Story Opening Case Study: The Time Traveller’s Wife

The opening to sci-fi romance epic, The Time Traveller’s Wife, was a massive bestseller upon publication. How do the opening paragraphs draw readers in?

Audrey Niffenegger’s innovative debut, The Time Traveller’s Wife, is the story of Clare, a beautiful art student, and Henry, an adventuresome librarian, who have known each other since Clare was six and Henry was thirty-six, and were married when Clare was twenty-three and Henry thirty-one. Impossible but true, because Henry is one of the first people diagnosed with Chrono-Displacement Disorder: periodically his genetic clock resets and he finds himself misplaced in time, pulled to moments of emotional gravity in his life, past and future. His disappearances are spontaneous, his experiences unpredictable, alternately harrowing and amusing.

The Time Traveller’s Wife depicts the effects of time travel on Henry and Clare’s marriage and their passionate love for each other as the story unfolds from both points of view. Clare and Henry attempt to live normal lives, pursuing familiar goals–steady jobs, good friends, children of their own. All of this is threatened by something they can neither prevent nor control, making their story intensely moving and entirely unforgettable.

Marketing copy


Flash forward

Painting the setting


Saturday, October 26, 1991 (Henry is 28, Clare is 20)

CLARE: The library is cool and smells like carpet cleaner, although all I can see is marble. I sign the Visitors’ Log: Clare Abshire, 11:15 10-26-91 Special Collections. I have never been in the Newberry Library before, and now that I’ve gotten past the dark, foreboding entrance I am excited. I have a sort of Christmas-morning sense of the library as a big box full of beautiful books. The elevator is dimly lit, almost silent. I stop on the third floor and fill out an application for a Reader’s Card, then I go upstairs to Special Collections. My boot heels rap the wooden floor. The room is quiet and crowded, full of solid, heavy tables piled with books and surrounded by readers. Chicago autumn morning light shines through the tall windows. I approach the desk and collect a stack of call slips. I’m writing a paper for an art history class. My research topic is the Kelmscott Press Chaucer. I look up the book itself and fill out a call slip for it. But I also want to read about papermaking at Kelmscott. The catalog is confusing. I go back to the desk to ask for help. As I explain to the woman what I am trying to find, she glances over my shoulder at someone passing behind me. “Perhaps Mr. DeTamble can help you,” she says. I turn, prepared to start explaining again, and find myself face to face with Henry.

Wisely, usefully, we know the first person narrator’s name from the very first word.

An ironic contradiction in the first sentence: The narrator sees something, smells something else. Not a particularly resonant contradiction, except for the fact that any kind of contradiction establishes an unsettling mood.

Clare is ostensibly excited about the books, which anyone holding this thick novel will likely identity with. What else is she excited about, though? It can’t be just the prospect of reading, because that wouldn’t fill the pages we’re about to read…

Notice how the author makes sense of multiple senses: We know what the place smells like, the sounds (of heels), how it would feel to touch (the cold, from marble). ‘Make use of all senses’ is a pretty common bit of advice swapped in writing groups. I’ve also seen disdain for adjectives such as ‘foreboding’ (as in, foreboding entrance), in preference for more descriptive terms. (i.e. What makes it foreboding?) but Niffenegger’s use of it here is proof that ‘foreboding’ is just fine.

Also slotted into the opening paragraph: The wider setting. Chicago. Autumn. Morning. The visitors’ log even provides the exact date and time: Time is foregrounded in this story. The author cannot simply handwave that one.

We also learn what Clare is at the library to (ostensibly) do. Main characters need to be given something to do, even if that something seems inconsequential, even if plans will soon change. Clare is at the library to research the Kelmscott Press Chaucer. Most readers are unlikely to find this detail interesting. But it is sufficiently specific to create verisimilitude.

Before the first paragraph ends, she has met her romantic opponent.

I am speechless. Here is Henry, calm, clothed, younger than I have ever seen him. Henry is working at the Newberry Library, standing in front of me, in the present. Here and now. I am jubilant. Henry is looking at me patiently, uncertain but polite.
“Is there something I can help you with?” he asks.
“Henry!” I can barely refrain from throwing my arms around him. It is obvious that he has never seen me before in his life.
“Have we met? I’m sorry, I don’t….” Henry is glancing around us, worrying that readers, co-workers are noticing us, searching his memory and realizing that some future self of his has met this radiantly happy girl standing in front of him. The last time I saw him he was sucking my toes in the Meadow.

The twist to this romantic opponent: On the page, to readers, this feels like a meet cute. But because of the time travel component — which we already expect, if only from the title — this is Meet Cute with a twist. Clare already knows him. But Henry does not know Clare. Although time travel is a sci-fi experience, the experience of meeting someone cute and (perhaps one-sidedly) finding them attractive is shared by most readers who experience attraction. From the get-go, the author adeptly makes use of the time travel component to appeal to a common experience of the here-and-now. Readers will identify with Clare.

I try to explain. “I’m Clare Abshire. I knew you when I was a little girl…” I’m at a loss because I am in love with a man who is standing before me with no memories of me at all. Everything is in the future for him. I want to laugh at the weirdness of the whole thing. I’m flooded with years of knowledge of Henry, while he’s looking at me perplexed and fearful. Henry wearing my dad’s old fishing trousers, patiently quizzing me on multiplication tables, French verbs, all the state capitals; Henry laughing at some peculiar lunch my seven-year-old self has brought to the Meadow; Henry wearing a tuxedo, undoing the studs of his shirt with shaking hands on my eighteenth birthday. Here! Now!
“Come and have coffee with me, or dinner or something….”

