Deadly Trust is the second novel by JJ Cooper. In JJ Cooper’s first novel, The Interrogator, he introduced the character Jay Ryan. Since the focus is on how the opening of the novel is used to set up the story, I will let the opening excerpt stand by itself before filling in a little about Jay Ryan. I am leaving out a description of Jay and a recap of The Interrogator here as this post is about how setting and character can be expressed through the goal-directed actions of a character, and aspects of how JJ Cooper has done this in Deadly Trust.
Sixty-four thousand years ago last Monday the final dinosaur succumbed to the ‘extinction’ vogue. Jay Ryan theorized that his legacy continued through the idiosyncracies of the habitually annoying employees of Byron Bay’s Road Transport Authority.
Five cubicles were joined as one and staffed by two, to serve those trying to renew their license during their lunch break. Not a chance. Jay had beaten the lunch crowd and waited for over an hour and a half. Nothing to do but stare at the electronic number pad above the service counter, hoping by chance the hypnotic orange number would skip straight to his.
He looked around the waiting room at the bored faces flipping through ancient copies of Reader’s Digest, before focusing on the bespectacled, grey-haired woman trying to hide behind her computer screen. Dinosaur number one.
The dinosaur’s twin, beavering away in the next cubicle, seemed to be processing her customer quota quicker, albeit only just. Not much of a challenge really, as the other one hadn’t served a customer for almost ten minutes. Perhaps she’d completed her previous license renewal a little too quickly for corporate standards and was now making amends.
Dinosaur one peeled the wrapper off her third consecutive chocolate treat and ducked behind the computer screen to eat it. She popped back out and glanced towards Jay. Just a quick, guilty glance followed by more keyboard tapping. Twenty-seven chews for the last one. Only twenty-five for the previous effort – maybe her jaw was tiring.
Exposition of setting and character through goal-oriented actions of a character
Personalise the description of the setting, and characters in it, to your character and their goal.
From the very first line, JJ Cooper personalises the description of the setting and characters in it through his main character Jay Ryan’s comparison of the women behind the counter at the Road Transport Authority office with dinosaurs: “Sixty-four thousand years ago last Monday the final dinosaur succumbed to the ‘extinction’ vogue. Jay Ryan theorized that his legacy continued through the idiosyncracies of the habitually annoying employees of Byron Bay’s Road Transport Authority.” This exaggerated suggestion that the two women behind the counter were so old they had lived with dinosaurs provides a personalised style of describing the setting and characters.
In this opening scene, it is Jay Ryan’s goal of renewing his driver’s license which coheres the scene into a meaningful event. The details included and the style in which they are conveyed are informed by Jay’s goal of renewing his license, as well as the difficulties and frustration he faces in achieving this goal.
Try to maintain a reader’s interest with the character’s goal while also demonstrating aspects of the character which will become important to the reader later on.
Much advice for writers recommend the opening of a story will contain exposition (to expose – or introduce – the characters, settings, events and circumstances relevant to understanding the story ahead). This can be done in numerous ways, such as through descriptive passages about the characters, settings, events and circumstances and their development prior to the main events of the story to be told. However, to maintain a reader’s interest and help make their reading experience more entertaining, this exposition can be included as part of the actions of the story. A rule of thumb for determining whether the exposition is part of the action of the story, rather than a descriptive passage, can be to ask yourself for each sentence or paragraph, “In the fictional story world, what is happening here and now in the physical present?” Another way to ask this could be, “If this was a movie, what would someone see and hear on the screen (in the here and now of the story world, rather than through flashbacks, flashforwards, dreams, or symbolising a character’s thoughts or memories)?” If the answer is “nothing”, you may want to reconsider whether a descriptive sentence would be better replaced with a descriptive phrase in an active sentence or whether a descriptive paragraph would be better replaced with one or more descriptive phrases or sentences in an active paragraph.
With a focus on the physical present helping to ensure the story has ongoing momentum (that is, that something is actually happening and is hopefully holding the attention of a reader) exposition of important details can be distributed throughout the action. In the excerpt, JJ Cooper introduces Jay Ryan’s attention to detail, hints at Jay’s frustration with those who don’t put in as much effort as they could, as well as his disdain for beaurocratic rules that get in the way of achieving an outcome or people who use their position to make things difficult for someone (whether through malice, incompetence or just not caring). These are details which may not jump out as being important at first but gain greater significance as further events in the story provide a more detailed context for understanding such details. When a reader learns that Jay is an elite soldier and military interrogator, the reader can gain a fuller conception of Jay’s personality. Once a reader knows more about Jay’s personality and background, the reader can then also anticipate how Jay might react in certain situations. This can in turn build expectations and suspense, prompting a reader to want to read on and find out what will happen next. For a reader who read JJ Cooper’s The Interrogator before reading Deadly Trust, the reader will have already learned a lot about Jay Ryan and may be anticipating potential responses to events right from the beginning of the story. Part of the challenge of writing a good sequel is considering both new readers and readers who have read the first novel.
Below is another excerpt from Deadly Trust for you to consolidate the ideas above about exposition of setting and character through goal-oriented actions of a character, such as how JJ Cooper:
- personalises the description of the setting, and characters in it, to Jay and his goal
- tries to maintain a reader’s interest with Jay’s goal while also demonstrating aspects of Jay’s character which will become important to the reader later on (you may suspect how aspects of Jay’s character will become important but would have to read further in the novel to be sure)
You may also have ideas of your own about the above extract and what is written here that you may want to think about in relation to the following extract.
Notice that the extract below is from page 28 and important exposition is still being sprinkled in. Some of this is told fairly directly, while other aspects are implied by Jay’s behaviour. As JJ Cooper has expressed in an interview with The Australian Literature Review, “All chapters must progress the story in some way. If you think a chapter is required to discuss a character’s background, you’re probably wrong. Sprinkle this information through the book if you really think it necessary to add to the story. And, understand that the reader has an imagination of their own – so let them use it.”
This excerpt begins as Jay is going to the aid of the occupants of an overturned school bus.
Jay looked back at the man. ‘You got a mobile?’
‘We called triple 0 as we pulled up.’
‘Okay. Where’s your vehicle?’
‘Just off to the side of the road.’
‘Great, I need you to go to the front of the bus and start in there.’
The man turned and headed back towards the front of the bus. Jay reached in and grabbed another hand. Another scream pierced his ears as he did so. He quickly let go and stuck his head inside. A girl lay on her back clutching her hand to her chest, sobbing. Jay had grabbed her broken hand. He went down on his knees, stuck his shoulders in and scooped the girl up. He ducked back out and started walking to the boulder. The female helper met him halfway and took the girl.
Jay raced back and looked inside. The emergency lights created an eerie glow down the aisle. He crawled in until he came to the second set of seats. The screaming had stopped. Now there was a constant moan.
Although he had experienced many traumatic moments during his time in Iraq and Afghanistan, nothing could have prepared Jay for what he saw as he peered over the seat.
More on JJ Cooper and his fiction can be found at www.jjcooperauthor.com.
The Australian Literature Review