Writing Technique: Beginnings
Because I’m a novelist, writing teacher at Champlain College, and technical writing and screenplay consultant gun-for-hire, people often approach me for advice on writing.
As far as novels go, I usually answer that I haven’t a clue how to write them. I’ve published six — including bestsellers in the US, England, Holland, and Israel — and am about to complete my seventh, but it’s true: each time I begin a new one, I have no idea where to start or, often, precisely what I’m writing about.
Paradoxically, I believe this is a good way to start: Begin innocent. Don’t write about what you know — write about what you want to know, and then do research (it’s fun). Or, simply imagine. Also, don’t “wait until you have some life experience under your belt”: rather, write from your intuitive empathy for others. Write from your subconscious understanding of the world’s ways. You can always check life’s fine print when you’ve finished.
At the same time, I have distilled some ideas that may be of use to writers at any stage of their development or career. So my next series of blog entries will consist of essays I’ve written on fiction technique, beginning with Beginning.
I don’t mean “process” beginning, as in “how do I start to become a writer, or “how to prime the pump” or “how to figure out what I want write about and who I really am.” Those are fair questions — but my advice is to start with a story and explore it as you go.
The advice “Write one true thing” is valuable and beautiful and inspiring. The problem with it is that you don’t often know what’s “true” until you have written something.
What’s the best way to start a story or a novel? How to establish a sense of the story for the reader? At what point in the sequence of events should the narrative begin? The nature of your starting place is crucial, in large part because it creates an unconscious understanding with the reader about what’s to come.
In The Art of Fiction, John Gardner proposes that, in the very first paragraph, the author establishes a “contract” with the reader: sets a tone, a voice, a sense of topic, a relationship with the narrator, and expectations of what sort of writing, what genre, this will be.
The old axiom among writers is that If you start with two people beginning to climb a mountain, and one of them is carrying a gun, you’d damn well better use that gun before the story is over (even if it’s never fired). That is, whatever you relate at the start provides the reader with cues as to the nature of the story, and the reader will unconsciously expect anything set forward at the beginning to be important to the tale.
But there are many ways to establish this “contract.”
The various strategies by which to begin a story functionally distill into two opposite approaches: distant and close. A story or a novel (and even a novel chapter) can begin with an encompassing image or idea that provides context first, then action second; or begin with an immediate, active, specific scene set i real time; or anywhere between.
The idea of distant vs. close applies not only to beginnings, but to other crucial aspects of the craft, including point of view and narrative compression.
I’ll explore both in greater detail in future posts.