Writing Excuses 16.31: First Page Fundamentals – MOBY DICK
Key Points: Mental illness. Suicidal ideation. Dark humor, and a lot of tone. Authority, a command to the audience. Plus character. Specifics, visceral and relatable. Contradictions and questions. An audience surrogate? What kind of ride, what kind of story is this? Stakes. Ripples and echoes that shape everything to come. The mythic tone of oral history. Alliteration and front rhyme.
[Season 16, Episode 31]
[Dongwon] This is Writing Excuses, First Page Fundamentals – MOBY DICK by Herman Melville.
[Mary Robinette] 15 minutes long.
[Dan] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Howard] And we’re not that smart.
[Dongwon] I’m Dongwon.
[Mary Robinette] I’m Mary Robinette.
[Dan] I’m Dan.
[Howard] And I’m Howard.
[Dongwon] So we’re going to do…
[Dan] None of us said, “You can call me…” and then our name. I think that’s… I admire our restraint.
[Dongwon] [garbled] restraint.
[Dongwon] So we’re going to do another deep dive into an opening page. In this case, we’re going to do Moby Dick. It probably has one of the most famous first lines that Dan just referenced right there. So, I’m going to hand it off to Mary Robinette again to introduce us to this little sample here.
[Mary Robinette] Just a brief content warning. Much like when you make promises to a reader at the beginning of the book, we want to make sure that you have the opportunity to nope out of things that you don’t want to read or listen to. Moby Dick deals with a couple of things. It deals with mental illness and suicidal ideation. Those are both present in the paragraph that you’re about to hear.
Moby Dick. Loomings.
Call me Ishmael. Some years ago—never mind how long precisely—having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world. It is a way I have of driving off the spleen and regulating the circulation. Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off—then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can. This is my substitute for pistol and ball. With a philosophical flourish Cato throws himself upon his sword; I quietly take to the ship. There is nothing surprising in this. If they but knew it, almost all men in their degree, some time or other, cherish very nearly the same feelings towards the ocean with me.
[Dongwon] This is another example of an opening that I absolutely adore. I think it captures so much of the spirit of this book in just a tiny little microcosm. It’s darkly humorous. Not to make light of the very serious issues on display here, but the tone of it, I think, really establishes so much of the book. Given the grimness of a lot of things that lay before us, he’s approaching it in such a specific lens that I think sets us up to meet Ishmael, sets us up to meet Queequeg, sets us up to spend time on this ship with all these people who all have their own reasons to be at sea, but, fundamentally, are all because they are escaping something. They’re escaping the burdens of everyday life. You have that last note that ends on “all men in their degree, cherish very nearly the same feelings for the ocean with me.” That choice to go to sea rather than submit to the other things that are plaguing Ishmael in this scene I think is really the core spirit of this whole book.
[Mary Robinette] Yeah. We tend to think of Moby Dick as the pursuit of the great white whale. While that is happening, it really is about escaping. It is about the internal conflict. The great white whale, what that represents is that’s the avatar of the escape. It’s… It is the not-self. But this book… It’s been, I will grant, a very, very long time since I read it. But for those of you who cannot see the…
[Mary Robinette] Video feed, Elsie has just joined us by jumping up the back of my chair and across my face. Okay. So, hello. Elsie, would you like to purr for these nice people? No. Okay. Good job. So, what were we talking about? Use of flashbacks?
[Dongwon] I think the thing… Even putting aside, because we are focused on how first pages work. So we can put aside sort of the bulk of Moby Dick, and really focus on what draws people in in this case. Again, I like it because it is that microcosm. But in terms of the mechanics, what pulls people in, you have a few things. Going back again to the idea of authority, it literally starts with an authoritative statement, which is, “Call me Ishmael,” right? It’s a command to the audience. But also, there’s so much character built into that, in that sense of unreliability. You get the sense immediately, Ishmael is not this guy’s name. He’s asking you to call him that for some reason. The slipperiness that’s injected into it immediately set so much of the tone for what’s pulling us into this paragraph, what’s pulling… Introducing that breadcrumb. Breadcrumb one. The authority of the command and the doubt about who this person is. Then we’re sliding immediately into this portrayal of someone who is suffering some kind of mental illness, some kind of condition here, whether that’s depression, whether that’s suicidality, all these things are really coming to play in this scene. That’s driving him, in a very real way, to make this choice, which is to go to sea.
