Thursday, October 30, 2008

In the Beginning

There is a piece of constructive wisdom in television drama that calls for the thrust of the story to be made apparent before the director's credit rolls. Or else. Or else the viewer will click the channel selector to something more promising. In actual time elapsed, the director's credit rolls about ninety seconds in, at most two minutes. This means the intent in television drama is to inform the reader whose story this is, what it's about, and what the risks are.

By virtue of formatting conventions, the short story writer gets about a hundred words of text on the opening page and at most another two fifty on the second page to get the reader to sign on. A novel may proceed at a more leisurely pace, perhaps three or four pages of text.

These three standards are all subject to the laws of contemporary convention; they may change over time as, indeed, they have changed on their way to becoming what they are now. Take a novel of Thomas Hardy, since he is generally acknowledged to have been the rider of the cusp between the nineteenth century and the twentieth. Most of Hardy's novels begin with one or more characters walking down a road somewhere in the westernmost part of England, say Devon. We are treated to a description of the countryside, the narrow roads, the stone walls, the thatched-roof cottages. Then we are presented some sense of what the characters are doing out on such a road, either prefaced or followed by a thorough physical description of the individuals so that even were you to have skipped some of the description, you'd nevertheless be able to recognize the characters should you encounter them in your neighborhood pub or your local school or theater. Only then would you find some clue about what irked, intrigued, or preyed upon one or more of the characters. You do ultimately find out what the story is in Hardy's novels; in The Mayor of Casterbridge, you find out in so memorable way that it has seldom been duplicated. Depending on when if ever you read The Mayor, the opening may still be with you, holding you by the throat in a tighter grip even than Charles Dickens' grip employed in Great Expectations.

In many contemporary novels and short stories, enough care is accorded the characters that the reader begins to suspect something of consequence will happen soon enough to cause the kinds of curiosity associated with suspense, while in others, some intriguing set of circumstances appears to be in play from the very beginning. Tobial Wolff's remarkable short story, Bullet in the Brain, seems to encompass both these approaches with a maximum of economy and dramatic force. It is yet another tribute to Wolff's skills that he has us investing in a character unlikeable at the outset; only toward the very end does he give us clues that Anders, the protagonist, was at an earlier time a nice person

Modern stories and memorable stories from past times begin with a momentum suggesting a decision will be needed, an impasse reached, an alternative given, a consequence to be dealt with. It is not a spoiler to use Marilynne Robinson's remarkable novel, Housekeeping, as a prime example of this opening velocity. Ruth, the young narrator, and her younger sister are withdrawn from their school and small town, thanks to their mother having cast out their father. They are moved to another small town to live with their grandmother, whereupon their grandfather is killed in a spectacular train wreck and their mother becomes a suicide. There is enough velocity there to last for the entire novel, but author Robinson continues to pile it on. Remarkably, Housekeeping is not an operatic melodrama; it is many other things, most of them arguably literary in nature, where melodrama is supplanted by ambiguity.

Opening velocity is a matter of choice, a moment in the orbit of a story where too much background or explanation become the equivalent of albatrosses, weighing the story down instead of helping it take off. Action or volition rather than introspection are the Swiss Army knives and Leatherman tools of the narrative opening, the goal being to get the reader invested in the character by means of being invested in the character's actions. Time enough later on to slow the story down for background material and physical description.

Accomplished writers rarely find the optimal place for beginning in early drafts, choosing other methods for beginning the actual setting down of words, methods such as starting with characters in the middle of an argument, with characters pointedly trying not to argue with one another, with characters misunderstanding one another. Some accomplished writers begin with weather reports or scenic descriptions of the landscape; others still begin with descriptions of the characters or some thematic statement relative to the story; in any case, most begin with the goal of writing long then cutting short, setting down everything they can think of, then purposefully cutting it back, mindful of the weight each word carries.

If there is such a thing as the five-thousand-word short story, as many books on writing technique suggest, a significant approach might be to get down ten thousand words on a particular story, then remove five thousand of those words.

For some years, Barnaby Conrad gave an intriguing exercise in his workshop at the Santa Barbara Writers' Conference: Write a five-hundred-word sentence--any five-hundred-word sentence. Not all that many years back, one of the students in Conrad's workshop was a former newspaper reporter, Fanny Flagg, whose approach to the five-hundred-word sentence made her recall an incident from her childhood, which she called prophetically, "Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle-Stop Cafe."

Whatever it takes to get it going. Then come back to look for the place where the events begin gathering a momentum. Find the spot where it is impossible to insert explanations, adjectives, adverbs, and weather reports. That's the place. Right there.

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