are aiming for. It also would, I assume, have implications for the viewpoint of the rest of the novel.

  21. says

    (4), I guess I can imagine ways to do it that don’t seem out of character for Finch, but it just seems too slow for the form. (1) makes the story too much about solving the case, which it isn’t, really, not in a conventional sense. (3) situates us in Finch’s “ordinary” not-a-detective life before this case came up — and it’s not exactly like you need to set up his idyllic quotidian existence just to demolish it, stephen king-style. (2), we’re poised right at the moment where (and Finch almost knows it) bad is about to get much, much worse, and I think that’s right where you need to be.

  22. says

    David: Finch also isn’t bothered by dead bodies–there are too many around. So, for him, the tension isn’t in seeing the dead people, it’s in interacting with the inhuman and half-inhuman living.

  23. says

    I’m not going to presume I know why you would or wouldn’t do something, but having read Finch I would say doing an opening like number 4 would have been overkill. Ambergris is definitely one of those settings that serves as character, but that device only works as a shadowy character (imho). Books that feature cities as a “character” often dwell very little upon it, relying more on atmosphere and effect than minute description. Ambergris was ever present in its occupied form as well as its historical form, and its because you wove it in-between the characters and the action. Putting it all up front would have made the city seem more artificial–touristy….if that makes sense.

  24. says

    Like I said, I haven’t read the book, Jeff. Without the context of the novel behind it, it seems equally possible to start with “Everything was golden, calm, unknowable.”

    Now, that would set a rather different tone than the other comments here suggest, not even taking symbolism into account; so I agree that the effect will likely be rather more than subtle when I read the book in its entirety.

  25. says

    I was only making a general argument that it makes more difference than one might think.

    But that would be a lovely opening if this were a short story or novella and you needed to start even later in the story.

    Jeff

  26. simply scott says

    Before I even go back and read the responses, I want to point out that you forgot one possible beginning — that he is back in the station after visiting the scene and can take the audience back to the scene of the crime over and over in his thoughts and with conversation. Sometimes I like to let the action happen without the reader being privy to it, then just refer back to it and get everyone’s take on it, revealing bits and pieces. Otherwise, I’d most likely start the action right in the middle (scene 1 as indicated by you) and let the reader play catch-up based off of the ongoing conversation, thoughts and actions of those involved in the investigation. Again, I like to make the reader do that work.

  27. Jeff VanderMeer says

    That’s certainly a valid approach. It would make for a much differently paced novel, though. It would also require, in my opinion, a much simpler approach to the political situation in the city. One reason for direct in Finch is that the political situation is pretty complex and convoluted. Direct counterbalances complex in this particular situation. But I think your approach would make for something very interesting–you’d just have to be careful about not slipping into stasis or inertia (i.e.–make sure something is happening in the foreground) and also, again, given it’s a fantastical setting, doing it this way creates additional “white noise” in terms of introducing other necessary elements.

    And, in fact, John Finch does turn the case over in his head back at the station. What he doesn’t do is make the reader intuit the basic facts–two dead bodies in an apartment–that he is of course privy to already, and which to not reveal would be a cheat.

    It’s important to remember there’s a difference between making a reader do the work and chaos. There’s plenty of work for the reader to do in Finch anyway.

  28. simply scott says

    I have to admit that I haven’t read the chapters, so I was just kinda throwing in, but it’s hard to find people talking the ‘hows’ to writing novels. Everyone I can find is damn poet or they can’t stop whining about how hard it is to get published. No one ever talks about why this works or why it doesn’t. Cool on you! :)

  29. billawa says

    Just read the 4 choices and guessed number 2 – which, from reading the first few lines, is what you chose. (I hope…)

    I think you choose it for the same reasons I choose it. You character is alone and is just about to get to the interesting part of the story.

    First it focuses the reader on your main character without having to share the opening with side characters – they can come in later. It’s easier for the reader to orient himself, and can get the MC’s pov more easily.

    Second, you don’t have to worry about dialogue right off with out having a setup.

    Third, you get to set things up quickly while giving the internal thoughts of you MC before engaging a side character.

    Fourth – I think most movies start this way: the screen shows one face, usually the MC, and then we pull out showing the whole scene. We’ve all grown accustomed to visualizing stories this way. We’re so familiar with it, it feels most comfortable, and we subconciously apply it.

    I once wrote a short that introduced two side characters talking about the MC before moving on to the MC and it irked a few people. So now I first show one character, the MC, then describe the situation. :)

    Of course, there always the possibility you tossed a 4-sided die…

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