No matter what kind of novel you write, your characters all have to make entrances. Most times, they’ll simply walk into a room. Passing from one place to another is all the moment calls for. But there are moments when an entrance is important, where it needs to be more and do more.
The most obvious entrance is when a character steps on stage for the first time. In this case, she won’t necessarily be walking through a door. She isn’t entering a room, she’s entering the story. It’s a moment of introduction.
Many beginners introduce a character by describing things like height, age, and hair color. Another common introduction is naming a character and telling us where they are – John Smith stepped off the school bus. Mary Jones walked into the party. It’s done all the time and is perfectly acceptable, but both types of introduction are generally pretty blah. An introduction should make us curious enough about a character to prod us into reading on.
Consider the following introduction from Madapple, by Christina Meldrum. It’s the first time we see the main character. It’s also the entire first chapter.
-And your last name?
-I don’t know.
-You don’t know your last name?
-Your mother’s name was Maren Hellig, was it not?
-You are Aslaugh Hellig.
-Mother called me Aslaugh Datter.
-So your last name is Datter?
-No. I mean, I don’t know. Datter means daughter in Danish. I’m not sure it’s my name.
-What was your father’s name?
-I don’t have a father.
-You don’t know who your father is?
-I don’t have a father, other than the one we share.
-You mean God in heaven?
-I never said God is in heaven.
-But you mean God, am I right?
-Well, I’m referring to your biological father. You don’t know who he is?
-I don’t have a biological father.
-Your Honor, the witness is being nonresponsive. She’s being tried for one count of attempted murder, and two counts of murder in the first degree, and she’s playing games—
-Do you have a birth certificate for the witness, Counsel? It seems that document may clarify this matter.
-She has no birth certificate, Your Honor. At least none we’ve found.
We know who she is, where she is, and what the initial problem is. We know she’s Danish, that her mother is dead, and even have a hint at her religious beliefs. We know she has a backbone because she doesn’t back down from the Prosecutor. And it only took 190 words—less than a page. Do you care that you don’t know her hair or eye color? Probably not. You’re probably wondering if she really is a murderer, and who did she kill, and why. And how can anyone not have a biological father? And what’s that bit about God not being in heaven, and why doesn’t she have a birth certificate? Something’s obviously rotten in Denmark. How can you not turn the page?
Setting Tone and Mood
That is how Bartimaeus enters the room in The Amulet of Samarkand, The Bartimaeus Trilogy by Jonathan Stroud.
The temperature of the room dropped fast. Ice formed on the curtains and crusted thickly around the lights in the ceiling. The glowing filaments of each bulb shrank and dimmed, while the candles that sprang from every available surface like a colony of toadstools had their wicks snuffed out. The darkened room filled with a yellow choking cloud of brimstone, in which indistinct black shadows writhed and roiled. From far away came the sound of many voices screaming. Pressure was suddenly applied to the door that led to the landing. It bulged inward, the timbres groaning. Footsteps from invisible feet came pattering across the floorboards and invisible mouths whispered wicked things from behind the bed and under the desk.
The sulfur cloud contracted into a thick column of smoke that vomited forth thin tendrils; they licked the air like tongues before withdrawing. The columns hung above the middle of the pentacle, bubbling ever upward against the ceiling like the cloud of an erupting volcano. There was a barely perceptible pause. Then two yellow staring eyes materialized in the heart of the smoke.
All that happens here is that Bartimaeus appears. It only takes a second or two, but Stroud stretched those few seconds out to build the moment, to create an eerie, magical, and mysterious tone and atmosphere. You know what kind of book you’re getting when you read that. And even though all we see are his yellow eyes, we can infer Bartimaeus is powerful and someone to be reckoned with because Stroud made the moment big. Bartimaeus doesn’t just appear in a cloud of smoke, he makes all those other things happen first. He’s grandstanding and making a show of it. He thinks highly of himself. He has an ego.
Not all entrances will be big, but they can still add something to your manuscript. Here’s a short excerpt from The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins. Haymitch, mentor in the games to Katniss and Peeta, enters the room.
Just then, Haymitch enters the compartment. “I miss supper?” he says in a slurred voice. Then he vomits all over the expensive carpet and falls in the mess.
We’ve already seen Haymitch drunk and falling off a stage. Now he’s obviously drunk again. He’s clearly an alcoholic, and we have to wonder what he can possibly do to help these two kids out in the game. But why does it matter that he came through the door? It’s only three sentences, and it’s already been established he’s a drunk. Why throw in this entrance?
Because coming through the door says he tried. It says he cared about these kids. It says he may drink his life away but he hasn’t given up. He hasn’t sunk to the point of no return. He may have arrived late and drunk, but he arrived. Somewhere inside him, there’s a bit of hope that he can come back. He hasn’t given up on himself.
None of that is in the excerpt, but it can be inferred because he made the entrance, because he walked through the door. If the kids had found him sitting in his own vomit just outside the door, it says he didn’t care enough, he didn’t try hard enough, he gave up. It’s the entrance, the coming through the door that changes the way we see him.
Choosing an Entrance
And finally, remember that entrances aren’t always made through doors and they don’t always lead to rooms. Stepping up to bat and diving into a pool are both entrances, as is falling into a manhole. And consider your mode of entry in relation to your story. Why enter Narnia through a wardrobe? Because it’s a land of perpetual winter and they needed those fur coats hung inside.
Next time, we’ll look at exits. In the meantime, take a look at the entrances in your own work and make sure they add something to the story, your character or, preferably, both.