After The Opening Take Your Bearings

I'll talk about short stories first because novels have to do exactly the same thing, only more so. (Novels have to do extra things, too, but don't worry about that now.)

If you followed my advice, you began in médias res. So there'll be things the reader will now be interested in knowing, to understand how matters came to be the way they were in the opening.

So you may decide to insert some exposition at this point or even a dramatized flashback, where past temporarily becomes present. These can do any of a variety of chores.

A New Perspective on Your People

You can broaden the reader's understanding of a character by giving a highly selective account of his past, distant or immediate. Emphasize just the two or three (or so) things which are going to be of significance in your story's present context. As I've said before: Important things—not everything.

Or you may follow the character as he goes about his present business, as Dickens does with Scrooge: trudging home through the holiday streets from his frigid office to his frigid house, starting to eat his wretched supper.

You can get into a full-blown character sketch, establishing some contrary facet of your protagonist that wasn't apparent in the opening. The huge, wilfully unattractive protagonist of Flannery O'Connor's "Good Country People," lumbering around on her artificial leg, is shown to be a highly intelligent, sardonic observer of her rapacious and hypocritical circle of rustic acquaintance.

Naming the Norm

If you're going to establish departure from a norm or a then/now contrast, it's a good time to lay the groundwork for it.

After its beginning, Katherine Anne Porter's Noon Wine shows the newly-hired and mysterious stranger at work in the fields and playing his cherished harmonica, at peace with himself and his surroundings—a peace that will be broken when the farmer discovers the hired man is on the run from a murder. This second section establishes a norm the story's later developments can be contrasted against.

Or the norm may be environmental—the character's society he or she is at odds with. In many of the stories in Dubliners, James Joyce follows that pattern: first giving a close focus on the protagonist, then showing the character's social world, demonstrating common attitudes and customs to present the protagonist in clearer social perspective. If your story has the main character in conflict with his immediate society and social norms, you may want to try this kind of opening-out too.

Switch Viewpoints?

The shortest fiction can seldom support more than one viewpoint. But now the first scene is over; if you're going to change viewpoints at all during your story, here's where you should do it for the first time to establish the pattern for the rest of the story. Thus your character sketch may center, instead, on the story's antagonist, profiling him or her in a way that shows why a collision course with the protagonist is inevitable.

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