06 July 2013

Where to Start: Opening Your Story

This is the eighth installment in the continuing story of "Editing Mister D," a joint project to coach British nonfiction writer Pete Oxley through completion and publication of his first novel-length fiction work.

You’ve been quite disciplined about your new story idea, laying out the whole plot, getting a good handle on your storyline and characters, and so you sit down to write.  The blank screen is your canvas, the keyboard your brush, and the world is full to bursting with possibilities.  Getting started is half the battle, you tell yourself, and you hunker down to write that smashing first sentence, which will flow naturally into your sparkling first paragraph, setting the stage for your compelling first chapter.  After a few false starts, you begin to type:

“It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents — except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.”

You may recognize this unfortunate sentence as the quintessentially bad opening sentence of the novel Paul Clifford.  It was written by Victorian Era writer George Edward Bulwer-Lytton, namesake of the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest, an annual celebration of bad writing.  This tongue-in-cheek literary competition “challenges entrants to compose the opening sentence to the worst of all possible novels” in homage to Bulwer-Lytton’s regrettable legacy of purple prose.

So, what’s so bad about this sentence?  How do I count the ways?

For starters, I should mention that the worst thing about this sentence is that it is part of Paul Clifford, a novel which is universally recognized as awful.  But the sentence itself has some appeal, doesn’t it?  It’s descriptive, certainly.  It “sets the mood.”  It’s earnest, literate, and evocative.  Be honest, you think it might be better than your own writing, don’t you?

The flaws in this sentence are many, but perhaps the most egregious is that it relies on a weather report to set the stage for the story which, as it happens, has precious little to do with the weather.  And for all the florid prose, Bulwer-Lytton has used fifty-eight words, three commas, one semicolon, one dash, and one parenthetical remark to tell us the story is set in London and the weather is frightful.  Modern writers might be forgiven for such a misstep since it mirrors a typical opening scene in, say, a horror film, but Bulwer-Lytton wrote this line in 1830, long before cinema began to poison the minds of fledgling writers.

Delving a bit deeper, we see that in addition to being stormy, the night is, well, dark.  Let that sink in a bit.  Now, it’s fair to say that some nights are darker than others, and perhaps the author is “setting the mood” by observing that the night is not lacking merely  sunlight but also the light of the moon and stars.  Again, hardly an unusual occurrence during a storm, when clouds tend to obscure the moon and stars.  In the final analysis, we have a dark night, and one uncommonly cumbersome sentence.

It may seem like nitpicking to remark that wind does not generally “check” rainfall; or that the mention of “streets” doesn’t necessarily suggest that the setting is in London as the author seems to think; or that the self-referential use of the expression “our scene” immediately reminds the reader that the story is merely a story and nothing more; or that the lamps which at first seem to be struggling against that rattling wind are ultimately found to be struggling against darkness (you didn’t forget it was dark, did you?).  Perhaps it is nitpicking, but a single sentence with so many flaws (and there are others I haven’t mentioned) is worthy of ridicule.  But apart from these flaws, the awkward construction and clumsy imagery, the truly unforgivable sin is that it is essentially a dead metaphor signifying nothing in particular.

So, how to avoid such missteps in your all-important opening sentence, opening paragraph, and opening chapter?  The first rule is to ignore the voice in your head that tells you the best place to start is at the beginning.  True, Dickens got away with it:

“Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show. To begin my life with the beginning of my life, I record that I was born (as I have been informed and believe) on a Friday, at twelve o'clock at night. It was remarked that the clock began to strike, and I began to cry, simultaneously.” 

Even though Dickens starts out David Copperfield with a birth announcement, you’ll notice that the this first paragraph is pregnant with the suspense imparted by the first sentence.  Will he turn out to be the hero of his life?  And since the story takes the form of an autobiography, starting with birth makes a certain amount of sense.  The simultaneous striking of the clock and crying of the protagonist is no empty metaphor, either.

