December 8, 2011
Mystery We Write Winter 2011 Blog Tour Presents Ron Benrey
The Magic Paragraph
By Ron Benrey
For starters, let me say that I was a prolific non-fiction writer (books, magazine articles, speeches, marketing literature). But when I started to write fiction back in 1990, I was puzzled to find that my first efforts at fiction were “dead.” That’s how I described my writing.
Two years later, I figured out that my “fiction” lacked an essential ingredient. My words didn’t create a “fictional dream” in the mind of a reader. The late, John Gardner — novelist, teacher, and author of “The Art of Fiction” — coined that apt term to describe the “being somewhere else” experience a reader enjoys when reading a novel.
Doing this is actually a fairly simple “craft” skill that many novelists do instinctively, but which I had to learn “the hard way,” through lots of trial and error.
I call the technique I discovered the “Magic Paragraph”—a paragraph designed to invite the reader to dream. Look at any novel you enjoy reading. The first (possibly first two) paragraphs in each scene… and the first paragraph after a block of dialog… and lots of others scattered through the scene will probably follow the following pattern:
1. Signal whose head to enter.
2. “Activate” one of the character’s five senses or a thought process.
3. Give the character’s initial reaction to what s/he sensed or thought.
4. Start the character thinking.
Here’s an example from “Dead as a Scone,” the first novel in our “Royal Tunbridge Wells Mysteries” series. The following two paragraphs start Chapter 2:
Felicity Katherine Adams—Flick to her friends—yanked three more tissues from the box on her desk, blew her nose for what seemed the umpteenth time, and wondered when it would finally stop dripping.
Blast them all—their closed minds and calloused hearts.
She crumpled the tissues into a tight ball and decided that if ever there was a proper occasion for unabated sniveling, this was it. How could she not cry after losing a wonderful friend and smashing into a stone wall of obstinate stupidity? No one else in the boardroom recognized the
obvious facts. Not one of them would pay attention to simple truth that Dame Elspeth was murdered.
Now, here are the same paragraphs “parsed” into the four elements I listed above.
Felicity Katherine Adams—Flick to her friends… (Signal whose head to enter)
…yanked three more tissues from the box on her desk, blew her nose for what seemed the umpteenth time… (“Activate” a sense)
…and wondered when it would finally stop dripping. (Give her initial reaction)
Blast them all—their closed minds and calloused hearts. (Start her thinking.)
She [Flick]… (Signal whose head to enter) …crumpled the tissues into a tight ball… (“Activate” a sense)
…and decided that if ever there was a proper occasion for unabated sniveling, this was it. (Give her initial reaction)
How could she not cry after losing a wonderful friend and smashing into a stone wall of obstinate stupidity? No one else in the boardroom recognized the obvious facts. Not one of them would pay attention to simple truth that Dame Elspeth was murdered. (Start her thinking.)
Repeated use of the Magic Paragraph will establish and maintain a strong fictional dream. I consider it the single most important “craft secret” I learned about writing fiction.
Here’s a synopsis of Dead as a Scone:
Murder is afoot in the sedate English town of Royal Tunbridge Wells … and the crime may be brewing in a tea pot!
Nigel Owen is having a rotten year. Downsized from a cushy management job at an insurance company in London, he is forced to accept a temporary post as managing director of the Tunbridge Wells Tunbridge Wells Tea Museum. Alas, he regrets living in a small town in Kent, he prefers drinking coffee (with a vengeance), and he roundly dislikes Flick Adams, PhD, an
American scientist recently named the museum’s curator.
But then, the wildly unexpected happens. Dame Elspeth Hawker, the museum’s chief benefactor, keels over a board meeting—the apparent victim of a fatal heart attack. With the Dame’s demise, the museum’s world-famous collection is up for grabs, her cats, dog, and parrot are living at with Flick and Nigel—and the two prima donnas find themselves facing professional ruin.
But Flick—who knows a thing or two about forensic science—is convinced that Dame Elspeth did not die a natural death. As Flick and Nigel follow the clues—including a cryptic Biblical citation—they discover that a crime perpetrated more than a century ago sowed the seeds for a contemporary murder.
Ron Benrey writes cozy mysteries with his wife Janet. Ron has been a writer forever—initially on magazines (his first real job was Electronics Editor at Popular Science Magazine), then in corporations (he wrote speeches for senior executives), and then as a novelist. Over the years, Ron has also authored ten non-fiction books, including the recently published “Know Your Rights — a Survival Guide for Non-Lawyers” (published by Sterling). Ron holds a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a master’s degree in management from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and a juris doctor from the Duquesne University School of Law. He is a member of the Bar of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.
Ron, that’s an interesting point you make, and it’s well worth following up on in my own work. To my blog readers, please comment here if you’d like a chance to win a copy of Ron’s book.
Cheers, All, Beth, who invites you to come back tomorrow for a recap of the whole author tour, and one last chance to have your name drawn for a free book, in my case a copy of Raven Talks Back in either print or Kindle. And thanks so much for stopping by!