Friday, November 6, 2015

Opening Paragraphs and Hidden Agendas

Finding the beginning of a story or of a chapter within a story is like a drunk, trying to fit the correct house key into the door lock.  You know this because you, while drunk, have experienced the frustration of getting the lock to remain stationary, and while sober, you've tried to get the sentence you knew was there, but was not quite ready to reveal itself to you.

When you stop to think about the multifarious range of elements needed for openings, your head spins as it has done on occasion when you had too much to drink.  Sometimes, to get the process moving, you use a note pad to list the necessary things for the beginning.  Start with someone relevant, if not he or she who will become the main character.

This is often a lucrative step because he or she wants or needs something,  He or she must, in your opinion, be a bit off plumb, having wanted and striven in the past with at best a string of near misses.  This introduces a note of desperation or sense of fatalism.  (A trapeze artist who has been dropped on occasion becomes suspicious of shaking hands.)

The beginning must have a setting.  Through the years, you've understood the need to give the setting a personality that somehow causes the reader if not the reader and characters a sense of discomfort.  

One way to accomplish this is to imagine some interior flaw such as a clogged drain, a dripping faucet, an infestation of termites, perhaps even something as fanciful as a squatter, living in some unnoticed space.  You will not mention this flaw nor will you allow your characters to refer to it.

Suffice it to be an active, imaginative flaw, tucked away in your vision of the place so that your awareness of it will effect the way you see the place, which will be transferred to the way the characters sense something amiss.  "Is it all right to sit here?"  "Yes, of course.  Why would you even ask?"  "I'm not sure.  There's something uncertain here, as though it were in use by someone who will return at any minute."

This is one of your defining characteristics.  Your primary character sits at a table in a coffee shop, waiting for an important rendezvous.  Someone in a nearby table asks the character if she/he will please watch his/her table for a moment.  The primary character agrees.  His/her appointment arrives, takes one look at the surroundings, then insists they leave.  The primary character is bound by the promise made to watch the table and books or laptop computer or backpack or even a rolling suitcase.  

The appointment person grows impatient.  "We  have to leave now."  But as they start to leave, the primary character already feeling guilty for having broken a promise to a complete stranger, requests five more minutes.  When the five minutes have expired, the two start to the door, which is blocked by the police.  The person from the nearby table, the one who asked for the primary to watch his/her things, will have been murdered.

The appointment person nudges the primary character.  "I told you we had to leave."  We do not know what's going on, but we do suspect the appointment person of having been the one to have dispatched the person from the nearby table.

Additional to characters and setting, beginnings require some sense of impending disaster, some outrageous irony, some twist of fate.  Even so, the beginning requires a sense of some pattern the reader senses, some causal force behind the events.

The more aspects of presence you think to braid into your beginning, the more daunting the beginning comes.  You appreciate all the more the metaphor of the trunk, fumbling with his keys. The only way out of the situation is for you, in your desperation to get the story off and running, is another complication.

You have at least two avenues open before you.  In the metaphor of the drunk, trying to gain entry to his home, how about a neighbor, equally drunk, appears, confesses to our drunk that she can't get her door open, and would our person please, please help.  On the other hand, the prime character is now being questioned by the police, who wonder why his/her name was in the pocket of the deceased.

For the longest time, you believed you could not plot.  During that long time, you'd have given anything for these ruminations.  But even then, you knew your way around an opening sentence.

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