Does every paragraph you write have a purpose? It can be revealing and rewarding to go through your manuscript, paragraph by paragraph, and ask yourself: what does this what work does this paragraph do? Why is it necessary in my novel? What is my intention with this paragraph?
This is the first chapter of my current thriller, The House Guest. Let’s pick it apart, deconstruct it a bit, and see why I wrote what I wrote. (The book text is in bold, the comments with carats.)
Alyssa swirled the icy olives in her martini, thinking about division. She stared through her chilled glass to the mirrored shelves of multicolored bottles in front of her at the hotel bar. Division, as in divorce.
>>We are introduced to the main character, and it seems as if she is alone. She has a powerful and strong drink, and we get enough setting to start the movie in our mind. We can easily picture this bit of the contemporary world, and Alyssa’s her place in it. We do not know her last name. And have to wonder…division? That’s curious. Will you read on?
Not only the physical division, hers from Bill, but what would happen after the lawyers finished. They’d already created a ledger of their lives together, then started the Macallens’ financial division. Which would be followed by the devastating subtraction.
>>Oh, she’s in a bad situation, and now it’s also about subtraction. The metaphor is financial, she’s talking about money. And we meet, briefly, the other man she’s dividing from–Bill.
Bill had subtracted her from his life, that was easy math. With a lift of his chin and a slam of the front door and a squeal of Mercedes tires. She’d asked him why he was leaving her, begged to know, yearned to understand. But Bill Macallen always got what he wanted, no explanation offered or obligatory. She had done nothing wrong. Zero. That’s what baffled her. Terrified her.
>>Bill is powerful and manipulative and controlling. He has dumped her. She’s asked for something she did not get, and is shocked.
She jiggled the fragments of disappearing ice. Division. The Weston house. The Osterville cottage. The jewelry. Her jewelry. The first editions. The important paintings. Club membership. The silver. Money. The lawyers, human calculators who cared nothing about her, would discuss and divide, and then Bill would win. Bill always won.
>><More math. Even the ice is getting subtracted, and makes a sound doing it. (Math will be a theme throughout, including at the end.) Alyssa’s world has been sent into a state of disequilibrium. And we know a bit more about another main character, her husband Bill. What do we know about Bill? And what do we know about her socio-economic situation? Her life setting is bullet-pointed here–we get it.
All she’d done for the past eight years was addition. She’d added to their lives, added to their social sphere, organizing and planning as “Bill’s wife,” fulfilling her job to make him comfortable and enviable and the image of benevolent success. She’d more than accepted it, she’d embraced it, and all that came with it. And then, this.
>>Here is her philosophy, and how she has envisioned her own life. For what it’s worth, we know what her past eight years have been. She sees herself as secondary. And accepts that. Now we have an opportunity for character growth, right?
I need a break, he’d told her that day. She pictured that moment now, a month ago, could almost smell him, a seductive mixture of leathery orange-green aftershave and his personal power. Bill talking down to her, literally and figuratively, wearing one of his pale blue shirts, expensive yellow tie loose and careless, khaki pants and loafers.
>>Now we know what Bill looks like. And smells like. And that he is taller than she is. And he left a month ago, so this situation is fresh, but she’s still had time to mull it over.
A break! As if his life with her was a video he could casually put on pause while he did more important things. What things?
>>Oh, as Alyssa says, what things? Here is a story question: What did Bill do to her? What’s his game? And why?
The music from the speakers in each corner of the Vermilion Hotel’s earnestly chic dark-paneled bar floated down over her, some unrecognizable tune, all piano and promises, muffling conversations and filling the silences. A couple sat at one end of the bar, knee to knee. On vacation, on business, clandestine. Impossible to tell.
>>Here’s a bit more setting, in case we forgot where we were. We see people, we hear music, we consider that people might have secrets.
At the other end, a sport-coated man, tie askew, used one finger to fish the maraschino cherry out of his brown drink, popped it into his mouth, and licked his fingers before he went back to scrolling the phone in front of him. Alyssa was in the middle. Alone. She drew in a deep breath, all peaty scotch and lemons and strangers and elusive perfume. Alone.
>>She’s really upset. She feels completely alone in the middle of this place. And we get a fragrance.
Alyssa felt her shoulders sag, assessing the other parts of her life grouped on Bill’s side of the ledger. She understood, she did, it was difficult when a couple split. Social allegiances were tested. Loyalties strained. She jabbed at the closest green olive with the little plastic stick. But Bill had taken the friends. Every single one of them.
>>She demonstrates her anger by stabbing the olive. She tries to rationalize. But—bottom line, we understand Bill has pulled the rug out. And her friends were not loyal to her. She’s upset and baffled.
