The following is a post about the craft of storytelling. Posts like this are somewhat unusual for me on my author website. Most of time I am reviewing science fiction for the average consumer, not just for the writer. In this post, I am poking my nose into craft. I don’t want to just taste the stew…I want to know how it is made. This post is for the writer and beware…contains spoilers.
This is my second installment on first chapters. A few days ago, I analyzed chapter 1 of DUNE. To read that post, click here. Today, I analyze chapter 1 of THE HOBBIT.
This first chapter
–introduces the reader to the world and the main characters
–evokes our empathy for Bilbo by showing the reader his inner conflict
–presents the choice that will change Bilbo’s life forever
–introduces the reader the the fantastical possibilities that lie ahead, but also the dangers
In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.
Thus begins THE HOBBIT, by J.R.R. Tolkien, but really this sentence begins the longer saga that so many have come to know and love, THE LORD OF THE RINGS. Notice what it accomplishes.
- Sentence #1 introduces a new creature, the hobbit. This creature will inhabit the long saga. He will be the unlikely hero (later his nephew, Frodo will be our hero). The audience will come to admire, adore and identify with Bilbo and Frodo.
- This sentence begins to describe the culture of hobbits. They are earthy, living in holes, but absolutely committed to cleanliness and comfort. These creatures are civilized…they just happen to like holes as their place of abode.
- In this first sentence, Tolkien begins to evoke our empathy for Bilbo, who will soon trade in his life of comfort for a wild and magical adventure.
Paragraph #2 of THE HOBBIT describes Bilbo’s home in detail, which will be the place where all the action takes place in the remainder of the chapter, including the entertaining of a wizard and a large group of dwarves, but even more than that, this home represents the comfortable life of a gentleman. Later in the story, Bilbo often thinks of home (as does Frodo in the LOtR saga) as a place of rest, comfort and peace. It is a place to return to.
Paragraph #3 and #4 describe Bilbo’s ancestry, posing the curious conflict he bears within himself. There is a debate between the Baggins and the Took within Bilbo. The Took side of his family (Bilbo’s mother’s side) is prone to adventure and risk-taking. The Baggins side of the family (Bilbo’s father’s side) is conservative and would reject adventure and any controversy at all. The reader doesn’t have to wonder for very long which side will win out. Without that Tookish spirit, Bilbo might never have walked away from his comfortable hobbit hole.
Both impulses inhabit Bilbo and most readers can relate. It might be said that opposing impulses, such as what Bilbo experiences, are a part of every person. Thus, Tolkien evokes our empathy for Bilbo in chapter 1. Much as Bilbo leaves the comfort of his hobbit hole to journey with the dwarves, the reader leaves his/her comfort to embark with them in the story world.
Now for the rest of chapter 1: Bilbo, because of his value of hospitality, entertains Gandalf (a wizard who believes Bilbo will be a key member of the adventure) and a group of dwarves who demand food, drink, then compel him to travel with them to a place where a dragon guards a great treasure. The adventure, as it is presented, is magnificent, romantic and promises great wealth. Bilbo is taken in, though it is touch and go for a while. Despite his willingness to leave his home, it could be said the hobbit is in a way bewitched by the romantic notion of a grand adventure.
As they sang the hobbit felt the love of beautiful things made by hands and by cunning and by magic moving through him, a fierce and jealous love, the desire of the hearts of dwarves. Then something Tookish woke up inside him, and he wished to go and see the great mountains, and hear the pine-trees and the waterfalls, and explore the caves, and wear a sword instead of a walking-stick.
Yet, Thorin, the lead dwarf, does not mince words about the dangers they might face.
We shall soon before the break of day start on our long journey, a journey from which some of us, or perhaps all of us (except our friend and counsellor, the ingenious wizard Gandalf) may never return. It is a solemn moment.
What is Bilbo’s reaction to this sobering news?
Poor Bilbo couldn’t bear it any longer. At may never return he began to feel a shriek coming up inside, and very soon it burst out like the whistle of an engine coming out of a tunnel. All the dwarves sprang up, knocking over the table.
The stage has been set. The semi-cowardly and ill-prepared Bilbo Baggins will reluctantly leave his comfortable hobbit hole and venture with these new friends, the dwarves and Gandalf. When he finally returns, he will be completely changed and so will Middle Earth.
For over the misty mountains cold
To dungeons deep and caverns old
We must away ere break of day
To find our long-forgotten gold.
Bilbo went to sleep with that in his ears, and it gave him very uncomfortable dreams. It was long after the break of day when he woke up.
This stanza, when one reflects on THE HOBBIT and THE LORD of the RINGS speaks of long-forgotten gold. The dwarves believe this to be part of their hoard, that which is guarded by the dragon, Smaug. The reader understands a deeper meaning. Long-forgotten gold is the one ring to rule them all, found by Bilbo…later passed on to Frodo, becoming the impetus for the Lord of the Rings Saga.
