The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern is a debut novel from 2011. It is one of those books that publishers decide will be culture-changing and so market the hell out of it. Most reviews praise the ideas and imagery of the first 150 pages or so, and criticise the story and plotting from there to the end.
Luckily, that is of no consequence here. We shall be looking at the (rather short) first chapter to see how Miss Morgenstern uses it to grab the reader’s attention, which she certainly does (even if later she loses her grip).
The man billed as Prospero the Enchanter receives a fair amount of correspondence via the theatre office, but this is the first envelope addressed to him that contains a suicide note, and it is also the first to arrive carefully pinned to the coat of a five-year-old girl.
Despite what you might read or be advised, or what publishers and agents and editors might tell you, one thing is paramount in a good story. You have to have an interesting idea.
You can get away with not having one. You can come up with flim-flam and pretty prose and aim it at a niche market that digs that sort of thing, but while that might be a profitable story, not a good one. Good ideas trump all.
In this story, the combination of magician, suicide note and little girl is a nice mix. All of them have appeared in books before, but the way they are put together here is nicely done. And it should be noted that the note in the envelope pinned to the five year old girl is not kept a mystery. The point isn’t to find out what could possibly be in this envelope. We are told immediately, because knowing something interesting makes you want to know more.
After this introducing paragraph not much happens. The girl waits for the father she’s never met, and when he arrives she stares at her shoes for a couple of paragraphs.
That’s okay, once you have the reader’s attention, you can afford to make them wait. But not too long.
The teacup on the desk begins to shake. Ripples disrupt the calm surface as cracks tremble across the glaze, and then it collapses in shards of flowered porcelain.
Her father’s tactless comments about her dead mother cause the girl, Celia, to break the cup with her mind. She has a strange ability. But her father’s surprise is followed by his own display of ability.
The cracked and broken pieces stand and re-form themselves around the liquid until the cup sits complete once more, soft swirly of steam rising into the air.
He puts the cup back together and says, “You might be interesting.” And we’re off.
The reason this opening chapter appealed to me as an example of a writer fishing with quality bait, is that I often read stories of this type, where say an orphaned child is taken into care by people she doesn’t know, with none of the magical stuff, or even the suicide stuff (not so prominent anyway) and it falls flat. The idea of a small child out in the world alone and at the mercy of whoever she ends up with is obviously a dramatic and emotive idea. But It’s not enough to provide a hook.
Not that you need magic breaking teacups, but you need something more than bare bones. Too often I see stories from aspiring writers where there isn't anything new or different. Someone's dead, someone's in love, someone's been bitten by a handsome vampire. It's okay, but it's nothing special. And if you were going to publish something so-so, shy not just use one of the writers already under contract?
The thing about this book is that the writing isn’t all that great. The distant third person narration is quite unengaging, some of the prose is horribly purple, and the dialogue can be quite wooden. But it doesn’t matter, just as it didn’t matter with Twilight or The Da Vinci Code.
A good idea, presented in the first chapter, can excuse a whole host of sins. And for all the rules and guidelines and demands made by the industry, only one thing is always true. If you have a really good idea, you can write it whatever way you want.
Check out the other posts in this series on the Chapter One Analyses page. I do detailed breakdowns of opening chapter for various genres (YA, MG, Crime, Sci-fi etc.) using popular debut novels (Hunger Games, Harry potter, Fight Club et al).
If you found this post interesting please retweet it. Cheers.