YOU HAVE A STORY IDEA. You’ve tested it with the four questions to make sure it’s basically sound. You’ve decided whether it seems to want to be long or short fiction. Now you’re going to have to people and dramatize it. How do you start?
The first thing to realize is that generally you’re not going to begin at the beginning. Your story’s start, the actual words that begin the narrative, will be a good way along in the progress of the events you’re imagining.
The Greeks, as translated by the Romans, called it in medias res: in the middle of things. Starting there, in the middle of things, is even more necessary if your story is going to have negative motivation – that is, if it’s one in which your chief character, the protagonist, is reacting against something that has happened. Stories arising from reactions have a past that will try to encumber the story’s beginning, if you let it.
That kind of built-in past is called ‘exposition’ – the necessary explanation that are needed to understand what’s going on now. Because exposition is, of its nature, telling rather than showing, it’s intrinsically less dramatic than a scene. So it needs careful handling.
Maybe you’re thinking, Well, I’ll avoid the problem of handling exposition by going back to the very beginning of things, when the people involved first met, before there were any problems between them, so there will be no need of background material.
I say “No” so strongly because exposition very seldom makes good plot. It turns into an explanation. Nothing is happening. Long stretches of exposition tend to get boring very, very fast. I’ll talk in more detail about handling exposition in Chapter 4. For now, know that however you handle it, you should do everything possible to avoid encumbering your beginnings with it.
Departure from a Norm
If what you’re trying to show is a change from a pre-existing norm (contrasting before/after or then/now), and that norm is really vital to what is going to happen, you should demonstrate that norm in the briefest possible space, as something already being departed from. A paragraph or two, at most, in a short story: a page or two, in a novel. And neither paragraph nor page should generally be the first one. Get your action rolling first, then back off to show the normal state of things.
That’s what Dickens does, in A Christmas Carol. It starts out, “Marley was dead to begin with.” Then we move to an overview of what’s normal for Scrooge – his coldly businesslike attitudes, his harshness and callousness – in a serious of brief confrontations with his nephew, with businessmen collecting for charity, and with his cleark, Bob Cratchit. His attitudes are all the more shocking in that this isn’t just any ordinary day,but Christmas Eve. Then, when Scrooge shuts up shop and goes home, he sees the face of his dead ex-partner, Marley, on his door-knocker and things get rapidly stranger from then on.
The plot gets rolling before Dickens backs off and gives the norm – Scrooge’s pre-existing attitudes. This norm isn’t explained but instead is demonstrated, shown in a series of brief scenes, after which Dickens returns to the main plot, Scrooge’s confrontation with his own past, present, and grim probable future, as embodied by the tortured wraith of Marley, Scrooge’s mirror. (More on mirrors and other methods of echoing the main action in Chapter 8.)
You can even set up a character to represent the norm. That’s the function Watson serves in the Holmes stories, and the average Ralph as contrasted with ambitious Jack, fat incompetent clever Piggy, and mystical Simon in Lord of the Flies. Such a character gives the reader somebody to identify with and judge the other, more unusual characters by.
My strong advice is that if establishing a pre-existing norm isn’t absolutely vital, skip it. Leave it out altogether, if you possibly can. Instead, start in medias res. In general practice, that means starting your actual narrative just before, or even during, the first major conflict or confrontation: the point at which things start to get serious, when they start moving toward final crisis.
Specifically, that means starting a short story just before the main crisis which will provide the story’s resolution. Start a novel during the first crisis, because you’ll have time to draw back and explain how things got that way later in the first Chapter, or even in Chapter two.
Don’t tell how the protagonist decided to go out and buy fireworks, how much they cost, how he brought them home, how he stored them, what his wife said. Begin when the fuse is lit and the reader sees a bang any minute.
JUGGLING THREE BALLS AT ONCE
Every effective beginning needs to do three things. The chief of these is to get the story going and show what kind of story it’s going to be. The second is to introduce and characterize the protagonist. The third is to engage the reader’s interest in reading on.
Some beginnings do more than this. Some create moods; some introduce narrators who aren’t the protagonist, or one or more of the subordinate characters. Some, as just discussed, establish a norm the story will then depart from.
A story can do more than these three things; but it should never do less.
These three special jobs are absolutely vital. To the degree that any short story or novel neglects them, it’s risking being dull, uninvolving and possibly confusing reading.
