Friday, December 6, 2013

In the Beginning

One pleasant afternoon at lunch with a man who knew his way around loyalty and story, you learned things about beginnings you'd never considered before and have held close to hand ever since.

The man has been dead since 1988, but his books continue to sell in the tens of millions of copies each year.  You'd called in some chips with his literary agent to broker the meeting, in which you were authorized to make him an offer that would, in effect, cause him to change publishers.

"And,"  he said, "you would become my editor."

With those cards on the table, exposed, facing up, he made a sweeping gesture with his hand, which was large and, as you recall it, bony.  "Out of the question," he said.  "I am loyal."  And that was that.  Except for the fact of that now being that.  "We shall have a long, pleasant lunch,"  he said, "enjoy each other's company, and talk story."

The man was Louis L'Amour, a writer who was one of a few who kept the Western alive and thriving into the twentieth century, well poised to continue into the twenty-first.  Other writers of similar stature, Elmore Leonard, Elmer Kelton, and Jack Schaeffer, had a better, more quirky handle on style and narrative voice, but L'Amour's handle on story was by all accounts their equal if not their superior.

"Most writers,"  he said at that meeting, which by your reckoning took place in the early 1970s, "begin their stories too soon.  They want you to know too many things up front, before they matter."

You have never looked back on your own concept of beginnings, considering instead the implications made available to you as a writer, an editor, and a teacher.

This leads you today to the implication that you have no way of knowing where your story begins until you have written at least one complete draft of it.  Even then, as you look with care, you might spot an opening you'd have not considered.  The opening could transform the nature of the narrative on which you'd embarked from something that seemed to you quite funny or quite tragic into its polar opposite.

Thus rule number one:  Forget chronology.  You may find a convenience is pursuing chronological order while you are establishing relationships with your characters and your understanding of their motives, but after a time you begin to regard any dramatic narrative and most of the narrative streams you encounter in real time as being out of chronology.

Story--and life events--begins with event.  Something has happened.  Or, something that happens on a regular basis does not happen.  "Nobody came to work that day.  Nobody but Charlie, who began to suspect he might have got his days mixed up, which was something he'd heard of persons his age doing, showing up on a Saturday or Sunday, thinking it was Thursday or Friday.

"The office was lighted the way it was on work days.  Many of the In baskets seemed to have fresh batches of files and memos.  There was even the acrid scent of coffee, brewing in the employee's lounge.  But no people."

What does Charlie do next?  How does he find out what's going on?  It had better be intriguing, because Charlie is clearly our way into the story and the mystery of where everyone is, and why there was coffee made.

For years, the sudden disappearance of the Anasazi from their pueblo homes baffled anthropologists and archaeologists, until a number of curious scientists began to piece together a scenario that held up to the point of becoming accepted and demonstrable fact.

A disappearance is a good way to start a story.

Where's Fred?  My car is missing.  What happened to my dog?  Where is my brief case?

Another good beginning would involve one or more scientists or detectives or searchers or someone through whose eyes we experience the narrative telling us, "I guess we'll never know what happened here."  And someone else saying, "I can't accept that.  I have to know."
"Yeah, well, good luck."

In some ways, you are saying you have no real idea when you are beginning an event, much less starting a story.  When your eyes pop open in the morning, and you become aware of where you are and what your schedule for the day is, does that count as a beginning of the day, or do you have to center it a bit more with the observation that you overslept your allotted time for waking or were up early in anticipation, or perhaps had got little sleep at all, fretting over the excruciating aspects of what awaited you?

In the beginning was the word.  Maybe so, but in the beginning of what?  In the beginning of the story, the universe, the history?

Suppose someone is questioning you, has listened to your narrative, then wishes to ask questions.  "Let's start at the beginning,"  that someone asks you.  "The beginning of what?"  you say.  "The chain of events under discussion here."  "Well,"  you say, "why didn't you say so?"

The possibility may arise that you'll have concocted an entire fictional history that you might in fact ignore, all in the service of finding out where your current story begins.

Some of the early writers had a term for it, in medias res.  In the middle of things.  Isn't this where The Iliad begins?  Not with the abduction of Helen.  Not with the events that caused Helen to have been abducted in the first place.  How was Paris supposed to know that the most beautiful woman in the world, who'd been promised to him by a goddess for voting for her in a beauty contest, was a married woman?

The things that are wrong with the picture of agendas, attitudes, conflicts, and plain old human nature cause The Iliad to be so worth our while because they are so reflective of human nature.

In its splendid way, The Canterbury Tales is a series of beginnings, not the least of which is the order of presentation of the tales told by the individual pilgrims.  If you look closely, you'll see that the order of telling is an index of social standing.  And don't the characters know it?

Among the first things you do when revising your own work or embarking on the editing of the work of someone else is to establish where the narrative begins.  In order to do that, you have to read the entire manuscript.  The beginning could be as far into the narrative as the penultimate paragraph; it could even be the last paragraph.  Not to worry, all is not lost, merely some furniture to be rearranged.

I don't know where to begin.

Just begin at the beginning.

Once upon a time.

“Here is Edward Bear, coming downstairs now, bump, bump, bump, on the back of his head, behind Christopher Robin. It is, as far as he knows, the only way of coming downstairs, but sometimes he feels that there really is another way, if only he could stop bumping for a moment and think of it. And then he feels that perhaps there isn't.”

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