Tuesday, February 24, 2009

In the Beginning

beginnings--places where story becomes dramatic; moments of narrative inertia; onsets of events that assume dramatic form.

The longer the story the greater the likelihood that it will have more than one optimal beginning point, thus the beginnings you see on stories that resonate for you have involved deliberation and choice on the part of their writer. The same choice and deliberation are owed your own beginnings. Ideally, beginnings are places where action is already in motion, where action is about to begin, where a choice has just been made, or where a character is confronted by discovery or event that knocks him or her from everyday routine.

Readers are less likely to care about a story that introduces itself with backstory or some other form of explanation or footnote. Example: You are at a gathering--a party, or, if you insist, a soiree--when, of a sudden, an individual you do not know by name approaches you, telling you with convincing sincerity and sobriety, "Please help me. I've got to get out of here. There are two people in the next room who are after me."

Your mind is already filled with such questions as Who are you? and Why me? Both these questions will and should be answered, but if this is to be the beginning of a story, now is not the moment for the details. We want more convincing details that force the issue, which happens to be the issue of the beset individual's actions, convincing you, perhaps even against your will, to become involved, caught up in an ever slippy slope of dramatic event.

The Scottish writer, Ali Smith, has it down perfectly in her story, "The Child," where a protagonist who is never named is using her lunch break to buy her "weekly stuff" in a supermarket. Shopping carts in Scotland and England are called trolleys. "I left my trolley by the vegetables and went to find bouquet garni for the soup. But when I came back to the vegetables again, I couldn't find my trolley. It seemed to have been moved." In its place was someone else's shopping cart, with a child sitting in the little child seat. This is all in the first paragraph.

By the second paragraph, the narrator realizes it is her shopping cart; events persist to the point where everyone in the market thinks the child is hers. So completely have we tumbled into the events of the story that we do not question the narrator's resolve to take the child to the nearest police department; much less do we question the fact that the child has now begun to speak, delivering in the manner of a second- or third-rate stand-up comic a stream of racist and sexist commentary.

Even though we do not know her name or where she works or what she does or if in fact she is in a romantic relationship, we share with Smith's narrator a sense of being caught up in a swirl of event that demands a solution.

Beginnings yank us into situations that need coping; they lead us onto the path where we search for some kind of conclusion or, at the very least, a settlement.

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