Remember, I’m talking about the very beginning here: the first page or so of a short story, the first few pages of a novel.
Setting the Scene with a Scene
The most economical way of handling these three jobs is to find some way of doing all three at once.
And the best way of doing that, generally, is inventing an appropriate scene: what’s going on when the reader starts your story.
Try to think up what situation your protagonist could be in which would directly lead into the final crisis or confrontation, whatever it’s going to be. Not an idea, not a description: a situation. A dramatized action with some kind of inherent conflict appropriate to what will follow. The opening situation should be true to the story as a whole, not be (or seem) something tacked on just for the sake of vivid, exciting opening which, in retrospect, will seem contrived.
Look at the opening of Stephen King’s It. A child dies, dragged down a grate during a rainstorm by what appears to be a malevolent clown looking up from the sewer. The threat isn’t a fake – a child can die, the beginning tells us. And since the rest of the novel involves children trying to understand and defeat the threat that “clown” poses, the opening is valid to the rest of the book. It makes a reader interested in reading on, to learn how this murderous menace will be fought. And it characterizes the protagonist in a brief scene where he makes the paper boat which the boy (the protagonist’s little brother) was chasing when the clown got him.
It’s an opening which does all its necessary jobs well.
Characters Busy Being Themselves Before Our Very Eyes
Next, think what your protagonist could be doing, in the context of that situation, which would directly show, with little or no explanation from you, exactly what kind of person he or she is.
In the beginning of Lord of the Flies, Ralph finds a conch shell on the beach. Piggy comments on how valuable such shells are and tells Ralph a conch can be blown, like a trumpet. Piggy, being asthmatic, can’t blow the shell himself; but his information is what allows Ralph to blow the shell, calling the scattered castaway boys together for the first time.
That shell is the emblem of leadership through the rest of the book. Ralph, finder of the shell, is the leader as long as the shell lasts, with Piggy as his “brain trust” – precisely the pattern set up at the book’s opening. When the conch is destroyed, the shell and Piggy both smashed by a huge boulder rolled by Jack’s chief henchman, the action represents the destruction of any authority save that of power and of fear. Piggy is dead. The reader knows that the hunt for Ralph won’t be long in coming.
Again, this is a masterly beginning in which each character, upon entering, does something that economically and effectively shows precisely who and what he is, in this particular context.
And notice how the conch is used to characterize the people who come into contact with it. It becomes a symbol, not because the author arbitrarily assigned some significance to it by a species of novelistic footnote, but because that object has a particular, strong, and important meaning to the people associated with it. The meaning is intrinsic within the story, validly part of the object itself. Even if your objects are less emotionally charged than the conch, or than that novel’s later talismanic object, a pig’s head rotting on a pole, you can still use them effectively. A man carrying an umbrella is different from a man not carrying an umbrella, when an author chooses (and invents) his details carefully and with absolute economy.
Props and Settings
Give your character objects to be associated with, to carry, to use. In acting, they’re called props, and I’ll call them that too. Well chosen, well used, props can demonstrate some essential truth about a character without the need of blocks of description slowing down the pace. Think how King uses the paper boat in the opening of It, or Golding’s conch. Think of the raft in Huckleberry Finn, the much sought-after black bird in Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon. A good prop is a kind of visual shorthand and, like a picture, it can be worth a thousand words, especially at a story’s beginning.
And the same thing is true, for the same reasons, about settings. They aren’t just backdrops. Just by where you have the action happening will tell a lot about the action itself and the people involved. A scene on a rainy street corner is automatically different from one in a hot, stuffy and claustrophobic school room, or at a county fair, or in an echoing, empty parking garage. You can reinforce the mood and action with your choice of setting, or work against it: a grim thing happening on a carousel, a happy thing happening beside a car nose-down in a ditch. Wherever you set your opening, be aware that where it happens matters, and can matter enormously, if the setting is well chosen to complement or contrast with what’s happening there.
It may take thinking over to come up with good props, vivid, meaningful settings. Be ready to think twice, try and discard, until everything seems to be working together in one seemingly inevitable whole with nothing extra and nothing missing.
