Starting in January, 2011 "First Page" will be a regular column feature in The Writer Magazine. Look for it!

Thursday, June 10, 2010

An Overabundance of Beginnings

As writers we face a barrage of choices, one of the thorniest being where to begin our stories? At the beginning, in the middle, or near the end? If at the beginning, where at the beginning? How close to the inciting incident—the singular event that will wrest the protagonist out of her routine existence? If the inciting incident is, say, the protagonist's decision to go to Timbuktu, should we begin at the moment when this idea first occurs to her, or with her packing her bags for the journey, or with her already aboard a plane bound for whatever airport one flies into en route to Timbuktu? Or do we start with her already there, in Timbuktu, with her adventure well underway?

Here, the author makes an end-run, or tries to, around that thorny choice by offering us not one, but two beginnings, the first dipping us into the middle of the story (paragraph 1), the second taking us back to what appears to be the story's beginning (paragraph 2). If in opening a novel a writer puts his best foot forward, here the writer has put his two best feet forward. The result, needless to say, trips over itself.

By telegraphing the major conflict ("I was too gay, and knew it, to arbitrate between a lesbian couple and their dysfunctional single nemesis”), the first opening points us, abstractly, into the psychological heart of the story. It tells us what the story is about, while drawing a kind of diagnostic conclusion about the characters and their situation. This has its advantages. It presents us with the main theme of the novel, so we know, more or less, what we're getting into. The disadvantage is that like all summaries it's abstract, vague, general. It doesn't ground us in experiences, it only captions them. It is anti-dramatic.

However bland, the second opening ("Five years ago I took up tennis") takes the more dramatic approach, enticing us into the story by means of a simple declaration of fact— audacious in its blandness—signaling not a set of abstract psychological circumstances but an event, one that presumably will either embody or pave the way to the inciting incident. As a direct or indirect result of having taken up tennis something will to happen to the protagonist. It's no throat-grabber; it packs not the punch of "Call me Ishmael" nor the paradoxical poetry of "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times." Still, as opening sentences go, "Five years ago I took up tennis" isn't bad; in fact it's rather good.

For one thing, "Five years ago I took up tennis" is good because it doesn't grab us by the throat, or try to, as so many first sentences do. Too often writers employ shock tactics to gain their readers' attentions; it takes a brave, confident author to appeal to us not with shock, but through humble simplicity.

"Except for the Marabar Caves—and they are twenty miles off—the city of Chandrapore presents nothing extraordinary." There's nothing shocking or impressive about this first sentence, either. It opens E.M. Forster's A Passage to India, one of the greatest novels of the 19th century.

Think of the opening sentences of your novel as arrows thrust toward the heart of your story. It's not necessary for the arrows to strike a direct hit on their target; they don't even have to deliver a glancing blow. All that matters is that the arrow is hurled in the right direction, that it carries the reader toward and not away from the target. If you have a good story to tell and your words point toward that story, that's enough, or should be.

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