Juggling Three Balls At Once

Every effective beginning needs to do three things. The chief of these is to get the story going and show what kind of story it's going to be. The second is to introduce and characterize the protagonist. The third is to engage the reader's interest in reading on.

Some beginnings do more than this. Some create moods; some introduce narrators who aren't the protagonist, or one or more of the subordinate characters. Some, as just discussed, establish a norm the story will then depart from.

A story can do more than these three things; but it should never do less.

These three special jobs are absolutely vital. To the degree that any short story or novel neglects them, it's risking being dull, uninvolving and possibly confusing reading.

Remember, I'm talking about the very beginning here: the first page or so of a short story, the first few pages of a novel.

Setting the Scene with a Scene

The most economical way of handling these three jobs is to find some way of doing all three at once.

And the best way of doing that, generally, is inventing an appropriate scene: what's going on when the reader starts your story.

Try to think up what situation your protagonist could be in which would directly lead into the final crisis or confrontation, whatever it's going to be. Not an idea, not a description: a situation. A dramatized action with some kind of inherent conflict appropriate to what will follow. The opening situation should be true to the story as a whole, not be (or seem) something tacked on just for the sake of a vivid, exciting opening which, in retrospect, will seem contrived.

Look at the opening of Stephen King's It. A child dies, dragged down a grate during a rainstorm by what appears to be a malevolent clown looking up from the sewer. The threat isn't a fake—a child can die, the beginning tells us. And since the rest of the novel involves children trying to understand and defeat the threat that "clown" poses, the opening is valid to the rest of the book. It makes a reader interested in reading on, to learn how this murderous menace will be fought. And it characterizes the protagonist in a brief scene where he makes the paper boat which the boy (the protagonist's little brother) was chasing when the clown got him.

It's an opening which does all its necessary jobs well.

Characters Busy Being Themselves Before Our Very Eyes

Next, think what your protagonist could be doing, in the context of that situation, which would directly show, with little or no explanation from you, exactly what kind of person he or she is.

In the beginning of Lord ofthe Flies, Ralph finds a conch shell on the beach. Piggy comments on how valuable such shells are and tells Ralph a conch can be blown, like a trumpet. Piggy, being asthmatic, can't blow the shell himself; but his information is what allows Ralph to blow the shell, calling the scattered casta way boys together for the first time.

That shell is the emblem of leadership through the rest of the book. Ralph, finder of the shell, is the leader as long as the shell lasts, with Piggy as his "brain trust"—precisely the pattern set up at the book's opening. When the conch is destroyed, the shell and Piggy both smashed by a huge boulder rolled by Jack's chief henchman, the action represents the destruction of any authority save that of power and of fear. Piggy is dead. The reader knows that the hunt for Ralph won't be long in coming.

Again, this is a masterly beginning in which each character, upon entering, does something that economically and effectively shows precisely who and what he is, in this particular context.

And notice how the conch is used to characterize the people who come in contact with it. It becomes a symbol, not because the author arbitrarily assigned some significance to it by a species of novelistic footnote, but because that object has a particular, strong, and important meaning to the people associated with it. The meaning is intrinsic within the story, validly part of the object itself. Even if your objects are less emotionally charged than the conch, or than that novel's later talismanic object, a pig's head rotting on a pole, you can still use them effectively. A man carrying an umbrella is different from a man not carrying an umbrella, when an author chooses (and invents) his details carefully and with absolute economy.

Props and Settings

Give your character objects to be associated with, to carry, to use. In acting, they're called props, and I'll call them that too. Well chosen, well used, props can demonstrate some essential truth about a character without the need of blocks of description slowing down the pace. Think how King uses the paper boat in the opening of It, or Golding's conch. Think of the raft in Huckleberry Finn, the much sought-after black bird in Hammett's The Maltese Falcon. A good prop is a kind of visual shorthand and, like a picture, it can be worth a thousand words, especially at a story's beginning.

And the same thing is true, for the same reasons, about set tings. They aren'tjust backdrops. Just by where you have the action happening will tell a lot about the action itself and the people involved. A scene on a rainy street corner is automatically different from one in a hot, stuffy and claustrophobic schoolroom, or at a county fair, or in an echoing, empty parking garage. You can reinforce the mood and action with your choice of setting, or work against it: a grim thing happening on a carousel, a happy thing happening beside a car nose-down in a ditch. Wherever you set your opening, be aware that where it happens matters, and can matter enormously, if the setting is well chosen to complement or contrast with what's happening there.

It may take thinking over to come up with good props, vivid, meaningful settings. Be ready to think twice, try and discard, until everything seems to be working together in one seemingly inevitable whole with nothing extra and nothing missing.

Don't Bog Your Opening Down in Descriptions

Have your characters enter talking and doing, in a significant and characteristic way. It doesn't matter when, if ever, you get around to telling what they look like. Some stories do descriptions in just a few sketched details—Sam Spade's "satanic" V of eyebrows, for instance—and some never find it necessary at all: describe Huckleberry Finn. Can you do it? Twain doesn't. Perry Mason, in the numerous novels featuring his wily court maneuvers, doesn't look at all like Raymond Burr: Erle Stanley Gardner deliberately refrained from describing him. Nor does Robert Parker find it necessary to tell more about his private detective, Spenser, than that he's strongly built and well past thirty.

Sometimes the most important thing about a person isn't how he looks, but what he's like, how he behaves, how and what he thinks, how he reacts, even how he talks. Huck Finn, and the characters in Damon Runyon's flavorful short stories, are characterized almost completely by means of their voices—their inimitably slangy way of speaking. Appearance (meaning the kind of crude color-of-hair, color-of-eyes, height/weight/age "police-blotter listing") may not be important at all.