And now—at the Club, at the gym, at the mall—Alyssa got only pitying glances. Fingertip-hidden whispers. As if they, in their hot-house world of affluence and connection, understood something she didn’t.
>>She’s totally an outsider. And there’s a Club in her affluent life, with a capital C. The Club will appear again.
When she and Bill first met, that night at the charity event, they both had big plans. Now only he had them. When she wasn’t Bill’s wife anymore, who was she? And did she have the power to change that?
>>Ah ha. Another story question. A huge one. Does she have the power to go on and find her true self? Turns out, that’s one thing this entire book is about.
Her phone lay on the zinc bar, its glowing screen taunting her with the proof. No matter how many times she looked at it, her calendar messaged her new reality.
>>Suspense, right? What is her new reality, we wonder.
You have no events. No. Events. Only blank days, one after the other, calendared out in front of her. She scrolled back through her past, the listings grayed out now, ghosts of occasions. Charity balls, gala dinners, speeches by successful entrepreneurs, and a fund- raiser where they’d auctioned off A Day with Bill Macallen. That went for thousands. Everybody loved Bill, and somehow, calculating again, Alyssa was the plus-one. Now, in the excruciating math of marriage—addition, division—she was the minus.
>>And more math here—and it’s clear Bill was the star of their relationship. And their milieu is reiterated—wealth, power, access.
Nothing had changed for him. Bill was always jetting off, to New York, or Chicago, or someplace exotic. She reached into the shoulder bag hanging from the curved back of her barstool, slid her hand into a side pocket, and pulled out a postcard showing palm trees, like they used to see in St. Barts. Bill, she knew it was Bill, had sent the unsigned postcards, pictures of tropical flowers and cobalt skies, simply to provide his own manipulative entertainment. Here’s where you aren’t. He was taunting her, distant and nasty and gloating. Here’s where you will never be again.
>>Oh, and Bill is truly not nice. Not only leaving her, but taunting her. Is there a bit of a mystery of what happened? Another story question.
Here in Weston, where she was, she had slush. Spring in Massachusetts. Her husband, fifteen years older, was off having fun. That didn’t seem fair.
>>Now we know how old they are relatively, and what season it is, and where her home is.
She imagined Bill walking in and seeing her, alone on a Saturday night, on this well-worn stool at a suburban hotel bar. Her brown roots showing. Manicure failing. And courtesy of the doomed-to- divorce diet, gone almost scrawny at five pounds thinner. If Bill had caught her here—which he wouldn’t, she’d picked this place because it was out of their orbit—he’d have sneered that dismissive sneer at her vodka with three, now two, olives. Alyssa Westland Macallen, almost-divorced at thirty-five.
>>And now we know what Alyssa looks like—at least how she imagines Bill would describe her. And now we get her full name. This will be important, too.
“May I get you another?” The bartender, high cheekbones and multi-pierced ear, paused in front of her, wiping out a champagne flute with a blue striped towel.
>>Reality (and setting) to ground the reader.
She looked at her watch, pretending. “Oh no,” she said. “How did it get to be so late? Everyone will be expecting me.”
>>Alyssa tells a lie. Alyssa is worried that the bartender will pity her.
“Ah.” The bartender held up the flute to the row of tiny lights twinkling above them. “Of course. If you’re sure?” Alyssa watched as he checked the glass for spots, then, turning away from her, slid it into place on a thin wooden rack.
>>The bartender doesn’t buy her lie.
Bill. William Drew Macallen. Where are you? And with who? There could be no other reason but that he was prowling for wife number two.
>>Alyssa has a theory of what happened. And we learn she is his first wife. And we get his full name.
She stared at the pale place on her finger where, for eight years, three months, and twenty-seven days, her wedding ring had been. A piece of jewelry the universe prescribes to indicate one is married, and happy, and off-limits. There was no piece of jewelry denoting sorrow, or confusion, or disequilibrium. Or fear.
>>We see her state of mind through her jewelry. And…jewelry is going to matter in this story, so this is also foreshadowing.
Now her once-welcoming home was empty; and when the nights got dark and long, it terrified her. She knew Bill was lurking. Watching. Waiting. Bill was present in every shadow. Every noise. She hated being alone in that house. Hated it.
>>She has a great home, but she hates it now. Because she is suspicious of Bill. Oh, we wonder, does she think he’ll hurt her?
She’d rather be in a random bar alone than be by herself in that house. Maybe she’d simply drive around. Forever.
>>She really hates and fears the house. Is she…a little paranoid? Is she reliable? We wonder.
“Just the check,” she said to the bartender.
>>She’s about to leave. What will she do? What will happen?
“But it’s early.”
>>Oh! Someone is arriving. What kind of a person do you picture?
