The Blind Assassin: Establishing Sympathy from the First Line
With the first fifteen words of her novel The Blind Assassin, Margaret Atwood takes a vice-like grip on the reader. She doesn’t let you go until the last page. It is a powerful book, deeply emotive, and, for my money, has an opening line that rates right up there with Rebecca’s “last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.” But what makes it so good? Why does it press all the buttons needed for an effective opening? And what can we do to evoke that sort of sympathy from the first page?
The Blind Assassin was the subject of discussion at the last meeting of The Paris-Anglophone Book Club, of which I have been a member for a few months now. The conversation was animated and lively, as always, but it was particularly striking how emotionally involved people had been in the story. That got me thinking about some of the work I’d been doing on this site recently, and particularly why it is that some pieces of writing make us cry.
In my last blog post, I talked about using Professor Peter Stockwell’s work on authenticity and lamentation to take the reader on the journey from sympathy to empathy. In particular, I highlighted the journey of the reader (transportation/control/investment) and the necessity of building sympathy (giving the reader a framework in which they can emotionally tag the parts of your story) before creating empathy through authenticity (showing the reader genuine feeling that they experience as if it were their own.)
That blog post may have made establishing sympathy look like a vast and complicated exercise in forcing hard thinking from your reader. Margaret Atwood demonstrates (like the first line of Kochanowski’s poem Lament XII) that a great writer can do it in a single sentence.
That’s a scary thought. Thinking “what would Atwood do” may be helpful, or it may send us into paroxysms of self-doubt and feelings of inadequacy. We might end up like Camus’ poor old Joseph Grand, endlessly struggling to guide the girl on the dappled roan through flowers in the Bois de Boulonge, for the first line of a novel he will never finish because he can’t decide on the right first line. But don’t despair.[i] Looking at Atwood’s opening line actually offer us some clues about how it works in a text-world sense, and the qualities that make it so effective at generating sympathy in the reader.
We generate sympathy by giving the reader the tools to build the world of the story in their head. Text-world theory identifies the key details that readers need to build this world, such as the people, the time and place, but also social context and status. Atwood’s opening line gives us all of this:
- People (the narrator and her sister),
- Place (a bridge)
- Time (Ten days after the end of the war)
- Social context (family)
That’s plenty for the reader to use to build an idea of the story, and “ten days after the war ended my sister and I stood on a bridge” would not be the worst opening ever. The reader knows where they are and what is going on, which is the essential first step before they can begin to care about your story. But it’s not just about lining up key facts.
First, “ten days after the war ended” is a delicious piece of language. Why is this better than “On 21 November 1918 my sister drove a car off a bridge”? “21 November 1918” is clearer than “ten days after the war ended,” but this is precisely why “ten days after the war ended” works better. It is layered, in a way that requires investment from the reader to understand: first, the war, second, the end of the war, third, ten days after the end of the war. Requiring investment distances the reader, which helps emphasise the importance of the war to the narrative, and equally leads to the reader becoming invested in the story. Atwood’s first chapter has several other examples of these subtle sentence contructions; “But some people can’t tell where it hurts”, “What had she been thinking of as the car sailed off the bridge.” The best sentences don’t drop your straight in, they make you work for it a bit so that you take the time to have a look around.
Second, if “ten days after the war ended” is the jab, “my sister drove a car off a bridge” is an uppercut. A sister! A bridge! A car going off it! Wow! I’m interested now!
It surprises me a little that Atwood doesn’t use “drove my car off a bridge.” She reveals that the car belonged to the narrator in a couple of paragraphs, which is an important plot point and part of the elaborate mystery she is building. Maybe it is the assonance (“a car off a” rather than “my car off a”.) Perhaps she felt she had enough in the first sentence to draw the readers in without needing to double down on the personal relationship. She’s probably right!
There is distancing in this sentence as well (it is the sister driving off the bridge, so we are separated from the event by the sister – as compared to if Atwood had told the fall from the first person perspective of the sister.[ii]) Distancing forces the reader to work to understand, which in the process engages their creativity. It is harder to understand a negative “not here” than a positive “here.” It is harder to understand third person “Claire frowned” than first person “I frowned.” The differences are small but the empathetic leap required forges a bond between reader and text. The reader’s imagination is stimulated and their creativity begins to take control. Why is she going off the bridge? Accident? Murder? Suicide? Is there someone else in the car with her? Has anyone seen her go?
