In my last post, I suggested some basic concepts that can guide a writer into beginning a story or novel — most importantly, John Gardener’s idea of “the contract” forged between writer and reader in the first paragraph. I then suggested that beginnings functionally distill into two types (with some variations): distant and close.
Typical Distant Beginning Strategies
Cinematic: An image, often a wide visual view of a place or landscape, that establishes the setting of the story.
The sky was clear over the deep canyons of Manhattan, and an erratic breeze lifted litter high between the stolid monoliths and carried it along the sidewalks. Across the river on the Jersey side, factory chimneys trailed banners of smoke.
♦ Cinematic beginnings usually zoom in closer soon until we arrive at “mid-shot” – a human-scale visual distance such as one might have in a large room — or even closer. Imagine that the above continues:
The banks of windows still glistened with dawn light as an aged Rolls Royce pulled up in front of the Majestic Hotel. When the driver opened the passenger door, the foot that stepped onto the purple carpet was clad in a delicate woman’s shoe from another century.
Historical: Information that establishes the historical context of the story.
It had been twenty years since the end of the War Between the States — years that had done little to alleviate the hardships of the former plantation owners and the slaves they once thought they mastered. After the assassination of The Great Emancipator, the North had invaded the South yet again as carpetbaggers came to exploit their southern countrymen.
♦ Again, since no one can sustain much of this unless studying for a history exam, the historical distance must soon contract into some kind of narrative present:
In Natchez, the summer had been unusually hot, and at the Calhoun mansion the laborers – all black – sweated as they toiled to rebuild its shattered walls like the slaves they had once been. The day old Colonel Calhoun died, his funeral procession filled the street for five blocks before entering the burial ground gates. The grave diggers had already done their work and had backed away with their shovels, smoking in the shade of a sycamore.
Philosophical: Identifying the larger themes, questions, meanings, and values you are about to explore. Starting this way creates a “lens” of existential implication through which the reader will see all that follows.
Each of us is all the sums he has not counted: subtract us into nakedness and night again, and you shall see begin in Crete four thousand years ago the love that ended yesterday in Texas. . . . The minute-winning days, like flies, buzz home to death, and every moment is a window on all time. (Thomas Wolfe)
♦ Once this theme and tone has been established, the writer is well-advised to narrow the story’s scope to depict smaller concerns, closer to daily life, and to show real people in action in a fictional present. Too much abstraction wearies a reader; and, anyway, the general is best conveyed through the specific. That said, the writer must make sure that the story echoes this original existential, philosophical concept throughout.
Geographical: The nature of the land, landscape, and natural forces that define your setting.
Two mountain chains traverse the republic roughly from north to south, forming between them a number of valleys and plateaus. Overlooking one of these valleys, which is dominated by two volcanoes, lies, a thousand feet above sea level, the town of Quauhanhuac. (Malcolm Lowry)
Informational/overview: Providing, at the outset, key information that the reader needs in order to understand what’s about to happen.
My father’s family name being Pirrip, and my Christian name Philip, my infant tongue could make of both names nothing longer or more explicitly than Pip . . . I give Pirrip as my father’s family name on the authority of his tombstone and my sister – Mrs. Joe Garrity, who married the blacksmith. (Charles Dickens)
♦ There are other “distant” beginnings, but the principle of eventually growing closer to the story, putting it in “real time,” in human scale, and in specificities, applies to all.
Next: Strategies for close beginnings.