Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Learning from the Masters: Neil Gaiman, Chapter One of Anansi Boys

After spending HOURS today wrestling with the Christmas tree (and no, those cool-looking trains that go up in the tree do NOT work--too plastic and flimsy!), here I am to talk about the first chapter of Neil Gaiman's Anansi Boys.

Important Note: This is review from the perspective of learning how to write. As such, I have to include details that might spoil some of your fun. Maybe. This book is so good, I doubt it. Still, be forewarned!

I have to mention, first, that I'm absolutely delighted by the dedication page. I won't spoil it for you, but pick up the book, take a peek, and I think you'll be delighted, too. :-)

First Line:
"It begins, as most things begin, with a song."

He starts pretty grandiose, with a little bit of poetic prose that establishes the world since the "beginning," but then he jumps straight to introducing us Fat Charlie Nancy's father. He is a CHARACTER! Hah! Over the top, quirky, but completely recognizable. The way he sets up and describes this character is amazing. Essentially, we watch a whole bar re-energized, all because Fat Charlie's father walks in.

"The second time he got up to sing, he ruined Fat Charlie's life."

I love this hook. Neil Gaiman uses hooks so well, that you can't help but be pulled into the story. And he never just lets it lie with one hook. In the first chapter alone, there are so many hooks I lost count, and each one is bigger than the last. Fine storytelling!

We meet Fat Charlie, and then we learn that Fat Charlie's father's names for things stick, in a little tiny story. It's almost as if Neil Gaiman writes teensy stories that are satisfying and complete, and then he threads them into the big story arc with little hooks, everywhere.

As soon as we're told the story about Fat Charlie's father's power with names, we're hooked by, "That was far from the worst thing about Fat Charlie's father."

What's surprising is that once we learn what is the worst thing about Fat Charlie's father (he's embarrassing), we're skeptical. Rosie, his fiance, (who seems to be a conduit for the reader's emotions, because I always thought the same things she said) challenges it. The more he explains, the more we're charmed by Fat Charlie's father. We believe and understand how Fat Charlie feels put-upon to have such a father, but at the same time, we're as enamored by his father's escapades as everyone else.

Somewhere in the story, after the delightful stories of his father, we briefly see a stranger. We know nothing about him, but we know he's important. One paragraph, and we're hooked.

That hook must surface in a future chapter. I like how he does one hook, then another, and then another, and some hooks are addressed and answered immediately with another little story, and other hooks surface several scenes later. I've never thought to do that! I just hook to the next chapter. Must learn!

Another hook ... at the end of the story-telling section, Fat Charlie calls an old neighbor to ask his father to the wedding. After he learns he's dead, and how (but we're not told--yet another hook!), he can't speak. Rosie thinks he's too grief-stricken. The truth? "He wasn't. That wasn't it at all. He was too embarrassed."

We learn how Fat Charlie's father died, and then we hear birds and songs again (see how everything has such satisfying form? Like music! Repeating the beginning, closing all the circles, leaving some open as hooks? I just love it!)

He ends the chapter with another, bigger hook. "Later, when birds something to be afraid of, Fat Charlie would still remember that morning as something good and something fine, but also as the place where it all started. Before the madness; before the fear."

See, a lot of people would have started with that hook. He didn't. He made the whole first chapter one huge hook, with lots of little hooks on it.

I wouldn't have needed that last big hook to keep reading. The storytelling is so lively and interesting, and the characters so fascinating, that I would have kept going no matter what. The last hook? It sweeps me off of my feet, into his world.

Reading this, I can't believe how few hooks I put into my stories. I don't think I ever layer them like he does; it's a very effective technique. I'd be surprised if anyone could read the first chapter and not finish the book.

The form of everything just thrills me. It's so musical. I love short stories, and each of his memories are like a little tiny short story, with a beginning, middle, and twist. Then a hook. Rinse and repeat. Very effective.

I'm gonna have to try that, sometime!

More later. I'm going to go settle into the tub and enjoy the second chapter ... again. I can't remember the last time that I've enjoyed a story so much, that I've re-read chapters before going on, because I don't want to get to the end. I want to read this story forever!

It reminds me of Narnia. I've read the books at least eight or ten times. When I was in fifth grade, I sat on my bed and bawled for two hours straight, because it wasn't real, and there were no more books. :-(

Oh! I almost forgot. Nowhere, in this first chapter, do we learn Fat Charlie's father's name. Another hook? Or a way to increase the bond between the two characters? Interesting ... time will tell, I suppose!

2 bonus scribbles:

StarvingWriteNow 11/29/2006 06:51:00 AM  

Trains that go up in the tree???

meljean brook 11/29/2006 11:28:00 PM  

I recently read Anansi Boys -- I can't agree with you more here. I don't know how anyone could read that chapter and not go on. It's freaking fantastic.