Whatever Happened to Foreplay?

incoldbloodThis from Writer’s Digest: “How To Start a Novel Right.” (June 6, 2013)

Including backstory in the opening pages is the same as saying to the reader, “Wait a minute—hold on. Before I tell you the story, first there’s something about these characters and this situation that you need to know.”

Ha! Don’t buy it! They mean you should open your novel with a Big Boffo scene guaranteed to hold the readers’ attention with “action.” Reach out and grab ‘em by the short hairs, the reasoning goes, so the reader, having ingested a full two pages from Amazon’s “Look inside” section, can’t resist hitting the Add to Cart button. Of course, the problem is far bigger than Amazon (if such a thing is cosmologically possible). Big Boffo signals a regrettable dimming of imagination and attention on the part of the reader; worse, that of the writer. “I want to know the story now!” insists the reader in the WD projection. “The folks have had me on Adderol since fourth grade, and I’m not about to slow down for anything as lame as characterization or nuance or any of that other stuff.”

Consider Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, one of the most compelling and readable American narratives ever written.  Its first line starts at mesmerizing height above the story. “The village of Holcomb stands on the high wheat plains of western Kansas, a lonesome area that other Kansans call ‘out there.’” The first pages give just a minimalist hint of what happened in Holcomb that was so important: ”Not a soul in Holcomb heard them – four shotgun blasts that, all told, ended six human lives.”

So what’s next? Right after that suspenseful, out-of-nowhere reference to shotgun blasts, the story line takes us not forward – but back. Herb Clutter, the narrator needs us to know, is the upright patriarch of the ill-fated Clutters. On the night before the unheard shotgun blasts, he was proud and pleased to watch his daughter Nancy play Becky in a high-school production of Tom Sawyer. He’s an upright man, Mr. Clutter, who eschews all stimulants, including coffee, and who pays his help the best wages around. But woe unto that poor hired man he catches drinking alcohol on his property. He strolls early in the morning munching an apple, and surveying the bounty of his farm. And Nancy, by the way, has Babe; “an old fat workhorse who never objected to lumbering about with three and four children astride her broad back.”

Hold it right there! Isn’t this exactly what the literati down at Writers Digest say we’re not supposed to do?   Tough. Any author who writes prose like Capote can take the reader where he damned well pleases; backwards or forwards.

The story gets darker in drips and drabs. Mr. Clutter finishes that early morning stroll, and “heads home and to the day’s work, unaware that that it would be his last.” Then, in bare and fleeting snippets, the reader is introduced to world-class losers Perry and Dick.

Of course, it’s not just opening pages. Throughout, Capote layers action in with (often larger) layers of background and psychological nuance. Dick tells Perry, “[H]oney, we’ll blast hair all over them walls.” What comes directly after such a bloody threat? Action, right? Nope. The narrator takes us back into the Clutter home, by way of raising suspense, where Nancy Clutter is baking a blueberry pie. Next thing you know, Dick and Perry are driving their murderous path out to Holcomb.

Finally, something horrible has happened at the Clutter place but the narrator doesn’t give us much. A neighbor girl goes into the house that Sunday morning to look for Nancy. “She’s dead!” the girl comes out screaming.”

In the remaining 300 pages, the murderers are ID’d, the chase is on, and the crime itself is revisited more than once, these times in gory, hair-all-over-them-walls detail. Perry and Dick are hanged, and thus the story ends. But the poetry of Capote’s prose doesn’t; not until the very last line.

After a visit to the collective Clutter grave,”he [Detective Dewey] walked toward the trees, and under them, leaving behind him the sky, the whisper of wind voices in the wind-bent wheat.”   It’s a line worth a reverential bow of the head, to realize whose voices whisper.

With such skillful layering of (lots) of background, action and prose poetry, Truman Capote conjured a mix of American pastoral and bloodbath noir that may never be equaled.



  1. Currently re-reading Rebecca another suspenseful compelling novel that begins with a slow burn. Pages of description of flowers and weeds with an undertone of menace and I loved every bit of it. Some things are worth waiting for!

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