Learning my Lines: Creating Instant Emotion

by Dan Stout in

One of the most powerful tools available to writers is to read and study the work of those who have gone before. For me, hand copying and examination can reveal the techniques of another author and help me advance my own craft. I've written up some of these observations to share with other readers & writers.

This excerpt is from SPARROW HILL ROAD, by Seanan McGuire. The quote below comes early in the book, and demonstrates how to quickly create a bond between reader and character.


Most truckers have permanent addresses, places they can sleep when they're not rolling down the midnight miles, eating distance and turning it into dreams. Very few truckers consider those addresses to be anything resembling a home. They live and breathe for their steel darlings, those eighteen-wheeled wives who carry them so faithfully, and understand what it is to be one half of a marriage that goes deeper than passion, all the way down into true, undying love. 

Larry's truck shines like a beacon through the outside dark, glittering with a light he's never seen. If I asked him, if I had a way to frame the question, I bet he'd tell me he's felt it. That he feels it every time he crawls into his little wandering-man's bedroll and closes his eyes: the arms and the protections of his lover, soothing him into sleep. He sees me staring at her, rapt, and reads the message on my face for what it is, even if he doesn't know the reasons for it. "Isn't she a beauty?" She shivers when he puts his hand against the door, a loving bride welcoming her husband home. She's missed him so. If only he could see how much she loves him

"She is," I say solemnly, and he opens the door for me, and I step into the open arms of his lover.

[note: slight spoilers for the first chapter of this book.]

So what's going on here? McGuire is showing us readers layer after layer of reasons why we should care about this guy, his truck, and what happens to them. Even before this excerpt Larry has shown kindness and decency to the narrator, a fact that warms her to him, especially when she says that she's accustomed to much more indifferent treatment. 

Secondly, showing Larry as the focus of unconditional love, even love from an unexpected source -- a truck! -- gives the reader a sense that Larry is a man worth loving. A man whose fate is worth caring about. A man worth mourning. 

Okay, that's all well and good, and isn't all that unusual to see in the beginning of a novel; many authors want a hero who the readers care about, and will pile on the indicators of sympathy in an attempt to create that bond. Unfortunately, that can backfire when the reader feels hit over the head with signs we should like our protagonist.

And that's the part of this excerpt that's really brilliant: Larry isn't our protagonist. Instead, our narrator and protagonist, Rose, is there to do a job that we find unappealing and even tragic. We don't have the same knee-jerk reaction to the sympathetic characterization, since we're not being asked to accept Larry as our hero. But in McGuire's hands, we empathize with the narrator because she empathizes with Larry. (And at this point, we love Larry.)  It creates a kind of feedback loop: the tight 1st person POV lets us see why Rose likes Larry, which helps us like Larry, which makes us like Rose, because , hey, she likes Larry, too!

McGuire pulls off a masterful 'save the cat' moment, made all the more effective by the fact that the cat doesn't actually get saved. It's great writing, and an irresistible hook that compels the reader to keep turning pages.  

by Dan Stout