Niffenegger knows when to explain. She has already shown how this time travel thing is working right now. But it’s slightly complicated; she encapsulates it for readers in the first sentence of the third paragraph. Clare ‘wants to laugh at the weirdness’, which anticipates how readers may feel reading this. When introducing something bizarre into a realistic scenario (e.g. an ordinary Chicago library), it’s a good writer trick, and super common, to have the main character react with disbelief or react to the strangeness in some ways. If writers don’t do this, it seems weird for the reader.

Surely he has to say yes, this Henry who loves me in the past and the future must love me now in some bat-squeak echo of other time. To my immense relief he does say yes. We plan to meet tonight at a nearby Thai restaurant, all the while under the amazed gaze of the woman behind the desk, and I leave, forgetting about Kelmscott and Chaucer and floating down the marble stairs, through the lobby and out into the October Chicago sun, running across the park scattering small dogs and squirrels, whooping and rejoicing.

Since this is a story about leaping through time, the author had to master deft switches in verb tense in order to write the book. Look at the somersaults she’s turning here: ‘Surely’ (the future). ‘To my immense relief’ (the present). ‘We plan to meet’ (the future). She has also mentioned the past.

When Clare ‘forgets’ about Kelmscott and Chaucer, so do we. This research plan is what I call a ‘McGuffin desire’. It was only there to kick off the story.

HENRY: It’s a routine day in October, sunny and crisp. I’m at work in a small windowless humidity-controlled room on the fourth floor of the Newberry, cataloging a collection of marbled papers that has recently been donated. The papers are beautiful, but cataloging is dull, and I am feeling bored and sorry for myself. In fact, I am feeling old, in the way only a twenty-eight-year-old can after staying up half the night drinking overpriced vodka and trying, without success, to win himself back into the good graces of Ingrid Carmichel. We spent the entire evening fighting, and now I can’t even remember what we were fighting about. My head is throbbing. I need coffee. Leaving the marbled papers in a state of controlled chaos, I walk through the office and past the
page’s desk in the Reading Room. I am halted by Isabelle’s voice saying, “Perhaps Mr. DeTamble can help you,” by which she means “Henry, you weasel, where are you slinking off to?” And this astoundingly beautiful amber-haired tall slim girl turns around and looks at me as though I am her personal Jesus. My stomach lurches. Obviously she knows me, and I don’t know her.

Many books switch POV by using the character name as a title, but I prefer this method (in-line) because I personally have a bit of banner blindess (too much time on the Internet?) and I don’t always notice titles.

Interesting that Henry also uses the word ‘marble’, but in a different context. Is marble imagistically significant in the story? Perhaps so. It’s impossible to visualise how time works at an astronomical level, but seams running haphazardly through rocks might be one way of thinking about it. The rock suggests permanence. (The only constant thing in life is the passing of time.)

Like Clare, Henry also likes with a seemingly inconsequential contradiction: ‘the papers are beautiful but cataloging is dull’.

In this paragraph we have a potential love triangle. Henry is also made more desirable by the existence of another interested woman. But they’ve been fighting. From the start we know: Ingrid and Henry are not meant to be together.

When Isabelle says, “Perhaps Mr DeTamble can help you,” this repeated line of dialogue provides a satisfying link between two different experiences of characters in the same room. (We might call this literary parallax.) If you’re writing the same scene from two different perspectives, it’s a really fun trick to use, but only interesting if the characters have different spins on it, as they do here. (Henry sees a subtext that Clare does not.)

Notice, too, how Henry finds Clare beautiful, reflecting white beauty ideals of the early nineties, especially (tall and slim). Meanwhile, Clare is not culturally permitted to find Henry beautiful in quite the same way, yet his attractiveness is very much on the page, experienced by the reader, not overtly by Clare herself.

Lord only knows what I have said, done, or promised to this luminous creature, so I am forced to say in my best librarianese, “Is there something I can help you with?” The girl sort of breathes “Henry!” in this very evocative way that convinces me that at some point in time we have a really amazing thing together. This makes it worse that I don’t know anything about her, not even her name. I say “Have we met?” and Isabelle gives me a look that says You asshole. But the girl says, “I’m Clare Abshire. I knew you when I was a little girl,” and invites me out to dinner. I accept, stunned. She is glowing at me, although I am unshaven and hungover and just not at my best. We are going to meet for dinner this very evening, at the Beau Thai, and Clare, having secured me for later, wafts out of the Reading Room. As I stand in the elevator, dazed, I realize that a massive winning lottery ticket chunk of my future has somehow found me here in the present, and I start to laugh. I cross the lobby, and as I run down the stairs to the street I see Clare running across Washington Square, jumping and whooping, and I am near tears and I don’t know why.

A romantic trope with ambivalent reception among romance readers: Instalove. It’s possible to be both critical of this trope and also to love it, at the fantasy level. The time travel device allows readers to revel fully in an instalove situation, because it feels like instalove without actually being instalove within the world of the story.

By the time this paragraph is finished, we can’t wait to see Clare and Henry together in the following scenes. We’ve been allowed into both heads equally. Sure, we know from the start that these two are together (but we know that anyway, because of the rules of romance).

Insofar as single scenes are often complete (mini-) stories in their own right, this scene delivers: He has already had a ‘realisation’ (an anagnorisis as the Greeks would’ve said, or an epiphany).

We read on to learn how the time travel thing works, and how it stands between two lovers simply getting together and living happily. We can anticipate the erotics of abstinence to prevail, as falling in love with a time traveller means he’s like a sci-fi sailor — away more than he is present. The times they do share together will be redolent with erotic charge.