How Neil Gaiman starts “American Gods”

The first day of the rest of your life

Photo by Jakob Owens on Unsplash

(This essay is also available as a video on YouTube.)

There’s an old saying: We only show our true colours when we’re tested. For many of us, that happens during the big changes in our lives. The loss of a loved one. Unemployment. A diagnosis. A new school. A new city. A new job. We find ourselves on new paths, at the start of new stories, at the start of a new life.

I’m researching examples of great first chapters to figure out how to start my own novel.

Today, I’m looking at how Neil Gaiman uses the start of a new life to draw us into his epic 2001 novel American Gods.

Summary of Chapter 1

His name is Shadow, and he’s going to prison for three years. The moment he arrives, he sees how different everything is on the inside. Different slang. Different food. Different routine.

But Shadow counts the days one by one. He thinks of how things will be when he’s out. He’ll see his loving wife again. He’ll get his old job back at his best friend’s gym. Then he’ll keep his head down and stay out of trouble for the rest of his life.

While other prisoners complain about their past and present, Shadow only nods quietly. “Don’t get wrapped up in other people’s misery. Do your own time. Don’t do someone else’s time for them. Keep your head down.”

He makes a few friends in prison, each of whom has his own philosophical take on the world. Maybe prison gives them time to think. Shadow spends his time reading history and learning coin tricks. And keeping his head down.

Three years pass. It’s his last week in prison. He’s made it this far without incident. It’s almost too good to be true. He’s not superstitious, but he’s sure that something will go wrong when he’s so close to freedom.

“Storm’s on the way,” one of his friends says. “You’re better off in here than out on the street when the big storm comes.”

The warden calls Shadow into his office a few days before release. It’s unexpected and Shadow thinks, “This is it.” Somehow he’s going to be stuck here forever.

Then the warden delivers some news: You’re getting out early. Your wife was killed in a car accident.

Shadow doesn’t say anything. He leaves prison with the airline ticket his wife sent him. He’s a free man. This is the first day of the rest of his life, the moment he’s waited three years for. He’s heading home, to Eagle Point, Indiana, to a funeral.

At the airport, he tries to switch to an earlier flight, since he’s a few days early. But there lots of delays: there are storms all over. He manages to get a booking, though. On the plane, he dreams: a buffalo man warns him that he’s in danger. “If you are to survive,” it says, “you must believe.”

The flight gets redirected to St. Louis. The storms again. At the next stopover, he gets on a connecting flight. The only available seat is in first class, across from a strange man who calls himself Mr. Wednesday. They make chitchat, but Mr. Wednesday somehow knows specific details about Shadow. First, his name. Then, Mr. Wednesday suddenly offers him a job, and says nothing’s waiting for Shadow at home. Mr. Wednesday bluntly offers his condolences for Shadow’s dead wife. At this point, Shadow wants to hit the man, but he doesn’t. He takes a breath. Mr. Wednesday again offers Shadow a job. “There may be a little risk,” he says, “but if you survive you can have whatever your heart desires.”

Shadow doesn’t care for Mr. Wednesday’s promises or his predatory friendliness. He ends the conversation and leans back in his seat.

The plane lands in another airport in the middle of nowhere. Shadow looks around: Mr. Wednesday is asleep beside him. So Shadow decides to get off the plane, and no one else does. He rents a car and drives the rest of the 250 miles to Eagle Point.

Along the way, he stops at a diner to eat. He orders, then goes to the bathroom. He checks to make sure he’s alone, because he doesn’t want to get jumped. It’s an old prison habit, and old habits die hard.

And there again, as if appearing out of thin air, is Mr. Wednesday. He doesn’t explain how he got there. All he says is, “So, you’ve had time to think, Shadow. Do you want a job?”

The first day of the rest of your life

Shadow clearly had a life before page one. That life that led him to prison. And I’m sure there’s a story there, but Chapter One doesn’t bother with it. It starts us on the first day of his new life. That’s when Shadow’s more interesting journey begins.

It’s a little bit like Homer’s The Iliad, one of the most important stories in the European literary tradition. The Iliad takes place during the Trojan War, but it isn’t about the Trojan War. It’s one specific story about the Greek hero, Achilles. The Iliad leaves out a decade of Achilles’ time in Troy, and also leaves out the end of his time there. Instead, it zooms in on one episode during that war. It’s an intense, in-between period of moral transformation for Achilles. And when that transformation is over, he’s still part of the war, and other epics tell the rest of his story and the war’s end. But the Iliad isn’t interested in anything other than Achilles’ moment of change.

