Tuesday, February 17, 2009

The Opening Pages of a Hard-Luck Story

opening pages--the first three or four pages of a novel manuscript, usually the first page of a short story manuscript; the opening velocity of a story; archaic references: hook, narrative hook.

Before a novel or short story has any hope of finding its way into book, electronic, or periodical publication, it must pass the watchful eye of the literary agent and/or the acquisition editor. To accomplish this goal, the narrative must present an interesting character in a situation of confrontation, danger, discovery, or emotional quandary of significant enough degree to trigger some measure of concern. The writer who refuses to consider this calculus or who feels unable to execute it is at high risk of receiving a note declining the manuscript on the grounds that the reader had not been sufficiently made to care.

As observed by such plot-driven writers as Louis L'Amour, Frank Gruber, and Elmore Leonard, many novels and short stories, sent forth into the world as eagerly as hand-waving students wanting to impress their teacher with their knowledge of the right answer, do not always begin at the right place. Ideally, the opening pages plunk a character into a spot where the character is physically vulnerable--sometimes emotionally vulnerable as well. The opening pages also include some implicit agreement that the character will get back up and try again.

Often the true opening pages of a story are buried within backstory or other explanations which come forth more as unwanted-but-necessary descriptions rather than emotion-based circumstances. The net result is to present the reader with text book narrative rather than dramatic engagement. 

 The solution is often found in the revision process, wherein the true opening pages present themselves. How are these pages to be recognized? They are spare on description and backstory, sparer still on auxiliary verbs such as had, which yank the chronology from the present to the past.

Wherever opening pages are in the story's chronology, they are more effective if they appear to be happening in the immediate present. If they actually took place, say, ten or twelve years earlier, the reader will quickly adopt to the manipulation of the time frame. No convention requires fiction to be in strict chronology; chiropractic adjustments to chronology add to the senses of tension, suspense, and reality.

hard-luck story--a narrative which intends through its telling to evoke sympathy and compassion for the teller; a story in which one or more characters collide with an ever worsening pattern of setback and misfortune.

All stories have some kind of end-game goal, some intended effect on the hearer/reader. Is it laughter? Perhaps the author's intent is education, or irony, or reversal. Perhaps the narrative is offered in self-defense, or the adjunct of self-defense, excuse. As long as we're dwelling on the conditional perhaps, might be the intent of a story is to make the teller sound modest--moi?--or resourceful.

Surely one of the more plentiful among dramatic narratives is the hard-luck story or its close relative, the sob story. The purpose is to evoke or elicit sympathy for the teller, both in the nature of troubles piled on and in the way the load is borne by the forces of Nature and natural disaster.

You could say--and probably will, once you think about it--that The Book of Job is the classic hard-luck story, not only because of the trials visited upon Job but as well because of the capricious nature of the way the visitation was set in motion. Job happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, when those polar representations of The Cosmic Forces got into a bragging and betting mood.

In more modern times, you could argue that an archetypal hard-luck story is found in a heavy contributor to Republican politics, being given a chance to go hunting with the forty-third Vice President of the United States. We all know how that turned out. That poor man will be known throughout history as the man who went bird hunting with the Veep. In Texas, where the incident took place, Republican school children will be allowed to stay home from school on the anniversary of that day, and boys with aggressive cases of facial zits will be able to say, "I went dove hunting with Dick Cheney."

You could also, if you wanted, put the majority of Americans of voting age as players in a hard-luck story because it was our hard luck to have at the helm of the ship of state a man more like Captain Ahab than the President of the United States, although there are those who would disagree with my literary analogy, reminding me of Mary Shelley's archetypal Frankenstein as the more appropriate fit. Dr. Frankenstein represents the force behind the Vice President of the United States, a man who once was more benign than he now is, having created a monster who has attached some seven hundred fifty signing statements to bills acted into law by the Congress. Mrs. Shelley's point was a moral one, in which hubris could create a monster.

It's our hard luck story that the forty-third President of the United States, with graduate work in hubris, was in over his head and the best we could think to do in the name of conventional wisdom was to wait his term of office out.

We will nationally remain at the wrong end of a hard-luck story as long as we continue to accept our status as victim.  


Querulous Squirrel said...

It's interesting how in so much of American culture, not so much in politics, but in poverty, abuse, rape and other victimization, the hard luck story has reverted to the you-brought-it-on-yourself-story. The classic "blame the victim" story, which leads to enormous guilt on the part of the victim and lets the perpetrator off scott-free. Foreclosures come to mind, though some responsibility was shared there.

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