The voice beside her—inquiring, hesitant—startled her. She hadn’t noticed anyone walking up behind her, and Alyssa was not here to find companionship or conversation. In fact, the last thing she wanted was to talk to anyone. What would she even say? Even the simplest of questions—How are you?—could send her to tears.
>>Alyssa is clear she does not want to talk. But—what kind of person is the reader picturing? What’s the movie in your mind?
The newcomer’s fingernails were bitten and nubby, and her pilling sweater just the wrong shade of blue and uneven across the shoulders. She slung a raveled canvas tote bag over the back of her stool. Her curly-wild hairstyle had been an unfortunate decision, as was her hair’s artificially not-quite-auburn color.
>>Surprise. it’s not a man trying to pick her up. It’s a woman. Oh, we did not expect that. The movie in our minds change.
But that was . . . unfairly judgmental. And the world wasn’t all about Alyssa Westland Macallen. It felt like it right now, but this woman was proof it wasn’t. To this newcomer, the world was about her. That was just as valid. Alyssa should at least be civil.
>>Alyssa realizes she‘s making a snap judgement, and she also lets us know she’s not completely self-centered.
“Early? Oh, well, maybe, but I have to get home,” Alyssa said. No reason to take out her personal bitterness on a complete stranger. “Tough day,” she added, explaining.
“Tell me about it.” The woman shot her one sarcastic glance, then looked back down at the polished metal bar.
>>The woman is not interested. Will Alyssa let it go?
Not a chance, Alyssa thought. She poked at her last olive. The well of her loss could not be filled with chitchat. But a weight seemed almost visible on this woman’s thin shoulders. She’d made herself as small as she could, elbows close to her body, bare legs twisted around each other, one chunky heel of her scuffed black shoe hooked in the rung of her barstool.
>>The woman’s body language, which Alyssa is observant enough to note, is vulnerable and self-contained. She’s “small.” Not a threat.
Alyssa fingered her right-hand diamond, embarrassed at its extravagance. Her birthstone, a gift from Bill during the first April they’d known each other, and not even her seething annoyance with him would convince her to take that off. She turned her hand palm up, hiding the ring.
>> Alyssa sees herself— but again, through someone else’s eyes.
“I’m sorry,” Alyssa said. “Better days will come.”
>>Alyssa is nice.
“Huh,” the woman replied, more a huff than a word. She shrugged, one pilled blue shoulder briefly raised. “Have a nice night.”
>>The woman is apparently not interested.
She’d hardly looked up, which gave Alyssa a chance to look at the newcomer in the expanse of mirror across from them. Dancers, the skilled ones, can express themselves with simply a gesture, or a posture, becoming a dying swan or an ill-fated fairy. Poor thing, the words came to Alyssa’s mind at this woman’s body language. She swiveled her stool toward the stranger. Not an invitation, simply an acknowledgment of shared humanity. The music from the dining room behind them drifted in, silkier now, an encircling shimmer.
>>We see now another reason for the mirror in Para 1. We hear Alyssa is a little poetic. And she has been to several ballets, right? She’s cultured, and knows about them. And she’s sympathetic. She’s now changed her own body language, opening it up. And the music has changed. Which means…the book is about to change, too.
“You okay?” Alyssa had to ask.
>>Alyssa is concerned for her fellow human being.
“Sure,” she said. “Thanks.”
>>The newcomer is also polite.
Alyssa recognized the sorrow in her voice. Maybe—defeat.
>>Alyssa is tuned into her, and relates to her. Alyssa is sad, too. And also feels defeated.
“Get you something, miss?” Even the bartender’s voice had softened.
>>The real world still exists, and we are reminded of the setting. The bartender is a good guy. We will hear from him again.
“My treat,” Alyssa said, surprising herself. She hadn’t meant to say anything.
>>See also: save the cat.
“Oh, I—” The woman had turned on her stool, and now looked almost grateful. “Couldn’t possibly.”
>>The woman is responding. Has Alyssa gotten through to her? Are we thinking about the title of the book?
“I insist.” Alyssa felt her shoulders square, and a glimmer of empathy. Even the background music had shifted to a major key, optimistic. This was good. This was positive. This was progress.
>>Just like in a movie, the music swells. Because Alyssa has realized she’s not the only sad person on the world, and actually, (see above: diamond ring, art, first editions, multiple homes), she’s pretty well off.
Maybe if she heard someone else’s troubles, it would diminish her own. It couldn’t make them worse.
>>Alyssa is turning from her own problems to help a stranger. Aw, we love Alyssa. But—”It could not make them worse”? Smart readers will recognize that’s exactly the opposite of what’s going to happen. And: we are about to hear someone else’s story. Will we turn the page to find out what it is?
HANK: Have you ever done this with one of your chapters? Let’s talk about it on the Career Authors Facebook page.