Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Page One: Too Much Toothpaste out of the Tube

In your experience as an editor and a teacher of creative writing, the single most difficult aspect of story to convey to writers and wannabes is where the story begins.  Although you are far from content with the place where some published stories begin, you do see an agreeable pattern governing the place where most published stories begin.

You'd think wannabe writers would allow themselves to be guided by this overwhelming backlog of precedent-setting examples, but for several reasons, you'd be wrong.  A few of these several reasons start with the desires of the wannabe writer to demonstrate from word one the fact of being a writer.  

This often means an introductory sentence or paragraph describing the existential effects of the ambient weather on the protagonist of the story, at which point, the angst and vulnerability of the main character established, we may move outward to the effects of the weather on enough of the physical aspects of the character to allow her or him to appear within our imagination.

With luck on the reader's side, this type of beginning will only last a page or two.  But there are the feelings of the emerging writer to consider. Will she or he be content to allow matters to rest here, or will uncertainty prompt yet another demonstration of skillful, descriptive writing?   

All too often, this state of mind will lead to several paragraphs of what you've come to think of as edgy travel writing, descriptions of the setting in which the protagonist finds herself, recalling similar places, perhaps even this very place, at a happier time.

Things had been different then, she thought with a sigh.  Oh, yes, they had, which somehow is meant to explain why the character on stage is at the current moment feeling so wretched or depressed or unable to take the physical steps necessary to get the story moving.  

You advocate what you have come to call the eighty-five/fifteen approach, by which you mean opening pages, whether of a novel or shorter work, are eighty-five percent action against a background of fifteen percent description or reaction to the action.  When the boulder has been pushed over the crest of the hill, when a significant part of the story, perhaps even its theme, has been set in motion, we can alter the eighty-five/fifteen, often to the extreme of sixty/forty.  But not for long.

As soon as we find out what the boulder was doing at the top of the hill, how it had arrived there, and why the protagonist had, after all that work, decided to give it a shove to send it on its careening downward path.

Much of the time, when discussing and describing the aspects and consequences of action to emerging writers and students, you are patient.  This is so not so much because you were for so long that same, argumentative student or wannabe as it is so because of the parallels you see between the actor and the character, each relying on action with full body, with pacing and poise in the delivery of dialogue.  

You wish to impart this in such a way that you will not leave the wannabe or student with the impression you believe all action to be aggressive in its physicality.  There are times when a mere "No," is action enough.  There are times when one or more of the other characters will not take the no as definitive.

Actors were called players before they were called actors.  A player was a person who played a role, acted in a way that would give dimension and nuance to what the character did, said, did not do, and did not say.  A character is an actor the writer has casted to play this part, to interpret rather than describe the words and activities of the person involved in the story.

Like characters, actors have differing approaches to pushing the rock to the top of the hill.  Tom Sawyer had a fine technique for getting his chums not only to whitewash the very fence they'd earlier teased him for having to work on, they were willing to pay him for the privilege of doing so.

The ideal place for necessary explanations and backstory is the final paragraphs of a short story, the penultimate chapter of a novel, the reader's curiosity forcing the reader to stay onboard in order to get and process the explanations.  Few stories or novels work that way, a vivid reminder that beginnings are easy, endings less so.

The purpose of the beginning is to cause the reader to experience the curiosity for detail the emerging writer so often tries to head off at the pass with too much explanation, too much rationale, too many answers.

Story begins with movement built around desire, need, urgency, enough of each to cause the reader to wonder why and how this is going to end.  The art associated with the ending has to do with the way the writer is able to withhold the dynamics of the details for as long as possible. 

Too much toothpaste squeezed out of the tube.  How are they going to get the surplus back in?

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