From Writer Unboxed:
Rituals can hold deep significance in our lives, which is why they can be so powerful in stories. Because weddings and funerals can indicate an important moment of change, many novels open or end with them.
The emotional nature of such moments in real life can result in the misperception that the reader will be automatically moved by the inclusion of any such ritual. Take the backstory of a married character’s wedding, for example. In manuscripts I see, it usually goes like this:
We’d met at college, some twenty years ago now, and married the year after graduation. Everyone stood as I entered the sanctuary; tissues were pulled from evening bags. My father’s arm steadied me as he walked me down the aisle, the train of my white dress collecting rose petals scattered by my adorable niece. My rock, my husband-to-be, waited for me at the front of the church, his smile drawing me forward, step by step.
Take it from someone who cannot possibly get through a live wedding ceremony without tears: on the page, the wedding just described will be of zero interest to your reader for several reasons.
- We’ve all been to this wedding in real life—maybe, many times. We may even have starred in one or two. But that event that felt so uniquely personal to us, as written here, is so generic that it does nothing to give us a deeper understanding of this particular character’s story.
- Without raising a question about that wedding in the reader’s mind that will provide context and imply impact on the current story (such as, I thought he’d been looking at me when I walked down that aisle), the reader won’t appreciate the interruption in that forward movement.
- You must also trust that if the reader already knows this point-of-view character has been married for twenty years, they will simply accept that at some point, this couple tied the knot in one way or another.
Likewise, writers hope that readers will be moved by the tears of the protagonist and any number of other characters at a funeral. But not all funerals are inherently sad. Without added context, your reader won’t know how to feel.
As a novelist, you aren’t a borrower of story anyway. You are a builder of context; the emotional significance of any included scene must be mined. You will not find that significance in the ways such rituals are similar, but in the ways the scene is personal and unexpected.
Let’s look at some examples that work.
Unusual setting details
Abraham Verghese’s Covenant of Water, an Oprah’s Book Club pick, features a wedding in the second chapter. The setting is rural South India, in 1900. The groom, a 40-year-old widower, is late. Verghese did not waste time describing his 12-year-old bride’s visceral sensations; he let the setting do the work.
Light from the high windows slices down, casting oblique shadows. The incense tickles her throat. As in her church, there are no pews, just rough coir carpet on red oxide floors, but only in the front. Her uncle coughs. The sound echoes in the empty space.
The implication of that empty space—the unknown void she’s heading into—is chilling. Later that same page:
There’s a disturbance in the air. Her mother pushes her forward, then steps away.
The groom looms beside her and at once the achen begins the service—does he have a cow ready to calve back at the barn? She gazes straight ahead.
In the smudged lenses of the achen’s spectacles, she glimpses a reflection: a large figure silhouetted by the light from the entrance, and a tiny figure at his side—herself.
Imagine if you were twelve, and the first glimpse you caught of your husband was in the priest’s smudged spectacles—after a push from your mother, no less? These unexpected details drew me in, and the feistiness of her cow comment gave me hope for her future agency.
I suspect the majority of Verghese’s target readers, unable to imagine such a scenario in their own lives, will want to know what happens next.
On p. 5 of Blue Hour, a Barack Obama 2023 Summer Reading selection, author Tiffany Clarke Harrison’s narrator has just met a man while taking photographs of his store for a magazine:
In a few months we would be married. Stand before a judge. Me in black combat boots and a white minidress, and you in a trim burgundy floral print suit. We linked arms and held hands. Repeat after me, the judge said, and we repeated. Recited vows as somewhat strangers, then family. I could hardly bring my tongue to curl around that word family, to protect it. So why do I consider it now? Why do I consider my parents and sisters? Our baby, dead before birth? Now as the world bears down on Black bodies (and another man killed), and I am tired. Now that I’ve had enough.
All the wedding basics are there, but stripped down. That she’s speaking to the groom is edgy. This one paragraph evokes the premise of the entire novel: how a mother can sustain hope for a mixed-race child born into such an uncertain and violent world.
Link to the rest at Writer Unboxed