[Mary Robinette] The other thing that he does, again, in that things are going to be somewhat squishy is “some years ago, never mind how long precisely.” Again, it’s that command to the reader. But then he gets… He gets very specific about all of the different kinds of symptoms that he spots in himself. So I think one of the things, for me, again, in terms of the ways that this pulls me in is it’s like, “Look, don’t worry about this thing. Don’t worry about that thing. Here are the things I want you to think about.” It’s it’s like this examination of self, the… Bringing up the end of a funeral procession, the moment when you think maybe I should just step into the street. These things are specific, they’re visceral, they are inherently things that a listener or a reader can relate to in some ways, and disturbingly so.
[Mary Robinette] And also funny.
[Dongwon] My favorite bit of this is the methodically knocking people’s hats off, right? It creates this very specific image of this guy just losing it and the way he’s going to lose it is walk in the street and knock everyone’s hats off because he so frustrated with something. Right? Voice is a huge component of what makes this paragraph work. But the other aspect is character. All the things about Ishmael that raises all these questions and all these story promises of finding out what’s going on with this guy. Why is he like this? How is he going to address this stuff that he’s struggling with in this paragraph? Just the specificity of the image, the specificity of the way in which his frustration is manifesting itself in knocking people’s hats off, I think opens huge doors into this story, into the character, and is that just absolute trail of breadcrumbs that pulls me into the book to find out what’s happening next.
[Dan] Yeah. Well, that word methodically changes everything about the sentence. This is not him losing control. This is not him becoming so frustrated that he has to go out and knock a hat off. That’s not what’s going on. He’s trying to pick a fight. He’s trying to get himself in a fist fight so that he can feel something, so that maybe someone will beat him up or kill him, just in order to start something. I love that line. That was absolutely the part that stood out the most to me.
[Dongwon] Then it’s paired with this… With the philosophical flourish Cato throws himself on his sword, I quietly take to the ship. Right? There’s this high-minded intellectualism that suddenly slips in here. Here’s this guy. We know he’s broke. We know he’s sort of at the end of his rope. But he’s still going to talk about Cato. He’s still going to talk about philosophy and history. But then contrasting that with him quietly heading to his destiny. Here is again this disjunction, this pairing of contradictions, in this character that raises all these questions about who he is.
[Dan] Yeah. Now, I have to admit, they’re going to take my English degree away for this, but I’ve never actually read Moby Dick. So, coming to this completely cold, what stands out to me more than anything is what you’ve already talked about, that this is entirely character focused. Moby Dick has such a reputation as being this very plot heavy and/or metaphor heavy kind of slog of a book that is incredibly detailed about the process of whaling and about all of these other things. Nothing that I have heard about the book prepares me for this paragraph being so intimately based on one person’s mind and mindset. It… This suggests to me that it’s much more character driven than I think the clichés about the book have led me to believe.
[Mary Robinette] Yeah. Why don’t we take a moment to pause for the book of the week, actually, which is a preparation for next week’s episode?
[Dongwon] Yeah. Next week we’re going to do our third and final deep dive. We’re going to be reading Lee Child’s The Killing Floor. These are the Jack Reacher series of books which are very well known, very successful series. Killing Floor is the first Reacher book. It’s Lee Child’s first novel. I think it’s an absolute master class in how to write a thriller. These are some of my favorite thrillers ever. I think it will be an incredibly instructive example. It’s also a fun read that will take you about 30 seconds from start to finish. You won’t want to put it down. So, yeah, our book of the week is The Killing Floor by Lee Child.
[Howard] A couple of fun trivia bits about Moby Dick. Herman Melville wrote this across a span of about 18 months. Which is a year longer than he planned to spend. About halfway through the writing of it, he met Nathaniel Hawthorne. It is supposed by many that this meeting inspired Melville to go back revise and expand and make the project a bit bigger. Because Moby Dick is actually dedicated to Herman Melville… Err, dedicated to Nathaniel Hawthorne. In token of my admiration for his genius. I think that… I don’t know what his writing process was like. I doubt that the first line came first for him. I suspect that part of that expanding and revising was the recognition that Ishmael’s voice was a poem, if you will, that was going to get stretched through the book in ways that perhaps it hadn’t.
[Dongwon] In fiction, sometimes, we talk about audience surrogates, right? So, this is Kitty Pride in the X-Men. That character that the audience can relate to to get them into the story. I think Ishmael’s operating for us in some of those ways. Right? He’s going to be our lands into understanding Ahab as we understand what’s going on with Ishmael. Right? Ishmael being the sort of larval stage of Ahab as he descends into his obsession, into his madness, and all of that. So, I think again this is the author telling us from the very first line what we’re in for, what kind of story this is. This is going to be a story about men struggling with their internal selves. Dan’s right, so much of the way we talk about this book is this metaphorical, like, man against nature and all these things. But really, at the end of the day, this is a group of people who are characters divided against… Minds divided against themselves. Trying to overcome their own limitations, their own obsessions to literally survive the experience. Although the stakes are there. Survival is on the page. Dealing with mental illness is on the page. Figuring out a solution to what kind of life do I want to lead. All those things are immediately in this first paragraph. I think the echoes from that will ripple throughout the book. Right? This is the first stone thrown in the pond, and then that’s going to shape everything that comes after it.