Don’t Bog Your Opening Down in Descriptions
Have your characters enter talking and doing, in a significant and characteristic way. It doesn’t matter when, if ever, you get around to telling what they look like. Some stories do descriptions in just a few sketched details – Sam Spade’s “satanic” V of eyebrows, for instance – and some never find it necessary at all: describe Huckleberry Finn. Can you do it? Twain doesn’t. Perry Mason, in the numerous novels featuring his wily court maneuvers, doesn’t look at all like Raymond Burr: Erle Stanley Gardner deliberately refrained from describing him. Nor does Robert Parker find it necessary to tell more about his private detective, Spenser, than that he’s strongly built and well past thirty.
Sometimes the most important thing about a person isn’t how he looks, but what he’s like, how he behaves, how and what characters in Damon Runyon’s flavourful short stories, are characterized almost completely by means of their voices – their inimitably slangy way of speaking. Appearance (meaning the kind of crude colour-of-hair, colour-of-eyes, height/weight/age “police-blotter listing”) may not be important at all.
Piggy’s weight, asthma, and glasses are crucially important in the story, and so are carefully detailed. The colour of his hair, by contrast, makes no difference at all.
Only spend time describing what it’s important to describe, what’s going to matter in the rest of the story. That may be what your characters look like; then again, it may not. You decide.
And even if your characters’ appearance is important to you and your story, the story’s very beginning may not be the best place to go into any great detail about it. You want your readers to be able to imagine your characters, not describe them for a robbery report. Have your people talking and doing: that will make the stronger impression.
Opening with a Bang
Some openings are unabashedly melodramatic. Their action is as violent, exaggerated, and mindless as possible. “As I scrambled over the top of the crater, Mount St. Helens cleared its throat and then blew 200,000 tons of its substance straight into the startled sky.” Let’s call them volcano openings. (In Chapter 10, I’ll talk about the other half of the equation, dirigible endings.)
A volcano opening – a chase scene, somebody falling off a cliff or being attacked by Killer Shrews, a sex scene or mad, passionate love-at-first-sight – makes a statement about what’s to follow. The story, such as an opening says, is going to be one of exaggerated nonstop action/emotion, lots of excitement and suspense, intended to appeal to the broadest possible spectrum of readers. If you can make good on a promise like that, you could have a best-seller on your hands, and movie rights in the offing.
Assuming that’s what you want…
That’s one sure thing about a volcano: it gets your attention. But it’s also a hard act to follow. And not all writers want to. While some writers yearn for the primary colours and broad sweep of Cinemascope, others have a hankering for the small screen, muted tones, and close ups.
If you don’t intend to have a slam-bang action story or scenery-chewing, bodice-ripping forbidden romance following an opening like that, it would have been better to have made a little less noise at the outset and, instead, made a different sort of promise. You could promise an unusual concept (“Big Brother is Watching”: 1984), an especially vivid character (Sherlock Holmes), or maybe an interesting, individual style (“It was love at first sight. The first time Yossarian saw the chaplain he fell madly in love with him”: Catch-22).
The point is that if you’re beginning a short story or novel, you are in fact making a promise the rest of the story will have to fulfill. You don’t have any choice about that, because the beginning is, by definition, what gets read first. A reader (and an editor considering publishing it) is going to decide whether or not to read on, based on what that beginning promises. It has to promise something special, or something seen in a special way, to make them want to read on.
And, remember, I’m talking now just about beginnings, not whole plots. Exaggerated events and people are a staple even in literary fiction. Virtually everything by Faulkner has large doses of melodrama – take a look at Sanctuary, for instance. The melodrama compensates for Faulkner’s characteristically involuted, complex prose style and considerable stretches of philosophizing. So-called Southern Gothic, whether penned by Faulkner or Carson McCullers, has a native streak of the bizarre all through it – freaks, dwarfs, mouldering bodies of old lovers in upstairs bedrooms.
Steinbeck’s East of Eden and Of Mice and Men have adulteries and murders and hard-breathing domestic hanky-panky galore. Dicken’s novels have melodrama by the ton. And all are certainly regarded as literature.
But if you look at the beginnings of any of these, you’ll find the tone rather quiet, the situations revealing but not characterized by slam-bang action. The melodrama comes later. Virtually no volcano openings.