The reader doesn’t understand at this point the profundity of the dwarves’ song, but it is there, imbedded in that first chapter of the very first book.
Periodically, a friend tells me that he or she knows someone who is writing or has written a novel. It happened last week as I’m sure it happens to most writers. Not that I’m the expert on all things writing, but I’ve navigated the writing world long enough to have an opinion.
So, I had the phone conversation with a young man (son of an old friend) yesterday. I decided to write him a follow up email with a few resources I have appreciated and it made sense to put it into a post. Next time, I can just send the link. Actually…I wouldn’t do that. I would still take the phone call, but it helps to have the information written down in one place.
For the new writer…Here’s my advice:
First, congratulate yourself that you just wrote a novel. That.Is.Amazing. Celebrate and then think like a critic and move on. Try to figure out if this book is what you really want to publish and to the best of your ability, think about whether or not you’re addicted to writing. If you’re not, the road is too hard and very long (for most of us). Don’t keep going unless you know you really LOVE it.
Social Media. You might hate it, but every author has to be on social media. If you want to start somewhere, try Twitter.
On Twitter, connect with and start following folks from the #WritingCommunity. Other hashtags you could check out: #amwritingsciencefiction, #amwritingspeculativefiction, #amwriting, #amwritingfiction. While you’re there you’ll find links to various author websites. Some are way more amazing than mine, others are just a page with a photo and the book cover, with minimal links if any. Begin thinking about your author website. How do you want it to feel? What content, if any, do you want to regularly produce on it?
Find a Critique Group:
It’s great to have beta readers, but it’s even better to find a group of writers, like-minded souls who write and will be willing to read your stuff and give you feedback. I’ve started a number of groups over the years. What I have found is that the most important trait for those in the group is work ethic. If the people aren’t actually writing, then it’s probably not worth your time because A. they won’t submit anything to the group and B. They will be the weakest when it comes to critique. Find people who write and be willing to put in the work for them by being a thorough and honest critic. Work for them and they will work for you. (That’s ideal…always exceptions, but be careful about those exceptions).
Go to Cons (like Emerald City Comic Con or WisCon) and get to know people. You will meet fans and you will meet writers and small publishers. You will make connections and you will have fun. (Photo of Ariel is my daughter, who goes to Cons and always dresses up, mostly not in Disney costumes, but this was the best photo I could find today…plus, it’s bright and cute.)
Books on writing and why I like them:
If you buy one book, I would make it this one. I’ve taken McKee’s class twice (weekend course) and everyone from Pixar would attend in the Bay Area (where I used to live). Screenwriters would fly up from LA to take it in case they had missed the weekend in Southern California. I knew writers who would take it every other year during the time he was touring. He traveled all over the world teaching his course in the 90s and early 2000s. Why? I think he had/has a way of distilling what it takes to tell a great story. It’s less literary and more about structure, the architecture of good storytelling. I refer to this book all the time, also because this was the stuff I never learned in college. For whatever reason, my writing program de-emphasized story structure. Maybe they thought we were smart enough to pick it up, sniff it out and do it ourselves.
*Why don’t I have a photo of this book cover? I have loaned it out…which so many of us writers inevitably do and then regret. That book has escaped my shelves. I have no idea who has it now, so I will probably have to buy it again. DRAT! It’s not cheap!
Steering the Craft by Ursula K. le Guin
This is a short book, but really helpful. UK le Guin is a scifi/fantasy writer, so it’s wonderful to get practical advice from someone who knows the genres we are writing in. She may have the most concise and best definition of point of view and tense that I have read. I highly recommend it and it also comes with exercises.
le Guin has written a wonderful series, 5 fantasy books (long before Harry Potter) about a wizarding school, called
If you don’t want to buy all five, try out the first one.
UK le Guin is one of my heroes. Here is my review of her science fiction book, THE LEFT HAND OF DARKNESS, A Book Review
This book (pictured on the top of post) drives home the kinds of techniques that make characters eternal/memorable. It too is practical. The chapter on Protagonist Problems is spot on and one of the best things you can read as a young writer. Corbett captures key mistakes many writers make when crafting characters, especially main characters.
Revising Fiction, by David Madden
The Perfect Discussion Starter for Public Policy 101
AN EXCESS MALE showcases governmental abuse of big data, but also, the one child policy…perhaps the most disastrous public policy of the modern era.
Warning: this book contains sexual content. I do not recommend it for the Middle Grade Reader<
Do your students know the term public policy?
