How “Cloud Atlas” hooks readers
Delivering the unexpected
(This essay also appears on YouTube.)
I’m learning how successful authors hook readers in the crucial opening chapters of their novels, so I can apply those lessons to my own writing. Today, I want see how David Mitchell delivers the unexpected in the opening of his 2004 novel Cloud Atlas.
The book starts with a first line that demands further investigation.
Beyond the Indian hamlet, upon a forlorn strand, I happened on a trail of recent footprints.
It’s the opening of a section called “The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing.”
We follow those opening words the way Adam Ewing follows his discovery.
Through rotting kelp, sea cocoa-nuts & bamboo, the tracks led me to their maker, a White man, his trowzers & Pea-jacket rolled up. […] Thus it was I made the acquaintance of Dr. Henry Goose, surgeon to the London nobility.
The quaint diction and archaic spellings drop us straight into the 19th Century. We learn that Adam Ewing is a God-fearing, upper-class lawyer from San Francisco. He’s heading home after concluding some business in Australia.
His ship has stopped for repairs at Chatham Island, near New Zealand, and that’s where he meets another stranded traveller: Dr. Henry Goose.
The two gentlemen spend their idle time reflecting on the hot-button issues of the day. They debate the brutal legacy of European colonialism, which has ravaged the very island they’re on.
Once the ship repairs are complete, it sets sail with Ewing aboard. Goose joins the crew to treat a mysterious “Ailment” Ewing suffers from. It’s a tropical parasite growing inside Ewing’s brain, and only the doctor’s medicines can flush it out.
The delicate Ewing isn’t really cut out for life on the sea. One day, he whines in his journal:
My Fates have inclined upon me the greatest unpleasance of my voyage to date! A shade of Old Rēkohu has thrust me, whose only desiderata are quietude & discretion, into a pillory of suspicion & gossip! Yet I am guilty on no counts save Christian trustingness & relentless ill fortune!
Which is Ewing’s melodramatic way of explaining how an islander stowed away in his cabin. His name is Autua, and he’s trying to escape the violence of the island.
Autua has sailing experience, and wants to prove this to the crew, before they toss him to the sharks for illegally boarding the ship. With Ewing’s help, Autua convinces the captain of his worth, and is spared.
Then, as Ewing describes a Bible reading he conducts aboard the ship, the chapter ends — right in the middle of a sentence. When we turn the page, “The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing” disappears. A new section of the novel begins, with a new character in a new setting. But what happened to Adam Ewing? We have no idea.
That radical break in the opening section is more than a shocking cliffhanger or a crazy plot twist — I expect chapters to build to those. No, this is a physical disruption, one that’s enabled by great book design. The story just… disappears.
And, as it turns out, David Mitchell performs this disappearing act over and over in the novel. In fact, before the book was adapted into a film, he humble-bragged about its construction when speaking to The Guardian:
It has a Russian doll structure. God knows how the book gets away with it but it does, but you can’t ask a viewer of a film to begin a film six times, the sixth time being an hour and a half in. They’d all walk out.
That’s why the film adaptation takes a more conventional approach. It intercuts the novel’s many stories. That’s common in films, TV series, and books that juggle lots of characters. The various plots rise and fall together according to a familiar dramatic pattern. A great example is Game of Thrones — both the book and the show.
But that’s structural stuff we don’t appreciate till later. What’s in those early pages that keeps us reading? It’s not the hook of a high-concept premise. No, something else grabs us early on. Editors and publishers often use words like voice and immersion. I want to look at it from another angle, though.
There’s a concept in psychology called flow; the most basic definition is “being in the zone.” Flow might happen when we’re playing a sport or a game really well, or making spreadsheets, or on a great first date. We lose track of time, and we’re completely focused in a way that’s natural rather than stressful. Our skills match up exactly with the challenges of the moment. It’s a kind of stimulating discomfort.
Cloud Atlas does a lot to keep us in a state of stimulating discomfort. Sometimes, that’s with literary spectacle, like cutting a chapter mid-sentence. More often, though, it’s with unexpected and inventive language. We feel that the moment the Adam Ewing section begins.
He expresses himself in a unique way that reflects his unique personality, his class and his era. We have no idea what he’ll say next, or even how he’ll say it.
Over the course of the novel, the style mutates and stretches as new narrators take over. The English of Adam Ewing’s time isn’t the English used by later characters. Actually, language itself is a character. It grows and changes. The descriptions make routine, everyday emotions feel new again, and somehow also make distant experiences feel close. As readers, we’re always riding an edge, yet we never fall over. We’re in a state of flow.
