Sunday, February 1, 2009

For Openers

opening velocity--momentum and pacing of events surrounding characters as a story moves into dramatic inertia; the conditions, forces, and desires resident in characters which become apparent to readers at the onset of dramatic narrative; the tipping point between stasis and story.

Life before the story begins is static; as some animals are said to sense the beginnings of earth quakes, readers begin to sense the arrival of story into the stasis of characters, become concerned for their safety or curious to see how the characters will respond to conditions that have long baffled or taunted the readers. Opening velocity is the gathering of inertia that propels the story forward into its labyrinth of reversals, regrouping, and subsequent plans.

How to achieve it in a functional matter? Try an unexpected discovery, or the delivery of an intractable deadline, or some likable character being given an odious choice, or some unlikable character being given a choice; any event or series of events that produce a consequence that may be felt on an emotional level.

Opening velocity is not always achieved in a first draft, but during the revision process may emerge from within the text. Several prolific authors (Louis L'Amour, Frank Gruber, Ray Bradbury) are quotable on their variations on the theme of ways beginning writers tend to start their stories too soon.

More often than not, successful opening velocity comes with a character on the cusp of recognition of a potential problem. One immediate variation resides in the character proceeding to ignore the problem, another variation is seen in the character over reacting, while yet another has the character under reacting.

The experienced reader is used to eighteenth-, nineteenth-, and twentieth-century conventions in story beginnings, is respectful of them, and may even have a preference for an older, seemingly more leisurely build up to the events that define the conditions of a story and provide clues to its outcome.

As a novelist, Thomas Hardy fell on the cusp of the nineteenth and twentieth century, easing the longform story toward modernity. Most if not all his novels begin on a country road, where one or more characters move along a landscape on their way to some event or condition, allowing the reader to become gradually immersed in Hardy's social, ethical, and conflict-laden scenery. A splendid example is The Mayor of Casterbridge, which is extremely slow-starting by twenty-first century standards, but which remains one of the most stunning openings of all time. Nevertheless, a twenty-first century version of the same novel could become equally effective simply by rearranging the chronology to the point where one of the front-rank characters, Michael Henchard, was already the mayor of Casterbridge, a well-loved politician with a secret--the secret of the original opening chapter--that would not be revealed until later.

The modern story more often than not begins in the present moment, long enough to define its characters through their behavior and goals before pausing to spoon in background.


degree of intimacy--the extent of awareness and connection between characters; an implicit or explicit recognition between characters of status, a recognition available as well to the reader. Characters who are childhood friends, college room mates, lovers have a greater awareness of the details each in the life of the other, have shared experiences, a mutual understanding of likes, dislikes, philosophies, etc. Such characters will speak in a kind of shorthand, where common experiences need not be explained. It is unlikely that Mary, married to John for ten years, will serve John a steak for dinner, knowing he is a vegan. This scenario obviates the narrative strain of John saying, "As you know, Mary, I do not eat meat." On the other hand, there is some opportunity for dramatic energy were the same vegan John to come home hungry after a day at work, only to see a steak on his plate. "Are you," John might say with a touch of irony, "making some sort of statement here?"

Strangers are more tentative and reserved with one another, although a character might properly betray suspicion toward a complete stranger who affects great concern or loyalty.

Imagine yourself on the receiving end of a telemarketing call, being greeted by a complete stranger, called by your first name, then asked how you are feeling today. Your immediate suspicion is that the individual wants you to buy something, wants you to donate to some cause, or wants you to buy a relatively useless object from which sale the profits will to to some charity.

Characters behave and speak toward one another according to their agendas, their degree of intimacy, their expectations. Characters respond to strangers in accordance with their social prejudices, their ambitions, their cautiousness until they have a better sense of who and what the stranger is.

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