How to absorb your readers into the story: Lessons from Erin Morgenstern

Hello writers, and welcome to episode 5 of The Reading Room podcast, halfway into season 1. Thank you so much for continuing to listen to the podcast it means so much to me that you’re still here and still coming back to listen. If you’re new to the podcast, welcome!
We have lots of lovely things planned for the next 5 episodes of the season which will be ending on December 19th, just in time for the festive holidays!
If you have any feedback or any books that you’d like us to look at for the podcast, please do let me know, I’d love to hear from you.
Today’s episode is dedicated to The Night Circus, by Erin Morgenstern; a dazzling fairytale, filled with magic, illusion, and wonder. We’ll be looking at the literary devices used to create and deliver enchantment and intrigue in a ‘magic realism’ setting.
We’ll be working through the prologue and the first chapter of Part 1, to explore the devices Morgenstern deploys to reel us in with magic so beautiful, that we feel as though it’s part of our everyday lives.
As you listen to the reading, I’d like you to think about the narrative style and point of view presented in these passages. How are we drawn into the setting? How is the magic presented to us? What themes can you detect?
Are you ready? Then, let’s begin.
Close Reading:
So. Many. Thoughts. So. Many. Devices. My notes for the close reading today had to be drilled down so that I could apply enough time to each of the sections I’d read and not create too long an episode! I’m also changing things up today by asking questions throughout to invite you to share your thoughts and ideas either in a podcast review or in our Facebook group to add to the conversation. You can find the link to our community page in this episode’s description.
So let’s begin with Anticipation and how the author prepares her audience for the visual excitement of Le Cirque des Rêves. How does she draw them into the narrative? It is with the application of the second-person perspective – “you.” The narrator knows we are there to witness the wonders of The Cirque des Reves, and we feel acknowledged as visitors to the magic realism of the story. Having the perspective then switch to the third person omniscient narrator in the first chapter, Unexpected Post, we are further transported into the innermost and intimate thoughts and feelings of each character we meet. We are carried away into the story’s adventure and become fully absorbed within its magic – and all through a simple shift in narrative voice.
Through the introduction of Anticipation, the reader is prepared for the visual stimulation of the circus. The sheer beauty of the circus captivates its audience while the promise of magic enchants. It is a short passage but it delivers on the promise of its title.
Sight, smell, and sensation are also at the centre of the descriptive language used in this passage. The absence of colour adds a layer of visual stimulation and undercuts expectations of what spectators expect of the “traditional” circus experience – there were “ golds or crimsons to be seen.” The black and white design focuses the reader’s attention on each tent’s varying degree of shapes and sizes and on one aspect of the circus, presenting Illusion from the start. The sign that reads, “Opens at Nightfall. Closes at Dawn.” is another topsy turvy shift of the spectator’s expectations. “What kind of place is only open at night?” Yet, this play on the idea of time and what is considered normal rouses curiosity and the audience patiently awaits the opening. Then, the narrator treats its spectators to the sensation of “almost” identifying the “smell of caramel wafting through the evening breeze…” This hint of scent and the sweetness of caramel triggers the connectors in our brains and is a great example of showing and not telling in prose.
What did you think of the Clock motif in this reading? How “no one can properly describe” it? To have the clock referred to more than once renders it a motif to pay attention to. For example, spectators are spending their time waiting for the circus to start; just as they feel they want to leave, it begins. This circus opens at nightfall and closes at dawn – it functions outside of normal daytime activities. The name of the circus infers a dreamlike state – what else can we expect to see from The Circus of Dreams?
Next up, Primordium:
The two quotes presented before the first chapter add to the theme of magic and wonder. They also tie into the themes of what is reality versus what is an illusion. Friedrick Thiessen is a fictional character in the novel, whereas Oscar Wilde is not. This is magic realism at play. I’d love to hear or read your thoughts on these two quotes and what you feel they add to the narrative.
And finally, Unexpected Post:
From the magical and the wonderful, we move through another door, this time into the unusual and unsettling with the arrival of “a suicide note carefully pinned to a five-year-old girl.” What an opening sentence! Oh, the questions we have! When you compare this scene to those in Anticipation anyone would likely experience an undercurrent of unease as to how the storyline will unfold. Note also how the narrative has moved from the second-person to the third-person omniscient perspective.
There is an abundance of detail within the opening paragraph before we even reach the interaction between Hector Bowen and Celia. We see her delivered from the lawyer to the theatre manager to her father’s office with little to no interest in providing an explanation.
If you have read The Tempest by William Shakespeare, you’ll have identified the connection between the protagonist Prospero and his daughter Miranda with Prospero the Enchanter and his daughter Celia. If you haven’t read the play, you would still identify that Hector Bowen is hatching a plan to use Celia’s gift for his own purposes.
The motif of time being magically distorted can be seen in this chapter as well. Let’s look at the cold tea in its cup that pools to the floor. The cup was shattered only to be restored in one piece and to its original temperature as if no time had passed. As the chapter comes to a close, time is almost glossed over; weeks pass with Celia in her father’s care, and several months pass again before Hector sends his magical letter. We want to know what happened during that time, but we can only guess and our imagination wonders.
Think about the pacing of the prose – whilst only a short chapter, a small amount of activity is delivered in detail and then we have a burst of action with Hector’s declaration. It then slows and bursts again with Celia’s heated shattering of the teacup. There is an ebb and flow to this relationship, which will continue to develop throughout the novel. What is Celia ready for, and to who was the mysterious letter delivered? These are the questions the readers will ask and will keep them turning the page.
Today’s Exercise
For today’s exercise, I’d like you to explore the idea of Illusion in a 5-minute brainstorm, writing down any elements and ideas that come to mind – even if they are just associated words. Then, pick one word or idea and write a story that centres around it. For example, an illusion for you might mean a two-way mirror, a hall or horrors or a mirage in the desert. Start with 15 minutes. If the ideas flow, restart your timer and continue until the flow stops. When you’re finished, review your work and consider how the story might develop. Reading it aloud will also help.
Thank you for joining me this week! If you haven’t already, I hope you’ll follow the podcast in your favourite podcast app.
If you know fellow writers who would find these episodes helpful, an Apple Podcast review or recommendation would be greatly appreciated to expand our writing community.
It’s great that you’re here on this journey with me in today’s episode of The Reading Room podcast. Until next time, keep reading and writing, with your #eyestothehorizon

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