Setting the Tone of a Book
from the archives. . .
“Soon after daybreak on my sixth birthday, my mother’s breathing wheezed more raggedly than ever, then quieted. And then stopped.”
Here we have just the facts, simply and dramatically stated without evaluation. As Doig looks back on his 1940s childhood in White Sulphur Springs, Montana, he follows those initial lines with: The remembering begins out of that new silence.
For me, the silence felt palpable, for I had picked up the book late at night, and the book rather defined my moment and I could easily imagine a house in which my mother’s breathing defined every moment until it ceased.
A paragraph later, as Doig looks back across the years and thinks of “my father’s tellings” about “these oldest shadows,” he speaks of a summer on the mountain slopes where “the single sound is hidden water.”
Silenced breathing to the sound of water. The symbolism of these simple lines is carried throughout This House of Sky just as surely as the author’s unwavering attention to unsentimental detail. It would be simplistic to call Doig’s style “understatement,” because his words follow the spare and beautiful land where his parents herded sheep, and that land is not without its utilitarian power.
I’m not here to review This House of Sky, only to note how strongly it begins, for such a beginning is a talent writers often find it hard to learn. It takes confidence. This is not to say that all novels must begin with a defining moment. But they must, I think, begin by quickly establishing the tone of the story rather than backing into it some pages down the road after the small talk has been cleared out of the way.
The synopsis for This House of Sky on Doig’s website includes this comment: “The prose of this memoir is as resonant of the landscape of the American West as it is of those moments in memory which determine our lives.” I felt this before I finished the first page.
I have often thought that writing classes should spend more time with the first pages of novels and memoirs to drive home the importance of a story’s tone and of not wasting any time communicating to the reader just what that is.