Wednesday, October 31, 2012

In the Beginning


Stories never seem to begin where you thought.  Even though there are times when a resonant setup presents itself to you, much in the manner of those impressive opening lines of one of your favorite short story writers, Lee K. Abbott, subsequent events (and numerous revisions) dictate otherwise.

You can tell yourself, by way of consolation, how rare it is in real life for story to begin with a notable flourish or impressive fanfare.  Telling yourself this reminds you how in real life story is often upon you and gathering momentum without giving you time to notice.  In some ways, story in real life is the equivalent of having walked unaware into a spider web.

Stories have supplementary background, sometimes a series of minor eruptions; other times yet a single, magisterial explosion sending the elements forth to wrap themselves about you and any number of others. Some stories involve numerous strands of event and history, events that have led up to the story now taking place.

A simple, straightforward rule to follow is to keep at least fifty-one percent of the story in the present.  Anything less is dramatic nature’s way of reminding you that you’ve begun too soon.

The old ones had a term for this, the in medias res, one of many examples of their shrewdness when it came to constructing stories and judging the attention span of audiences.  Their approach was to begin a story in the middle of things to the point of intriguing their readers, then taking a brief pause to slip in some of the backstory before moving forward once again.

You’ve come to recognize the effective use of time lines, taking a rest here at a dramatic open spot, sliding back into the past for a time, then seeming to meander along under the guise of catching up.  This impresses you with the sense of a narrative being told in strict chronology not being a real story, rather a parade of events, hence episodic.

When story (rather than mere event or reportage of event) is at its best, you as witness (reader) are in a constant state of surprise, not knowing where you will be taken next, only that you are clinging to the rails, eager to be transported someplace, somewhere in time.  You also enjoy being led to believe or assume certain inevitabilities, outcomes, and destinations, only to have them proven wrong; this, too, adds to the sense of realism, suspense, tension, and dread of potential outcome.  Now that you think about it, all these emotions obtain when life seems to be going on about you in an “interesting” fashion.

If you remain with a story for long, as a reader or a writer, you have begun to root for certain outcomes to be the resolution for individuals among the characters.  In some cases such as suspense or noir fiction, you begin to suspect then fear a particular character has in one way or another, emulated Icarus a tad too much, with the consequence that the wax holding her/his feathers together begins to melt with disastrous consequences.

You could not have progressed this far if the story had not somehow begun at a place where you were yanked into the narrative and held in place with those effective tools of suspense, tension, and curiosity.

You in effect want the witch to leave the right amount of crumbs for the children to follow.  If she leaves too many, you become quits with her dramatic housekeeping.  If she leaves too few crumbs, you become bored.  The right amount of crumbs (intriguing details) is the result of removing everything you don’t need, which is to say everything that fails to earn its way into your drafts and remain after close scrutiny.

Now that you think about your own opening sentences and paragraphs, don’t they come after revision has begun?  And if they’d been there all along, perhaps they got to the head of the line along about the fifth or sixth draft, when the narrative begins to show signs of having a chance to make it, and of beginning to get a second wind.



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