Left Behind: Thinking Characters and Flashbacks in 1st Chapter

Recently I was re-reading one of my how-to-write books by Christian author James Scott Bell, and he spoke of how many first time writers write a novel beginning with a character just sitting, thinking. Often the thinking includes thinking about loads of backstory items, which make that opening into an info-dump.

And then I went upstairs to get something to read and I picked Left Behind, a bestselling Christian novel which made the whole nation aware of the Rapture theory, which was previously pretty obscure even among Christians. And I noted that the first chapter began with main character Rayford Steele, a pilot, sitting in the cockpit thinking.

Now, we know that Jerry B. Jenkins, writer of the series (LaHaye was the theologian and prophecy-wrangler) was not a bad writer. In the author bio in the back of the book it tells that Jenkins had written over 100 books at that time. And Left Behind went on to be a major bestselling book which crossed over into secular audiences. So we know that sitting-and-thinking opening worked. But why did it work?

The scene in question begins on page 1 of my paperback copy and goes on to page 5. I think that the main reason it works was that what Rayford was thinking about was, in fact, adultery.

Now, most people who don’t normally read Evangelical Christian fiction think that is all about devout and perfect Christians who never swear, drink or pick up a deck of cards. So when Rayford starts off thinking about adultery, and about how he feels okay about that because he is ‘repelled’ by his wife Irene’s ‘religious obsession.’

Non-Christian readers (I was non-Christian when I first read the book) were reassured that Rayford was a ‘guy like us’ who wasn’t a religious fanatic or holier-than-thou. Devoutly Christian readers, on the other hand, got the idea that Rayford was not actually a believing Christian but a nominal Christian who went to church only for social purposes and thought that ought to be good enough for God.

The sitting-and-thinking opening also introduce us to some basic facts— the makeup of Rayford’s family, the fact he had not ever cheated on his wife but he was thinking of changing that, and the fact that he was currently flying a 747 airliner over the Atlantic to Heathrow.

Another important bit of info Jenkins is slipping us is the fact that Rayford’s wife had become interested in Bible prophecy and that she believed in the Rapture theory and had told her husband enough that he knew about it (and was not interested.) This is essential setup for the rest of the chapter when Rayford discovers that a number of passengers had disappeared from the airplane and had left their neatly folded clothes behind.

The first chapter goes from Rayford’s thinking-about-adultery scene to another scene that does something that writing teachers warn against in first chapters: it goes into a flashback. The flashback involves a second major character, Cameron Williams, who is a reporter and flashes back to an exciting event he had witnessed in his reporting career— a seemingly miraculous event which thwarted a Russian attack against Israel. (This event has Bible-prophecy significance to the story.)

The problem with a first-chapter flashback, as a writing teacher will tell you, is that you are jumping away from the present story to follow a barely-known character into the past. This break, when poorly done, can make a reader put down a book, never to resume. I mean, it’s harder to stay interested in the story when the author is making you jump around in time before you have even gotten interested in the characters! I have sometimes gotten quite lost in a story because I have a habit of skim-reading especially when part of a chapter seems boring. I can miss the clues that a flashback is starting and wonder what the heck is going on.

The flashback works in this case because it is action-packed, and shows Cameron Williams in action as a reporter willing to go to dangerous places to get a story. It might not have been the best choice for the chapter, but it did get one of the authors desired Bible-prophecy events checked off the list. And it establishes the key fact that Cameron Williams believed in God but had not become a Christian by this point— something essential to establish since the Rapture was going to hit before the end of the chapter.

As a reader, I found that first chapter quite exciting enough to get my attention. I was not a Christian at that time, but when I had been Christian, I had never been in a church that taught the Rapture theory. When I read it I kind of took a superior attitude and thought I knew better than those dumb Evangelical Christians. But I enjoyed the book, and the series, as exciting futuristic disaster-fiction. Probably a reader today might call it ‘dystopian.’

Note: if you are unfamiliar with the Rapture theory, Protestant historian Dave MacPherson has traced the origin of the theory to a private revelation to a young Scottish lady in the year 1830. This private revelation, when made known, impressed some preachers in a church called the Plymouth Brethren who were interested in Bible prophecy. One of them was C. I. Scofield who produced the Scofield Reference Bible which is a popular book to this day. MacPherson has written a book on the history of the Rapture theory as he has discovered it in Plymouth Brethren writings of the time, The Rapture Plot. If you belong to a church or denomination which does NOT teach the Rapture theory, I think it might be a good idea to read MacPherson’s book if you are planning to read or re-read the Left Behind series so you will understand that the Rapture is not a universal belief of all Bible-believing Christians.


Ideas: beginnings, middles, ends

My hens eating the good stuff.

My hens eating the good stuff.

Somehow recently I managed to subscribe by email to a blog by best-selling author Jerry B. Jenkins. He had a great post called Secrets to Writing a Captivating Ending, which you can read here: http://www.jerryjenkins.com/secrets-writing-captivating-ending/

It really started me to thinking. Recently I got some praise from my therapist on all the original and interesting story ideas I have. I knew that was nothing to get excited about because none has ever lead to a finished novel as they were meant to.

Really, ideas are nothing. Everybody has them. Some people have only commonplace ideas— but then, many great works of literature have simple, common ideas like ‘boy meets girl’ at their core. Or sometimes, ‘boy meets vampire’.

It’s the follow-through that matters. And for that you need more than just a story idea— a beginning, a starting situation, a conflicted character— you need something that leads to an ending.

How do you handle a story idea? I usually toss it around in my head a bit and then mostly I write down the story idea. Sometimes I write a beginning for the story instead.

This is how my story idea-writing-down might look:

There are these aliens, see, and they come to Earth right at the start of World War 2. Yeah, I know, Harry Turtledove did that. But Turtledove’s aliens were conservative aliens. My aliens are worse. They are LIBERALS (progressives) and they really, really like the concept of eugenics.

They are going to get along with Hitler, right? Only which Hitler? Because, you see, in my story Hitler has multiple personality disorder. His alters are Angry Hitler, Affable Hitler, and Little Lost Boy Hitler. Angry Hitler makes an alliance with the aliens— but then the aliens inadvertently weaken Angry Hitler and put Little Lost Boy Hitler in a position of power.

As you can see, my story writing ideas mostly touch on things that happen at the beginning. I need to figure out what happens at the end. Even if it turns out to be a trilogy, I need to know what somewhat conclusive things happen at the end of Book One.

So, when I write down my various story ideas in my little blank book with Spiderman on the cover, I’m not just going to write down beginning ideas, but ideas for the ending. Because Jerry B. Jenkins says so. And he’s a good writer, even if he is a heretic.