Better, for hooking the reader, is a revealing opening, effectively played out, promising something worth watching to come. Better is something relatively simple and direct, free of encumbering description, explanation, and hype, something a reader can understand immediately by just watching, a situation able to speak for itself. A parent with a hand raised, and a child grimly swallowing tears; a middle-aged woman anxiously scanning the want ads, answering inattentively as a teenager asks when supper is going to be ready; a man and woman stiffly silent or talking about everything except abortion as they wait for a train, as in Hemingway’s wonderful “The Hills Like White Elephants.”
Find the right scene, one that hits just the right note with a minimum of fuss, and the beginning will take care of itself.
And if it leads to melodrama later on, so be it. You and your story will certainly be in the best of literary company. In Chapter 7, I’ll offer some tips on harnessing the fierce power of melodrama to narrative purposes.
Do You Always Have to Make a Scene?
Scene openings aren’t the only way. They’re just the simplest, most reliable way, suitable for any kind of writing. If you’re just starting to write, they’re probably what you should use for your beginnings.
But there are alternatives. Good stories have begun with pure dialogue. Dicken’s A Tale of Two Cities begins with a philosophical overview: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times” and his Bleak House opens with a wonderful portrait of dense fog spreading through London the same way the foggy intricacies of the case Jarndyce vs. Jarndyce spread to obscure and pollute everything and everyone they touch. Steinbeck’s masterpiece, The Grapes of Wrath, begins with a splendid description of a dust storm. Du Maurier’s Rebecca begins, “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again,” calling up the image of that doomed house.
If you begin with something other than a scene, you’ll have to compensate for the loss of immediate action by using something especially striking and powerful. Starting with a description, a philosophical mini-essay, or a dream is dangerous because all will tend to be essentially static if you don’t go to heroic lengths to make them something else.
They’ll sit and look at you like a fried egg. Your story will stall.
Strong contrast or a strikingly unusual juxtaposition (implied comparison between a law case and a fog, for instance), vivid imagery or wording, a violent or melodramatic event being described, a brooding mood that promises action soon to come – all can help give the reader a sense of motion even when nothing is actually happening right now.
But such openings are difficult to bring off, and unless your alternative method of opening can somehow contrive to do the required three jobs of all beginnings, your best choice will be a scene.
IF AT FIRST IT DOESN’T START, START AGAIN
Now if all this discussion makes a beginning sound crucial and complicated, it is. But then, so are middles. So are endings.
If you have a story idea, then don’t worry about the beginning. Get your story told, all the way through, at least in first draft.
As I’ve said before, stories change in the telling. Often you’ll find that what you thought was going to be the heart of the story ends up as kind of an appendix, and the story’s true motion and true meaning have gone someplace you never expected. And if and when that happens, the original beginning (if you had one) is going to be the wrong beginning anyway. It will need re-thinking, re-imagining.
The Dirty Word
Now I’m going to use a dirty word. Otherwise strong writers shudder and flinch when they hear it.
Any story worth the telling is worth revising. Remember Melville’s Bulkington, who fell overboard the first night out of port? If you have such vestigial evidence of a false beginning, be tidier than Melville: go back and change it. Make your story one single solid thing, itself, with nothing left that could stand to be omitted without weakening it, nothing omitted or left sketchy that really needs to be developed for the story to have its proper impact.
Don’t assume first thoughts are always best thoughts. Second thoughts, about something already well along in the process of becoming, are often better, more insightful thoughts because they’re about something concrete – this short story, this novel – instead of something vague and theoretical, a set of intentions, a blur of feelings not yet fleshed out into a complex of incident and personality.
Be thinking about your opening, but don’t worry about it. If it doesn’t come, or come to life, right away, skip over it and write the next scene with just a few notes on what you want the beginning to have done and established, what groundwork it will have laid, for what comes afterward, the part you’re working on now. And keep writing away until you have one whole first draft done. Then go ahead and start the kind of invention, addition, and deletion only possible in solid second-draft writing.
I don’t know if William Golding knew he was going to need a conch when he began writing Lord of the Flies. It’s altogether possible that, realizing how important some tangible, visible symbol of leadership was becoming in the story’s middle, he went back and stuck the conch on that beach for Ralph to find and for Piggy to identify. Be ready to do the same, once your story has started talking to you and letting you know what it needs, instead of what you thought it was going to need.
In other words, a bad beginning shouldn’t be the end – not if you realize you’ll often need to go back and write it all over anyway, even when you initially thought you got it right the first time around.