Piggy's weight, asthma, and glasses are crucially important in the story, and so are carefully detailed. The color of his hair, by contrast, makes no difference at all.

Only spend time describing what it's important to describe, what's going to matter in the rest of the story. That may be what your characters look like; then again, it may not. You decide.

And even ifyour characters' appearance is important to you and your story, the story's very beginning may not be the best place to go into any great detail about it. You want your readers to be able to imagine your characters, not describe them for a robbery report. Have your people talking and doing: that will make the stronger impression.

Opening with a Bang

Some openings are unabashedly melodramatic. Their action is as violent, exaggerated, and mindless as possible. "As I scrambled over the top of the crater, Mount St. Helens cleared its throat and then blew 200,000 tons of its substance straight into the startled sky." Let's call them volcano openings. (In Chapter 10, I'll talk about the other half of the equation, dirigible endings.)

A volcano opening—a chase scene, somebody falling off a cliff or being attacked by Killer Shrews, a sex scene or mad, passionate love-at-first-sight—makes a statement about what's to follow. The story, such an opening says, is going to be one of exaggerated nonstop action/emotion, lots of excitement and suspense, intended to appeal to the broadest possible spectrum of readers. If you can make good on a promise like that, you could have a best-seller on your hands, and movie rights in the offing.

That's one sure thing about a volcano: it gets your attention. But it's also a hard act to follow. And not all writers want to. While some writers yearn for the primary colors and broad sweep of Cinemascope, others have a hankering for the small screen, muted tones, and close ups.

If you don't intend to have a slam-bang action story or scenery-chewing, bodice-ripping forbidden romance following an opening like that, it would have been better to have made a little less noise at the outset and, instead, made a different sort of promise. You could promise an unusual concept ("Big Brother is Watching": 1984), an especially vivid character (Sherlock Holmes), or maybe an interesting, individual style ("It was love at first sight. The first time Yossarian saw the chaplain he fell madly in love with him": Catch-22).

The point is that if you're beginning a short story or novel, you are in fact making a promise the rest of the story will have to fulfill. You don't have any choice about that, because the beginning is, by definition, what gets read first. A reader (and an editor considering publishing it) is going to decide whether or not to read on, based on what that beginning promises. It has to promise something special, or something seen in a special way, to make them want to read on.

And, remember, I'm talking nowjust about beginnings, not whole plots. Exaggerated events and people are a staple even in literary fiction. Virtually everything by Faulkner has large doses of melodrama—take a look at Sanctuary, for instance. The melodrama compensates for Faulkner's characteristically involuted, complex prose style and considerable stretches of philosophizing. So-called Southern Gothic, whether penned by Faulkner or Carson McCullers, has a native streak of the bizarre all through it—freaks, dwarfs, mouldering bodies of old lovers in upstairs bedrooms.

Steinbeck's East ofEden and OfMice and Men have adulteries and murders and hard-breathing domestic hanky-panky galore. Dickens' novels have melodrama by the ton. And all are certainly regarded as literature.

But if you look at the beginnings of any of these, you'll find the tone rather quiet, the situations revealing but not characterized by slam-bang action. The melodrama comes later. Virtually no volcano openings.

Better, for hooking the reader, is a revealing opening, effectively played out, promising something worth watching to come. Better is something relatively simple and direct, free of encumbering description, explanation, and hype, something a reader can understand immediately byjust watching, a situation able to speak for itself. A parent with a hand raised, and a child grimly swallowing tears; a middle-aged woman anxiously scanning the want ads, answering inattentively as a teenager asks when supper is going to be ready; a man and woman stiffly silent or talking about everything except abortion as they wait for a train, as in Hemingway's wonderful "The Hills Like White Elephants."

Find the right scene, one that hits just the right note with a minimum of fuss, and the beginning will take care of itself.

And if it leads to melodrama later on, so be it. You and your story will certainly be in the best of literary company. In Chapter 7, I'll offer some tips on harnessing the fierce power of melodrama to narrative purposes.

Do You Always Have to Make a Scene?

Scene openings aren't the only way. They're just the simplest, most reliable way, suitable for any kind of writing. If you're just starting to write, they're probably what you should use for your beginnings.

But there are alternatives. Good stories have begun with pure dialogue. Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities begins with a philosophical overview: "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times" and his Bleak House opens with a wonderful portrait of dense fog spreading through London the same way the foggy intricacies of the case Jarndyce vs. Jarndyce spread to obscure and pollute everything and everyone they touch. Steinbeck's masterpiece, The Grapes ofWrath, begins with a splendid description of a dust storm. Du Maurier's Rebecca begins, "Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again," calling up the image of that doomed house.

If you begin with something other than a scene, you'll have to compensate for the loss of immediate action by using something especially striking and powerful. Starting with a description, a philosophical mini-essay, or a dream is dangerous because all will tend to be essentially static if you don't go to heroic lengths to make them something else.

They'll sit and look at you like a fried egg. Your story will stall.

Strong contrast or a strikingly unusual juxtaposition (implied comparison between a law case and a fog, for instance), viv-

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id imagery or wording, a violent or melodramatic event being described, a brooding mood that promises action soon to come—all can help give the reader a sense of motion even when nothing is actually happening right now.

But such openings are difficult to bring off, and unless your alternative method of opening can somehow contrive to do the required three jobs of all beginnings, your best choice will be a scene.

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