This is my third post concerning techniques for beginning stories and (primarily) novels. As I mentioned in the first two, beginnings can be generally divided into two approaches: distant and close. This post will consider “closer” beginnings.
While distant beginnings start by providing the reader with visual, factual, or philosophical context, close beginnings engage the reader immediately in actions occurring in “real time.” The advantage of starting in medias res — into the midst of things — is that the reader is given clear, engaging images and is propelled rapidly into the tale.
Some mystification or ambiguity is inevitable with close beginnings – after all, the reader is observing these events without knowing where or when they’re occurring, who these people are. This mystification can draw in the reader with the anticipation of resolving such unknowns.
Steve swung the cast-iron skillet through the door of a cupboard, spraying the kitchen with broken glass and china, and Dub ducked back through the doorway. (Daniel Hecht)
Savitsky, Commander of the VI Division, rose when he saw me, and I wondered at the beauty of this giant’s body. . . He smiled at me, struck his riding whip on the table, and drew toward him an order for Ivan Chesnokov to advance . . . (Isaac Babel)
Just as distant beginnings eventually cry out for closer narratives, very close beginnings can confuse the reader unless followed by a more distant, encompassing section in which essential contextualizing facts are conveyed. Alternating between “close” (scene) and “distant” (narrative) telling also refreshes the reader’s attention and propels the plot.
The writer can also choose other modes of beginning that offer the best of both worlds.
Epigram: The epigram is that little phrase or section of verse that often precedes the first chapter of a book. It can provide what your opening words do not – usually a counterpoint of larger intent preceding a closer narrative beginning:
The sinister is always the unintelligible, the impressive, the numinous. Wherever something divine appears, we begin to experience fear. . . It is a strictly human trait to find joy in destruction. – Adolf Guggenbuhl-Craig.
(Then, Chapter One: “Steve swung the cast-iron skillet . . .”) (Daniel Hecht)
To whom he was not spoken of, they shall see: and they that have not heard shall understand. – Romans XV, 21
(Then: “It was dark by the time I reached Bonn, and I forced myself not to succumb to the series of mechanical actions with had taken hold of me in five years of traveling. . .”) (Heinrich Boll)
Prologue or introduction: This short section – several pages, perhaps — preceding the first chapter can provide a counterpoint to the real starting point; it can provide either the larger view or the closer view to engage the reader and establish expectations. The formal “beginning” of the story may not immediately connect to the events or characters in the prologue. Here’s Thackeray’s version of a close prologue that sets up a more distant Chapter One beginning:
As the Manager of the Performance sits before the curtain on the boards, and looks into the Fair, a feeling of profound melancholy comes over him in his survey of the bustling place. . . .
(Two pages later, Chapter One begins: “While the present century was in its teens . . .” )
Which kind of beginning to use? Any of the above can be effective, depending on what follows and the writer’s intent.
Best bet: Start however it comes to you. Get rolling with the story, let it carry you. Revisit the question of starting places when you know more about where you’re going. You can — probably will — change the sequence of sections when the overall structure and intent of a novel becomes clearer to you.
Next: A recollection of the writer James Alan McPherson, my mentor and friend, who died this summer.