Granted, The Iliad has a very different opening from American Gods. It drops us into the Greek war camp on the beaches of Troy in Year 10 of the war. It has an in medias res opening, Latin for “in the middle of the action.”

In American Gods, Shadow says on page one that he’s not afraid of being caught. He’s already been caught. The fight is over. He lost. If this were a fairy tale, this would be after the Happily Ever After.

But what The Iliad and American Gods have in common, despite their differences, is their focus on the protagonist’s moment of change.

Then I wonder where the idea of inciting incidents comes into this kind of story. I’d say the inciting incident is tied closely to the hero’s arrival in a new place or routine. For Shadow, that’s meeting Mr. Wednesday. You might even say the new life is the inciting incident. The character gets a new label, like parent, widow, graduate, and in Shadow’s case ex-con.

But even with that new label, characters still carry their old selves with them. And that’s where the conflict comes from: trying to fit a square peg in a round hole. A story about a round peg fitting comfortably in a round hole isn’t much of a story, and it doesn’t teach us anything as readers.

There’s a more interesting question: What will it take to change either the shape of the square peg, or the shape of the round hole? How do these two contradictory things fit together?

It’s a compelling and universal premise for a story, and probably one of the reasons why it’s such a common formula.

There’s The Devil Wears Prada by Lauren Weisberger. A college grad starts a job as an assistant to a “boss from hell” at a fashion magazine.

In another classic “boss from hell” story, Moby-Dick by Herman Melville, Ishmael takes a job on a whaling ship so he can travel the world.

Michael Chabon started The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay in a similar way. It’s the day Josef Kavalier arrives in New York from war-torn Czechoslovakia; he’s about to start a new life and new career with his American cousin Sammy.

Another one of Neil Gaiman’s novels, Coraline, starts with the hero moving to a new home. I actually want to talk more about Coraline in another essay. But for now, that trope of a child moving to a new house is a common one in stories for that age group. Look at Jonathan Auxier’s twenty-fourteen novel The Night Gardener, or films like Spirited Away.

In American Gods, Shadow has two separate first days. The first one happens on Page One: he goes to prison, and he has to figure out how he’s going to survive there. This is his new life. Later, he gets out and starts another life. A new start. A second chance.

He wonders if he can escape fate, or the storm on the horizon. There’s a dread of the future. There’s the inevitability of habit. There’s the weight of expectation.

He decides to avoid trouble. And, as in every good story, that decision is tested. It’s tested by all the jabs and provocations from other people, and especially from Mr. Wednesday. When Mr. Wednesday shows up, Shadow keeps him at arm’s length. He knows anything Mr. Wednesday has to offer is a bad play. The tension of the old life, and the risk of relapse or recidivism, colours every one of Shadow’s words and actions.

We’ve all felt that tension ourselves. Sometimes it’s around January 2nd. Other times it’s after a tragedy or a triumph. We say we’re going to be different, but we wonder for how long. How many of us get a genuine second chance in life? And what would we do if we got one?

A new arena

I think there’s another reason why the “new life” approach works well. It’s the character’s first step into a new setting. It’s an arena that’s as unfamiliar to the character as it is to the readers. That makes it an ideal vehicle for a story of exploration and discovery. American Gods is Shadow’s story, but it’s set against the vast backdrop of a mythical America.

So the turning point of a new life is a huge opportunity, not just for the character, but for you as a writer. It gives you a blank canvas to work with. Like your character, you can go wherever you want. You get to decide where and how the character navigates that world, however expansive or small it is. Everything happens right here, right now, in front of our eyes. So while the in medias res approach can be exciting, it can also be bewildering. The “new life” approach, meanwhile, is a deeply inviting way to start a story.

It also makes the story more distinctly about something, about a specific experience. It goes back to that idea of labels, like widow or ex-con. Everyone asks Shadow what kind of life he’ll have once he’s out. They recognize he’s getting a new label. He’s entering a new story, one that will be about something. Even Shadow knows it. He fights so hard to stop his new life from becoming about something, because that always means trouble. He only wants to make love to his wife, pump iron at the gym, and disappear. He doesn’t want a story. Of course, Neil Gaiman wasn’t going to let him off the hook that easily.

So, when you think about your characters, what specific story are you telling? What new label do your characters get hit with? What distinct world are they entering? What’s the first day of your story?

I hope this look at American Gods gave you new things to think about for your own writing. I didn’t get to talk about the two epigraphs at the start of the novel, which feel like a whole other topic. But what did you think of the epigraphs? What did you think of the first chapter of the novel? Does your own story start in the right place? How does your start affect the character’s journey? What problems have you had with a “first day” approach, if you’ve tried it?

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