A Northern Light is a masterful example of a high interest premise. Set in the early 1900s, the coming of age story combines romance and history against the backdrop of a murder mystery. Donnelly does not stop there, however. Her words multi-task from the very first lines: “When summer comes to the North Woods, time slows down. And some days it stops altogether” (Donnelly 1). As the lead-in to a description of the North Woods, these sentences may seem benign. However, main character and narrator Mattie Gokey is about to come face-to-face with someone for whom time has stopped: murder victim Grace Brown. This opening multi-tasks by both establishing setting and foreshadowing the soon-to-come discovery of Grace's body.
In Writing the Breakout Novel, Donald Maass states: “There is, in any great opening line, a miniconflict or tension that is strong enough to carry the reader to the next step in the narrative” (Maass 141). This idea may be applied to closing lines as well, both of which are made all the more powerful when authors make them multi-task beyond carrying a miniconflict. Donnelly closes the opening page of A Northern Light with three short sentences that form just such a line. Having described the serenity of the North Woods (multi-tasking paragraphs in their own right because the placid descriptions set a calm mood that will serve to heighten the shock of the discovery of the body), Donnelly writes, “I believe these things. With all my heart. For I am good at telling myself lies” (Donnelly 1). These three lines set up more than a miniconflict, this is major. What does Mattie lie about? To whom does she lie? Why does she feel she needs to lie? In addition to planting major conflict seeds, these lines also help define Mattie's character (she is someone who admits to self-deceit) and her voice (as a writer, she understands the use of fragments for emphasis).
Here is yet another multi-tasking gem: “Standing on that porch, under that flawless sky, with bees buzzing lazily in the roses and a cardinal calling from the pines so sweet and clear, I tell myself that Ada is a nervous little hen, always worrying when there's no cause” (Donnelly 3). It describes setting, Ada's character, and advances plot because Mattie has already admitted that she lies to herself. Another example, “Her head lolls against him like a broken flower” (Donnelly 3), uses poetic language through simile and builds Mattie's voice as a writer and North Woods girl while advancing the murder mystery conflict of the book through describing Grace's dead body.
This post on multitasking could cover Donnelly's entire book and become novel length; I had that many sticky notes marking the novel. Therefore, for purposes of brevity, I will limit my analysis to the first chapter and close with the following excerpt as an example of how these multi-tasking sentences work together in paragraphs:
“Too confident, that fellow [Carl Graham],” Mr. Morrison says. “I asked him could he handle a skiff and he told me yes. Only a darn fool from the city could tip a boat on a calm day...” He says more, but I don't hear him. It feels like there are iron bands around my chest. I close my eyes and try to breathe deeply, but it only makes things worse. Behind my eyes I see a packet of letters tied with a pale blue ribbon. Letters that are upstairs under my mattress. Letters that I promised to burn. I can see the address on the top one: Chester Gilette, 17 ½ Main Street, Cortland, New York. (Donnelly 5-6)
One paragraph, many tasks: establish time period through word choices in Mr. Morrison's dialogue as well as drop clues about Carl Graham's skill with boats; use simile to convey feeling, time period, and voice; advance plot through the miniconflict of the letters while conveying voice and providing more murder mystery clues.
Reviews described A Northern Light as a page turners, yet the multi-tasking words in the novel made me not only want to turn pages but to remain immersed in the story forever. Elizabeth Bear, fantasy writer, maintains that “[t]he skilled writer of speculative fiction remembers that every sentence performs at least two and preferably three of the following four tasks: creating or resolving tension (i.e. asking or answering questions that move the plot forward); developing theme; illuminating character; and building the world” (Bear 196). I propose that writers in all genres seek to multi-task with their words.
Donnelly, Jennifer. A Northern Light. New York: Harcourt, Inc., 2003. Print.
Maass, Donald. Writing the Breakout Novel. Cincinnati: Writer's Digest Books, 2001. Print.
McKee, Robert. Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and Principles of Screenwriting. New York: HarperCollins, 1997. Print.