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Novel: The Power of Postponement


Ian McEwan's first chapter in Enduring Love uses a technique invaluable to any novel.

The novel opens with a hot air balloon drifting overhead. A child is in the basket and a man is dangling from one of the ropes. The narrator leaps up to help, along with a group of men. "We were running toward a catastrophe, which itself was a kind of furnace in whose heat identities and fates would buckle into new shapes. At the base of the balloon was a basket in which there was a boy, and by the basket, clinging to a rope, was a man in need of help."

 Then there's a white space. At this point the story has built up enough pressure on the characters with this looming event that McEwan can take advantage of it; after the white space, the story drops into the quieter back story and the reader learns more about the narrator and his wife. He also has time to introduce major themes.

McIwan eventually circles back to the balloon, which the reader has now associated with danger and "catastrophe," then drops again into the back story. Finally, the chapter ends with balloon again and the effort to save the boy.

If McEwan had told the reader upfront what happened to the boy in the balloon and the man hanging from the rope, tension would have been deflated, and the back story would have felt lifeless. By postponing this information, he bought himself plenty of time to build in crucial back story.

Before you throw out your opening chapter, or any section deemed boring by your readers, try restructuring so that the back story or quieter moments of characterization follow a crisis.