Grand Openings

YOU HAVE A STORY IDEA. You've tested it with the four questions to make sure it's basically sound. You've decided whether it seems to want to be long or short fiction. Now you're going to have to people and dramatize it. How do you start?

The first thing to realize is that generally you're not going to begin at the beginning. Your story's start, the actual words that begin the narrative, will be a good way along in the progress of the events you're imagining.

The Greeks, as translated by the Romans, called it in médias res: in the middle of things. Starting there, in the middle of things, is even more necessary if your story is going to have negative motivation—that is, if it's one in which your chief character, the protagonist, is reacting against something that has happened. Stories arising from reactions have a past that will try to encumber the story's beginning, if you let it.

That kind of built-in past is called 'exposition'—the necessary explanations that are needed to understand what's going on now. Because exposition is, of its nature, telling rather than showing, it's intrinsically less dramatic than a scene. So it needs careful handling.

Maybe you're thinking, Well, I'll avoid the problem of handling exposition by going back to the very beginning of things, when the people involved first met, before there were any problems between them, so there will be no need of background material. NO!

I say "No" so strongly because exposition very seldom makes good plot. It turns into an explanation. Nothing is happening. Long stretches of exposition tend to get boring very, very fast. I'll talk in more detail about handling exposition in Chapter 4. For now, know that however you handle it, you should do everything possible to avoid encumbering your beginnings with it.

Departure from a Norm

If what you're trying to show is a change from a pre-existing norm (contrasting before/after or then/now), and that norm is really vital to what is going to happen, you should demonstrate that norm in the briefest possible space, as something already being departed from. A paragraph or two, at most, in a short story; a page or two, in a novel. And neither paragraph nor page should generally be the first one. Get your action rolling first, then back off to show the normal state of things.

That's what Dickens does, in A Christmas Carol. It starts out, "Marley was dead to begin with." Then we move to an overview of what's normal for Scrooge—his coldly businesslike attitudes, his harshness and callousness—in a series of brief confrontations with his nephew, with businessmen collecting for charity, and with his clerk, Bob Cratchit. His attitudes are all the more shocking in that this isn't just any ordinary day, but Christmas Eve. Then, when Scrooge shuts up shop and goes home, he sees the face of his dead ex-partner, Marley, on his door-knocker and things get rapidly stranger from then on.

The plot gets rolling before Dickens backs off and gives the norm—Scrooge's pre-existing attitudes. This norm isn't explained but instead is demonstrated, shown in a series of brief scenes, after which Dickens returns to the main plot, Scrooge's confrontation with his own past, present, and grim probable future, as embodied by the tortured wraith of Marley, Scrooge's mirror. (More on mirrors and other methods of echoing the main action in Chapter 8.)

You can even set up a character to represent the norm. That's the function Watson serves in the Holmes stories, and the average Ralph as contrasted with ambitious Jack, fat incompe tent clever Piggy, and mystical Simon in Lord of the Flies. Such a character gives the reader somebody to identify with and judge the other, more unusual characters by.

My strong advice is that if establishing a pre-existing norm isn't absolutely vital, skip it. Leave it out altogether, if you possibly can. Instead, start in médias res. In general practice, that means starting your actual narrative just before, or even during, the first major conflict or confrontation: the point at which things start to get serious, when they start moving toward final crisis.

Specifically, that means starting a short story just before the main crisis which will provide the story's resolution. Start a novel during the first crisis, because you'll have time to draw back and explain how things got that way later in the first chapter, or even in chapter two.

Don't tell how the protagonist decided to go out and buy fireworks, how much they cost, how he brought them home, how he stored them, what his wife said. Begin when the fuse is lit and the reader sees a bang coming any minute.

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