At book club, a good number of people talked about how emotionally moved they had been by the story, even to tears. Authentic feeling fills The Blind Assassin. Struggling to finish donuts in Styrofoam cafés, white gloves on steering wheels turned sharply to the left, the perils of orthopaedic shoes on overly clean kitchen floors. At times, it feels like too much. At more than 600 pages with, let’s face it, not a lot of story to tell, the book threatens to bore the heck out of us. But the poetry and the authenticity is effective because Atwood has done such a masterful job of establishing sympathy right there on the first page. We have entered the world and Atwood doesn’t need a racing plot because she has us, and can do with us as she pleases.
It is worth noting that there may be some clever poetic construction to “ten days after the war ended, my sister drove a car off of a bridge.” Margaret Atwood is a Poet. De Maurier’s “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again” is an iambic hexameter[iii], a poetic meter of 12 syllables, and Atwood is entirely capable of having done something similarly clever with “ten days after the war ended” that helps make the sentence flowing and beautiful. I am not a poet, but if a poet reading this recognises Atwood has done something clever like this, please do say so in the comments. I’m starting to think I’m going to have to learn some poetry.
Is “people/place/time/context + distancing/poetry/mystery” a magic bullet for first lines? Of course not. But the faster (and more beautifully) you can establish these components in the mind of your reader, the better they will be able to forge an empathetic bond with the story, and the greater the impact your story will have.
Finally, I’m going to add a word on joining a book club. If you’re a writer, you love reading. Reading voraciously is the second most important habit you can have[iv]. A book club encourages you to read, encourages you to read things you might not normally have chosen to read[v], and then puts you in the company of people who think deeply about story and will show you totally new perspectives on what you thought you read. Which is fantastic.
Sitting in a room full of people in the habit of totally demolishing the work of writers who are your superior in, erm, every possible sense, can tend towards the terrifying. The thought of members of our book club getting hold of my writing scares the living daylights out of me. Dedicated readers can be very different creatures from us poor compulsive writers. Sure, there will be other writers and aspiring writers and one-time writers amongst the readers at book club. But many will be true readers, readers for pleasure, readers who have as much sympathy for poor writing from a writer as a gourmand has for a poor meal from a chef.
Do they feel the same shame and inadequacy that we feel, as we wonder at how the writer has constructed such and such a phrase, or held so complex idea in place as it went from their mind to the page[vi]? I don’t think so. Book club readers are demanding. They don’t feel the need to apologise for not liking a work, and nor should they. As a writer, they are your finest audience. Readers who care as much about your writing as you do Please them and they will give themselves to your world, and help you build something incredible together.
So swallow the fear and find the time in your schedule to join a book club. Readers are scary and many of them will hate things that you love (and love things that you hate), but hearing passionate people talking passionately is always inspiring. Getting to know what inspires people who loves books can only as readers, rather than as writers, can only help. If you are in Paris then the Paris Anglophone Book Club is a great choice, although sign up early because it fills up quick.
Meanwhile, if you’re still worry about about your opening line, remember: People, placement, time, context; mystery and distance. A great opening line is a whole story in itself (for sale: baby shoes, never used[vii]). From just a few words, the imaginative reader (which is all readers) should be able to launch into a whole new story in their head. If that sounds scary, well, good, you’ve properly understood its importance. But don’t panic. And don’t be like Joseph Grand indefinitely agonizing over every work. Instead, believe in the power of your first line and take the leap. Reach for something magnificent and don’t worry about the fall.
[i] And if you do despair, give up on the first line and come back to it later. You are going to change it during editing, anyway. Write the first line last remains a good general writer’s tip.
[ii] Which would have been rubbish. But, according to the guys at the book club, Atwood went through all sorts of different perspectives and narrators on her way to settling on Iris and her memories of her sister.
[iii] According to Wikipedia. Yep, I just went ahead and trusted Wikipedia. Not a poet.
[iv] Writing is the most important habit. In case you were wondering.
[v] I was convinced by its cover that Ali Smith’s “How to be Both” was mindless chick-lit until I read book club forced me to read it. I was completely wrong. I was even wrong about the cover. When the only consequence is mild embarrassment followed by the joy of discovery, I just love being wrong about stuff.
[vi] Of course, that might be just me. I’m sure there are non-neurotic writers out there in the world somewhere. If you are one of them, do please leave a comment and tell the rest of us how you do it. Does it involve a lot of drugs?
[vii] Or whatever the line was. That story about Hemmingway is apocryphal anyway.