However, my point is not necessarily that your story needn’t start at the beginning, but that the writer needn’t start writing at the beginning.  If you feel comfortable starting with line one, paragraph one, then go ahead, by all means.  If you are staring at that blank canvas cursing its blankness, unable to type the first word without striking it out minutes later, however, the best way through this special strain of writers’ block is to simply skip it and start writing chapter two.  Seriously, if you have a fully formed idea banging around in your head just begging to be written, why torture yourself trying to write something that doesn’t want to be written yet?  Ride the horse in the direction it’s going, and come back later to write the beginning.

There are plenty of good reasons not to start writing at the beginning, too.  Think back to when you wrote your last five-paragraph essay in school.  You have an introduction, a three-paragraph body, and a conclusion.  It is always easier to write the body first and then write the introduction and conclusion.  Why?  By definition, the introduction introduces what is to come in the body.  If you haven’t written the body yet, your introduction will tend to be vague and uninteresting because you’re trying to generalize something you haven’t examined in any detail yet.

The same is true of stories.  When your story is almost finished, you will know your characters better, and be better prepared to foreshadow the events to come.  Until then, your opening paragraphs and chapters will tend to be comparatively lifeless preambles to the good stuff that comes later.  If you skip writing chapter one and jump right to the meat of the story, you’ll simply be better prepared to write a compelling first chapter later on.

Incidentally, the same can be said for book titles as well.  How many times have you wracked your brain for that most evocative, elegant, and emblematic title and finally settled on a mundane "working title?"  Well, there's a reason writers have working titles: They're just placeholders waiting for inspiration to hit and and a better title to come unbidden.  Opening sentences, paragraphs, and even entire opening chapters can be just as easily swept away when the opportunity presents itself.

Another reason to avoid writing chapter one first is that many writers tend to want to “lay the groundwork,” or orient the reader in our fictional setting and introduce our fictional characters.  Try to avoid this tendency.  Don’t put your readers in a classroom and bore them with ski lessons.  Just strap on their skis and push them down the hill, and trust that some magical combination of momentum and survival instinct will do the rest.

Probably not a good way to learn to ski, but it’s a great way to read, and therefore to write.  Put your readers smack dab in the action.  Give them just enough information to orient themselves, but not so much you’ll bore them, and set the story in motion.

Although Pete Oxley has shelved his story “The Exploding Moon,” for the time being, the opening paragraph is a solid example of getting the ball rolling with a compelling first paragraph:

“He stumbled through the snow, half-dragging and half-carrying the unresponsive form of his brother.  The sounds of pursuit from behind grew steadily louder, a scrabbling and scratching that set his nerves on edge.  Willing himself to keep looking forward, keep moving away from the hunter, he found himself muttering through gritted teeth, praying to a God he had not acknowledged for a long time.” 

This sets the mood without relying on a weather report, and sets the wheels in motion with plenty of tension.  Immediately afterward, Pete drops into a measured narrative of some comparatively mundane events which gradually lead up to the scene we’ve previewed, but we’re already hooked.  We know that this story is heading for a thrilling climax, so we settle in for the ride.

For another example, here’s the opening paragraph from Pete’s newest installment in his Infernal Aether series:

“My name is Augustus Merriwether Potts and I am a survivor of the terrible events which took place in 1865 and the years that followed. Events which took so many lives and changed the course of history, showing our Realm to be so much stranger, more deadly and more vulnerable than we ever conceived it could be.” 

This paragraph is a little rougher around the edges because Pete hasn’t been laboring over it as long as his first story, but look at where this is headed.  Who is Augustus?  He is a survivor, and indeed, this is one of his defining characteristics.  We get the who and the when in a no-nonsense first sentence, and then the tension is immediately ratcheted up with the promise of death, destruction, and strange goings-on.  Is it dark?  Is it raining?  Who cares?

By the time Pete’s story is finished, he will be able to refine his opening paragraph into something even more gripping, which is where editing comes in.  He might even find that the best “point of attack” or opening scene is buried somewhere in chapter four, which will require a bunch of cutting and pasting.  The lesson to be learned is that the closer you get to the end of your story, the better you will know what is the best place to start, and the best way to start.

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