A societal problem presents itself and a governmental entity decides on laws, regulations or funding priorities to solve the problem…you know, make a policy, for the public. You can find a number of sites that attempt to give a definition of public policy. I appreciated this Audiopedia presentation:
Even with the above intro, public policy is still a complicated concept for the average youth who has not paid great attention to politics.
Shen King’s, AN EXCESS MALE tells the story that will enable a reader to study public policy through a microscope, by getting to know a fictional family and the impact a few particular policies have had and will have on them.
For background and history, have your student read one or two articles on China’s One Child Policy. This piece from National Geographic is a good one.
The summary: China feared overpopulation. China had historically been unable to grow enough food to feed their entire population. Their solution to this immediate societal problem was to institute a public policy (a law that went into effect in 1979) that rewarded those who limited their families to one child. Public pressure kept some couples from giving birth more than once, but there were also incentives given, like tax breaks for those who chose to abide by the law. Unfortunately, those who did not conform were sometimes forced to have abortions or to hide their second or third child. Some women were forcibly sterilized. Families, when forced to choose between a girl or a boy child, wanted boys. Boys were prized more highly for their earning potential and for other cultural reasons. Girl babies were given up for adoption, abandoned or hidden away. Unborn girls were also aborted at a higher rate…all because of a public policy. The current problem facing China now (as written about in the article above) is that by 2030, more than 25 percent of men in their late thirties will not have a family of their own. There are not enough brides in China to match up with these excess males.
Starting points for discussion around the novel…
Read chapter 1 most carefully, then continue through the book to the end. The public policy instigated by the Chinese government to solve the problem resulting from the One Child Policy (too many men, not enough women) is presented most concisely in the early scenes of the novel.
- How are the various characters related to Wei-guo? Go down the list and describe the relationships in short sentences or if you prefer draw a family/relationship diagram using Wei-guo as the center. In your diagram and/or description include Big Dad, Dad, May-Ling, Hero, Husband One, Husband Two, MaMa.
- Based on your diagram, what constitutes a family?
- If you were to summarize this first scene, how would you describe what is taking place?
- There is a point of discussion early on around Advanced Families and China First along with a reference to patriotism. How would you summarize what it means to be patriotic in the eyes of Wei-guo’s dads?
- “Every man is allowed one child…” Why do you think that is?
- There are rules and expectations that order these unusual families that are forming as a result of public policy, some rules are dictated by the government, others emerge out of necessity. Begin a list of these rules as you read through the book. Some rules are subtle, not easy to pick up on. Others are more obvious, like “Every man is allowed one child…”
- In chapter one, the term Willfully Sterile is used to describe Hero. What do you think this means?
- Big Dad calls Husband Two a Lost Boy? What do you think that means? How does Hero, the matchmaker defend Husband Two?
- What are the Strategic Games?
- Why might they exist?
- What does Major Jung want from Wei-guo and his band of Strategic Games men?
- He states a statistic. What is the statistic? Doc tries to protest…but clearly, the government official is giving the orders and not allowing for any discussion. Why do you think that is?
- There is a reference in the book periodically to going the max. The meaning is not precisely spelled out. What do you think it means?
- What do you think the government would do to May-ling, Hann and XX if they declared in all honesty who they are and what they want?
- How do you think a government gets this kind of power over individuals…the power to determine what it means to be a man, a woman, a family, a patriot and control those definitions for an entire society?
- The idea of government power through censorship and spying on (keeping track of) their own citizens emerges as a theme and becomes prominent by the final chapters of the book. Do you believe that the government should be able to track you, trace you, know your habits, what you buy and eat and drink? In the name of keeping society safe, is their intrusion into your privacy something you would be okay with?
This is such an important discussion and not just for those living in places like China (where citizens have little say in what their government does)…but in the US and Western Europe and among other “free people”…how much power in the form of data do you want your government to have?
Wired has a great article on the intersection between Big Brother and Big Data This reality is nothing new for the scifi world…but in the past it’s all been make believe. Now science fiction is becoming reality…our reality. What kind of checks on Big Data in the hands of government ought to be put into place now, to avert the kind of situation the reader sees in AN EXCESS MALE?
This ought to be a large public policy debate and a topic discussed by citizens everywhere. How much privacy will we give up for safety and what if our governments turn on us and decide that watching us is a part of creating a better society, more order?
There is much to read and discuss on this topic.
This article from business insider gives another angle and more will be written in the coming years as the technology outruns our ability to debate every new policy.
Enjoy Maggie Shen King’s book. Read it for the love story and the thrilling climax, but pay attention to the under-carriage of this story. A sinister government maintains tremendous power over how society defines everything from sexuality, family and mental illness to patriotism…now that is a scary story…something dreamed up by writer…or something at our doorstep.
To buy AN EXCESS MALE, click here.