Now, there’s no question the language is rich and complex. And I know it took years of rewriting and revision. Despite all that, the writing feels spontaneous. Right on Page 1, it feels lived rather than constructed.
Even with that illusion of spontaneity, the action always reads clearly. The writing never feels alienating or convoluted. And that’s important, because so many of the issues in rough drafts stem from a lack of clarity. But the scenes in Cloud Atlas often start with action that’s easy to understand, and they develop from there. The unique language only amplifies the action.
The challenge, then, for us as writers is to achieve that kind of clarity, while still riding an edge and not falling over. It’s not only the story, but how it’s told. And if we can find unexpected ways to tell our stories, we’ll create something as memorable as Cloud Atlas: writing that makes readers turn the page for more, and a novel with true, lasting power.
Bonus: A few more examples
I had to cut the original script of my video of this essay down. Along the way, I ended up losing a few additional examples of David Mitchell’s exquisite language. So let’s look at those examples here, taken from various sections of the novel.
After having breakfast with Dr. Goose on Chatham Island, Adam Ewing returns to the local inn where he’s staying. To his disgust, his ship’s crew are using the inn as a brothel. Ewing just wants to get his journal from his room before heading over to the island church.
Broad smirks greeted my return & I assumed I was “the devil being spoken of,” but I learned the true reason when I opened my door: — to wit, Mr. Boerhaave’s ursine buttocks astraddle his Blackamoor Goldilocks in my bed in flagrante delicto! Did that devil Dutchman apologize? Far from it! He judged himself the injured party & roared, “Get ye hence, Mr. Quillcock! or by God’s B–––d, I shall snap your tricksy Yankee nib in two!”
I mean, that isn’t just a recreation of 19th Century writing in the style of, say, Herman Melville. It’s also a loving parody of that. There’s joy and comedy in how delicate Adam Ewing’s upper-class sensibilities are, and it’s all delivered through language. It’s like the humour we get from the corporate jargon in Fight Club:
Narrator: “Do you want me to deprioritize my current reports until you advise me of a status upgrade?”
Boss: “Yes. Make these your primary action items.”
The archaic language Adam Ewing uses is ridiculous but also deeply immersive. But that immersion into the elitist 19th Century voice also shows us some shocking 19th Century racism. Adam Ewing is an upper-class White American, and he has a thoroughly colonialist worldview.
In just one of countless examples, he comments on a maid who was hanging laundry in the village. He thinks:
She has a tinge of black blood & I fancy her mother is not far removed from the jungle breed.
Like, really? “Jungle breed”?! But that’s the honesty that comes with complete immersion. There’s no timidity about going into the uncomfortable places of the characters’ psyches.
And though the voices change over the novel, the inventiveness of the language, in every sentence, continues to reward us as readers.
In the second section of the novel, “Letters From Zedelghem,” young composer Robert Frobisher writes a friend and lists his options after having skipped town because of his outstanding debts. His first option is:
Use paltry funds to obtain a dirty room in some lodging house, beg a few guineas from Uncle Cecil Ltd., teach prissy missies their scales and bitter spinsters their technique. Come now. If I could fake courtesy to dunces I’d still be swabbing Professor Mackerras’s arse with my ex–fellow undergrads. No, before you say it, I can’t go running back to Pater with yet another cri de cœur. Would validate every poisonous word he said about me. Would rather jump off Waterloo Bridge and let Old Father Thames humble me.
And here’s something from a section called “An Orison of Sonmi-451.” We’re dropped into what seems to be an interrogation. The prisoner is said to be a fabricant, and she recounts her daily routine before capture:
A server is woken up at hour four-thirty by stimulin in the airflow, then yellow-up in our dormroom. After a minute in the hygiener and steamer, we put on fresh uniforms before filing into the restaurant. Our seer and aides gather us around Papa’s Plinth for Matins, we recite the Six Catechisms, then our beloved Logoman appears and delivers his Sermon. At hour five we man our tellers around the Hub, ready for the elevator to bring the new day’s first consumers. For the following nineteen hours we greet diners, input orders, tray food, vend drinks, upstock condiments, wipe tables, and bin garbage. Vespers follows cleaning, then we imbibe one Soapsac in the dormroom.
I could go on, because the entire novel is saturated with gorgeous writing, but I don’t want to spoil it too much…
I hope this look at Cloud Atlas motivates you to push beyond your own boundaries. If so, I’d love to hear how. Leave a response or Applause, or Follow me to be notified of my future essays, where I’ll look at opening chapters from other great books.