Saturday, July 25, 2015

In the Beginning There Had Better Be a Beginning

Many stories begin with one or more short quotations from a longer work. These may be set in the front matter of the book, after the display of half-title and title page, copyright  information, and dedication.  They're called epigrams.  They supply a hint of the emotion--often irony--the writer is shooting for in the story to come.

Other stories have one-line epigrams at the start of each chapter, also in the spirit of providing a thematic under or overtone.  Yet other stories begin with a Preface or some brief introductory material often taken directly from later in the text.  

Your friend, Leonard Tourney, writing of the Elizabethan equivalent of Nick and Nora Charles in his historical mysteries for Tom Dunne at St. Martins, called his openings slices of the crime.

Greek drama frequently began with the appearance on stage of a group of individuals who presented themselves as The Chorus, directly addressing the audience, asking them questions, making suggestions, at the same time filling in background.  Your favorite of these is the opening chorus to Aristophanes play, The Frogs, while Shakespeare's chorus-like opening to Henry V is a delightful reminder to you what the writer needs to present to an audience at the outset in order to make the audience forget the fact of being in a cramped theater instead of in si
had Btu of the story.

You've resorted to these epigrams on occasion, your favorite being a four-word quote from Chaucer, "A world full Tickle," which did in fact open up the quirky pathway the story took.  The epigram was more in the spirit of getting you and Chaucer in the same breath, nevertheless there were some tickles in your story and many in Chaucer's memorable "The Miller's Tale."

Epigrams are fun.  You enjoy them, but the more you think about the matter, you conclude that they are a decorative flourish on the work at hand, a braid or swirl of border on the icing of a cake that would have done well without the icing.

The desire to inform the audience of vital background material is often the product of a writer less-than-secure of the outcome or the realization of the effect  on the reader/audience.  We'll just thrown in a little Kierkegaard or Hegel or perhaps some Alfred Hitchcock, and damn it, who would fail to get the implication about shadows and archetypes if there were an epithet from C.G. Jung?

Many of the novels swirling about in your awareness now have no prefatory material.  Not the case with your man, Mr. Twain, who, much to your liking, takes on the convention of the beginning epigram.  "Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative," he says at the outset of Huckleberry Finn, "will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot."

Twain was going on fifty at the time, well on his way to fame and some distance away from an old pal from the mining days in Virginia City, Nevada, William Wright, a writer/humorist who wrote more often as Dan DeQuille.  Wright's magnum opus, The Big Bonanza, had a preface that .must have given Twain a nudge that he had to to acknowledge.  "I have said everything I had to say about this matter in the text of the book, but having been told a Preface is necessary, I have written this."

The beginnings that matter most to you are those where you are blindsided by a combination of curiosity, concern, interest, and the possibility for rushing toward an empathy that might pull you farther in and along than you'd wish.

The hundred novels occupying most of your attention at the moment all have in common some manner of opening that speaks to these conditions and circumstances.  There is nothing quite like the feeling of approaching a novel for the first time, thinking to read a few chapters before sleep or work, then become aware of the disruptive effect the novel has had, where sleep, work, and any pretense of schedule get short notice because the beginning of the work you're reading has such a powerful opening velocity.

You put considerable time into the crafting of your own openings because you've learned over the years from your own reading of the work of others how vital the opening is.  The more you become aware of the number of drafts necessary to complete a work to your satisfaction, the greater your appreciation of the opening pages.

You're going to be wrestling with the project for months.  At some point, the beginning is all you'll have to keep you going.

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