Friday, July 1, 2011

Busted!—Leif Enger caught starting with protagonist's birth

In her recent post on Constructing Your First Chapter, Elsa Neal wrote, “The first chapter should begin just before a pivotal event in your protagonist’s life. This is something that forces a change or a decision.” Sound advice, to which Christopher Hudson sent a witty retort: "Now you tell me! Perhaps I shouldn't have started my last book with, 'When I was born ...'"

Today, I want to bust Leif Enger for doing just that, in one of my all-time favorite novel openings. His Peace Like a River begins:
From my first breath in this world, all I wanted was a good set of lungs and the air to fill them with—given circumstances, you might presume, for an American baby of the twentieth century.
With one sentence Enger plunges us into the story of his narrator, Reuben Land. The words “all I wanted” make character motivation clear from the start. In the second paragraph we learn that Reuben’s lungs refused to “kick in,” providing what Elsa would call a "pivotal event," since Reuben's lung problems will provide an ongoing stumbling block in the novel. While his difficult birth is underway, Reuben tells us his father was walking outside the hospital:
He was praying, rounding the block for the fifth time, when the air quickened. He opened his eyes and discovered he was running—sprinting across the grass toward the door.

Anyone notice a point of view problem here? We have a first person narrator telling us about his own birth! Enger solves the problem in the very next line:
“How’d you know?” I adored this story, made him tell it all the time.

Clever solution, isn’t it? Reuben can speak of his own birth in detail because of his father’s stories, told often enough that we can intuit their relationship. The next few lines set up the novel further:
“God told me you were in trouble.”
“Out loud? Did you hear Him?”
“Nope, not out loud. But he made me run, Reuben. I guess I figured it out on the way.”

A tension-filled scene in which the doctor is unable to revive Reuben follows. Dr. Nokes attempts to explain to Reuben’s father that sometimes organs just don’t work:
“In these cases,” said Dr. Nokes, “we must trust in the Almighty to do what is best.” At which Dad stepped across and smote Dr. Nokes with a right hand, so that the doctor went down and lay on his side with his pupils unfocused.

Surprising reaction! And I love the word choice: “smote.”

In the last line of this opening scene, Reuben’s father picks up his still, gray son—Enger likens him to a “clay baby”—and says, in a normal voice:
“Reuben Land, in the name of the living God I am telling you to breathe.”

With this opening Enger sketches out the triumvirate that will drive this book—Reuben, his father, and powerful faith—which first intertwine at Reuben’s birth. This is bridging conflict, since the plot will center on the Land’s search for Reuben’s brother Davy, who escapes from jail on the morning of his sentencing for murder. But the breathing complication, the determined father, and the power of faith will be present throughout, and take center stage at the book’s climax.

Chances are, Christopher, your book will not start at the birth of your protagonist, although depending on the type of book you're writing, you might end up referencing it somewhere, since the hero’s unusual birth is a common element in the archetypal hero’s journey. Thank you for inspiring this post.

Today I leave our BRP readers with this confounding advice: Fiction is a creative art, and you can do just about anything you want—even start with your character's birth—if you can do it well enough. We here at the BRP will continue to try to help you figure out how to do so.

Now tell us: what “rules” have you broken lately? (Ahem—stick to writing rules, please!)

Kathryn Craft specializes in developmental editing at, an independent manuscript evaluation and editing service. What she believes: 1. Editing forever changed the way she reads. 2. Well-crafted moments of brilliance help her forgive many other problems in a manuscript. 3. All writers have strengths and weaknesses—but why settle for weaknesses? 4. We can learn as much from what other authors do right as we can from what we do wrong. This is her series, "Busted!—An author caught doing something right."

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  1. Kathryn, what a great post. Thanks for introducing us to a marvelous writer.

    I was going to share about the time I ran the red light in the middle of the night on a country road, but you said stick to writing rules we've broken.

    I tend to break the POV rule quite often - the one about only one POV in a scene. Often another character would like to share her thoughts so I may slip from one to the other,. I do try to do that seamlessly and only once in a scene.

  2. Maryann, I've done that too, re: midnight on a country road. I'm thinking who's going to turn me in, the corn?

    Break your rules well,

  3. Enger sounds like a fantastic writer!

  4. "Peace Like A River" is also one of my favorites. There are lots of wonderful moments in the book - one I can recall is when Reuben and Swede (his little sister) are supposed to be going to sleep in the back of a vehicle as the family drives through North Dakota in below zero weather. They are having trouble falling asleep because they are so cold, when suddenly they get the giggles. After a few minutes of hysterical laughter, Reuben realizes that they have laughed themselves warm!

    I had the opportunity to meet Mr Enger at Beagle Books in Park Rapids, MN, at a book signing event a coule of years ago. A very nice man and a gifted writer.

  5. Lauren, thanks for stopping by!

    And thyrkas, how lucky you were to meet him! That is a great scene.

  6. I am still trying to learn about POV and this post helped me understand how, with concentration, a writer can be flexible. Thank you!

  7. This was a great post. I also love the book "Peace Like a River" I like the way you showed the problems with the POV and how the author handled them. I am learning more everyday, that is helping me with my own writing.

    Thank you,

    Pamela Jo

  8. Peace Like a River is one of my all time favourite books. Thanks for the POV advice.

  9. Thanks for sharing this. It's good to know that, when done properly and appropriately, it's okay to break the rules sometimes.

  10. Liza, There's Just Life, Simon Hay Soul Healer, and girlseeksplace: I have another great example of a POV conundrum I'll put up next month--solved brazenly by a great literary writer in a bestseller that went on to be a popular movie!

  11. What a revoltin' development! I get cited in a post and I'm out of town to provide a timely comment ... story of my life, which began when I was very little ...

  12. Haha--thanks Chris, glad you saw it. And thanks for commenting at the BRP!

  13. Interesting twists the author took.
    And now Chris is famous, even if he missed the post by a couple days...


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