In the past three weeks, I’ve put aside five novels. Each had a good premise, and all were intriguing. But once I got past that, I found nothing to keep me, and after the third misfire, I wanted to know why I couldn’t connect with these stories. After all, I’m a novelist too, and maybe other readers would feel the same about my stuff.
So I went back over the books in my mind, and though each was different, I noticed one common thread: The authors narrated backstory to explain a character’s hopes, dreams, desires, restraints, and impulses. I think I get what the writers were trying to tell me, but that didn’t grab me enough. I was reading a description, not witnessing a character grow before my eyes. So I decided that fact can’t substitute for insight; recounting circumstances doesn’t reveal a character’s inner life. And to me, without that, a novel ain’t got that swing.
This is one reason I admire Wolf Hall, which, if you haven’t run across it, is Hilary Mantel’s novel about Thomas Cromwell’s rise to power at Henry VIII’s court. To say that Mantel writes better than just about anybody these days is neither the reason I put five other novels aside nor very helpful. But taking a good look at the first 300 words of Wolf Hall (297, to be exact) shows me what I was missing and what I wish I could achieve with my own fiction.
The story begins with a beating. Within fifty words, you read that the unnamed victim is flat on the ground, “eyes turned toward the gate, as if someone might arrive to help him out.” Not rescue him; just help him out, a measure of how he’s learned, perhaps, to curtail his desires. “One blow, properly placed, could kill him now.” His physical disadvantage is obvious, but I also sense his emotional vulnerability.
The next two paragraphs name the father, Walter, and give him speech and actions, all vicious–but the boy has no name. Many have criticized Mantel for being deliberately vague about who’s speaking or thinking throughout the novel, a style that maddens me too, sometimes. But here, I think it’s genius. Just as Walter’s violence feels matter-of-fact, ritual, so does his son’s self-effacement. He’s trying to be small and inert, so that he can escape his father’s blows. All the same, when he hears his dog barking, he thinks, “I’ll miss my dog.” Again, even the dog has a name, and, interestingly, a poetic one, Bella–a lovely touch. But the point is that the boy craves his father’s love, even if he doesn’t say so, even if he doesn’t directly know it.
Then, to end the three hundred words:
Look now, look now,” Walter bellows. He hops on one foot, as if he’s dancing. “Look what I’ve done. Burst my boot, kicking your head.
In this brief opening, I believe that Mantel has distilled the essence of Cromwell’s character, which she’ll weave throughout the novel. He survives as a courtier because he can sense danger almost before his adversary has planned the blow. Walter is a worse tyrant by far than Henry VIII, though just as changeable, so it’s useful training. Cromwell keeps his feelings tightly wrapped, and while he’s generous to waifs and wanderers, like Walter, he can twist people’s arms, but with words. And to the titled men who jockey for power at court, Cromwell, the son of a brewer and blacksmith, has no name. He’s a nobody.
Naturally, the first three hundred words can’t say all this. But they say enough.