Showing posts with label openings. Show all posts
Showing posts with label openings. Show all posts

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Letters to a Young, Middle-Aged, or Geezer Writer, XXII

A hint of intrigue or mischief.

An outrageous proposal.

Logic, spread thinner than the peanut butter in a cafeteria sandwich.

An ironic comparison between two unlikely bedfellows.

A provocative question.

An introduction to an impending disaster or, to use a currently popular illustration, a train wreck.

All these elements and others like them appear with some regularity at the beginning of stories and essays.

They are components of opening velocity, the energy required to nudge stories, essays, reports, and memoir into sufficient activity and structure to keep them not only moving but interesting.  If there is neither intrigue nor challenge at the beginning, why should we expect it to suddenly spring into life somewhere in the interior?  Your work, without opening velocity, is in its own way a Heart of Darkness.

Opening paragraphs are portals into your inner world, the world that informs who you are, what you write about, and how you write it.  Think carefully about the more virtual portals you have entered in recent days or weeks--years, if you wish, recalling how those portals conveyed some positive or negative feelings to you that influenced your experience inside their boundaries.

Think about how you felt, then ask yourself if you are content with your inner world as it is.  Does the arrangement of the furniture suit you?  Are the pictures hung to your wish.the plants watered?  Is there  enough light?  Perhaps there is a tad too much dust?  Why should we enter your landscape in the first place, then there are so many scarier, pleasant, interesting, challenging others so contrived as to lure us in and serve up refreshments on the family china, brought to mouth with the family silverware.

Opening fucking velocity, your key to story that takes us somewhere.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

You want me to hold the chicken

When a given stream of narrative begins to come to life for you, it is usually because some plan or pattern has edged its way to the front of a crowd of competing elements, taking over as it were, and supervising the arrangement of the furniture, possibly even surprising you by requiring more than one venue in which the arrangement is to be made.


In anticipation of the arrival of this plan that will set things in motion, you occasionally will get a sentence or paragraph, possibly as much as a page, set forth as though it knows what it wants. As you are forming these tentative arrangements, you're waiting to hear the sound of shifting gears, a sound that means you've achieved take-off speed and are beginning to get momentum.

If there are no such sounds of shifting gears by the end of the second page, and you find yourself in a position similar to Wile E. Coyote, over the boundary of the butte or mesa, with nothing below you except the view of a long way down, the energy stops and you take the downward plummet, kerboom, the next step being to hit the delete key if you happen to be at your computer or to draw a diagonal line through the material on your note pad. The results are the same: back to a relaunch.

At times, the need for this take-off velocity requires five or six such Wile E. Coyote plunges. They are worth the fall, although at the time the interior critic is beginning to remind you of the stereotypical back-seat driver, with such questioning tropes as And you call yourself a writer, or worse, And you walk into the class room and presume to tell others how to get started, or even worse yet as in, Sid doesn't have to go through all this rigamarole because Sid has an outline. (The Sid brought up to you by your inner back-seat driver is S.L. "Sid" Stebel, a faculty mate of yours at the Santa Barbara Writers' Conference and as well at the Masters in Professional Writing Program at USC.)

The fact of securing an opening scene in which you hear the gears shifting and feel the rush of story in the works does not mean you are at all home free or that any of the material thus secured will be kept or that it will be kept in the order you first intended. Case in point, what now stands at the opening scene of The Secrets of Casa Jocosa was actually chapter two until, some weeks back, you read through the day's catch and made one of your famous decisions about where the story starts. This also gave you the format and, in a significant way, the voice or attitude in which the material was presented.

When you attend the party where story is being served, the usual rules of politeness, manners, and etiquette don't apply. You can ask for second and third helpings, dawdle over your vegetables, and take an early shot at desert. You can send things back to the kitchen and as well tell your host that you are not all that fond of chicken. You can--mirable dictu--use catsup, an image of particular meaning to you because, oh these many years ago, an author whom you'd admired on your way up through the ranks was now your writer; you'd published two of his novels and were dining at his home to discuss his next work. The evening was made memorable because there was a bottle of catsup on the table and the author's wife split an infinitive and a gut in her Southern belle way. You do not, she insisted, embarrass me before your editor by allowing a bottle of catsup on my table. (You have wanted to use that line of dialogue ever since and now, you have used it.)

The point you distracted yourself away from is that you are in charge of stirring up the energy and the attack; you have to take the risk of extending yourself beyond your reach, and not doing so will put the brakes on your growth as a writer and certainly make the present work, whatever it is, at considerable risk of being set down in any form at all.

In the beginning, you are as Bobby DuPre, stopping in at a roadside restaurant in search of a breakfast that may break all the rules of the house, but which is nevertheless your dream of a breakfast. You want me to hold the chicken.

Friday, April 10, 2009

In the Muddle of Things

in medias res--literally in the middle of things; a reference to dramatic works that begin with a good deal of backstory having already taken place; a dramatically convenient way to expose the reader to the main characters.

One of the older, more enduring narratives with an in medias res beginning is The Iliad, where the Trojan War has already been raging for six years, and begins with a relatively minor incident in which one of the major players, Achilles, feels he has been insulted and consequently decides to stop fighting, indeed removes his Myrmidon warriors from the forces attacking Troy, a decision that could turn the tide of battle. Some of the other major players try to talk him out of his decision, during the course of which we get doses of backstory.

In medias res openings begin at some dramatic point which sets opposing forces in enough motion to engage the readers before taking a dramatic pause to fill in relevant details, descriptions, stakes, and issues. No less popular now than they were back in the early centuries, these openings become a valuable tool for writers to study. They support the removal of chronological constraints, and they guide the writer into beginning with situations where characters are actively engaged in conflict, by their very nature making it difficult for the writer to spend too much time on description or backstory the reader has not yet been prepared to accept.

A more recent in medias res novel worth study is Ford Maddox Ford's The Good Soldier, which in addition to its jumbled chronology, features John Dowell, at first a seeming naive narrator then, by degrees, an unreliable one.

There is nothing toxic or wrong with telling a story in more or less strict chronology. Tobias Wolff's memorable short story, "Bullet in the Brain," is a compelling example. "Anders couldn't get to the bank until just before it closed," it begins, "so of course the line was endless and he got stuck behind two women whose loud, stupid conversation put him in a murderous temper. He was never in the best of tempers, anyway, Anders--a book critic known for the weary, elegant savagery with which he dispatched almost everything he reviewed."

From this beginning, it proceeds in close chronology to the dramatic payoff.

In medias res openings often come as a result of a revision tactic in which the writer purposefully reviews the entire narrative, searching for the most ideal place to begin. Sometimes moving the furniture about for a better arrangement will transform a story from the ordinary to the memorable.