Beginning The Story Before The Beginning

Where, then, do you start your narrative of consequential events involving worthy human characters?

Usually, you begin just before the beginning.

This is not as contradictory as it sounds. If you look at a man's life in its entirety, there will be high spots and low spots, good times and bad. You will select from that life one particular story to tell, say the time your subject got fired from Bromberg & Bromberg and went into business for himself. You choose this story to tell because it is, in your opinion, potentially the most dramatic, exciting, and fresh.

Where exactly would you begin to relate your narrative of events? The best place would probably be just before the firing. The firing itself marks the beginning of the story. But we can't understand the impact of the firing unless we understand what the character's situation was before he was fired. Is the firing a good thing or a bad thing for him? If it's a horrible job and the character should leave it, the firing is a relief. If he needs the job desperately and the firing represents impending ruin, you have a totally different situation. Events can only be understood within the context of the character's situation at the time the event occurs; therefore it's important to the reader to know the status quo situation, which is the state of things at a particular time.

The events prior to the firing take place within the status quo situation. The core conflict (his struggle to get started in his own business) would begin at the firing.

• Michael Corleone in The Godfather is a war hero; he considers himself patriotic and law-abiding, and in the opening of The Godfather he is contemptuous of his father's illegal business. This is the status quo situation before the pivotal character (the character who forces the action), Sol-lozzo, attempts to get the Corleone family involved in the drug business. Sollozzo's offer is the event that begins the core conflict of The Godfather.

• In One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest:, the narrative begins before McMurphy enters the ward

(the status quo situation). The story begins with McMurphy's arrival a few pages later.

• At the beginning of A Christmas Carol, before the arrival of the ghosts, Scrooge has conflicts with his clerk, his nephew, and two gentlemen who come seeking a charitable gift. These conflicts occur within the status quo situation. The core conflict begins later with the arrival of the ghosts.

• The Spy Who Came in from the Cold begins at the end of Leamas's previous assignment (the status quo situation). We see him as the cool professional at the top of his form before he gets his new assignment—to go behind the Iron Curtain posing as a defector.

• Hemingway started The Old Man and the Sea the evening before the old man goes out to catch the big fish (the status quo situation). When he rows out to sea the next day to try to catch the fish the core conflict begins.

• Flaubert opens Madame Bovary with Charles Bovary married to his first wife (the status quo situation), long before we meet Emma, the protagonist of the novel.

• In Lolita, Nabokov gives us Humbert Humbert's biography (the status quo situation) well before he shows us Lolita. We understand completely his need for her, even before we meet her.

Just as the playwright sets the stage, as the opera has an overture, as the Constitution has a preamble, the fiction writer depicts the status quo situation. It shows the reader the fictive world as it is before the events of the core conflict begin to unfold. It is the soup and salad before the entree.

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