[Howard] One of the… The book… There’s sort of a parenthetical aspect between the beginning and the end of the book. In the editions that we have today, there’s an epilogue, in which we learn that Ishmael survives the final events of the book. The first UK edition in 1851 didn’t have the epilogue. That forces me to imagine the experience of the British reader of 1851 who… First, like, call me Ishmael. Some years ago, never mind how long… And then gets to the end of the book and it doesn’t look like he lives. How does that even work?
[Mary Robinette] So I want to… Because we’re talking about opening lines and the importance of setting things. There’s another book that is related to Moby Dick that… It’s called Two Years before the Mast. We were talking about what inspired Herman Melville to write it. He, in multiple places, cites this book, Two Years before the Mast, which is a memoir. It’s a real book about a British fellow who went to sea. This is the opening of that. I want you to notice the difference of it and the difference in the promises it makes. Even though the subject matter of the book, which is being at sea, is, on the surface, exactly the same. Or I should say being at sea and a lot of details about being at sea.
2 years before the mast
The fourteenth of August was the day fixed upon for the sailing of the brig Pilgrim on her voyage from Boston round Cape Horn to the western coast of North America. As she was to get under weigh early in the afternoon, I made my appearance on board at twelve o’clock, in full sea-rig, and with my chest, containing an outfit for a two or three years’ voyage, which I had undertaken from a determination to cure, if possible, by an entire change of life, and by a long absence from books and study, a weakness of the eyes, which had obliged me to give up my pursuits, and which no medical aid seemed likely to cure.
So, both of these are men that are going to see to fix something, right? But the promise that is made in that opening paragraph about the ride you’re going to be on is entirely different. They’re both told authoritatively. They’re both internal and about the character’s sense, but one of them’s much more focused on the surroundings and we’re going to get on this ship and this is going to come to an end when I get off of this ship. The other is my mind is a mess.
[Mary Robinette] And I’m going to sea because my mind is a mess.
[Howard] I went sailing because I need glasses.
[Dongwon] Yeah. The other genre thing I want to flag here is this opening firmly places this book in a tradition of oral history, of oral storytelling and folklore. Which is a totally different ride from what Mary Robinette was just talking about in Before the Mast. I think framing it that way gives it this mythic tone immediately. It calls to mind Percy Bysshe Shelley’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner. It calls, like, the Odyssey. He’s referencing this grand history of oral epics and I think framing it that way again gives us such a sense of where this story is going. So when he spends the next three chapters talking about huddling in bed with another man while they smoke pipes because it’s cold and then goes into four chapters describing the biology of whales, we had in our heads still that this is going to be this epic storyline. This is going to be this long framework of an adventure even though we’re taking all these digressions. I think that tone carries us through these digressions and lets us gather the joy of those moments which are very funny, very strange, very weird moments and then loop back into this bigger narrative, this bigger understanding of we’re going on the Odyssey here, right? We’re going on this grand journey and people will contend with the elemental forces by the end of this.
[Dan] I want to point out, just really quick, a word choice trick that he’s doing here to grant it some more of that epic oral history vibe. Which is alliteration. In a lot of Western, especially Nordic, languages, Beowulf for example, has front rhyme rather than end rhyme. That the letters all… The words all start with the same sounds. That was a form of rhyme in this really strong epic oral tradition. So when you get down here and he says, “Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth, whenever it is a damp drizzly November in my soul,” he is echoing that type of oral epic storytelling very deliberately.
[Howard] There’s two sets of rhymes in that one line. Growing grim about the mouth. That is a beautiful phrase.
[Mary Robinette] Yup. Well, we are going to leave you with a slightly longer episode, which is appropriate for Moby Dick. We’re going to give you a little bit of homework. That is to write an introduction that is purely internal to the character’s mental state. So, much like this begins with him ruminating on where he is internally, that’s where we want you to do with this homework episode… With this homework. Now, if you’re in a mood to try something really fun, take the one that you wrote last week and rewrite it so that it is focused on the character rather than the description of the outside that you were doing last week. This week, focus on the character’s interiority, that question of who am I at the beginning of this book.
[Mary Robinette] This has been Writing Excuses. You’re out of excuses, now go write.