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

Friday, November 12, 2010

An Arrow into the Heart of a Story

Ideally, the first words of a work of fiction should point like an arrow to the heart of the story—not, necessarily, to the middle or the climax, but to any point within the story, including the very beginning, otherwise known as the inciting incident.

The inciting incident is what propels a character or characters out of their status quo routine and into that terrible thing that all writers must sooner or later grapple with: a plot. But to qualify as a plot, events needn't be sensational, or even all that dramatic: they simply need to be out of the ordinary; to depart from routine. Otherwise, no circumstances exist by which to put that routine into perspective so it can be properly appreciated. The characters and circumstances merely exist; they lie inert on the page.

Which is pretty much what happens here in this otherwise very nicely written first page. Roused from her early morning sleep by the sound of a hammer striking wood ("thunk, thunk, thunk"), the narrator walks into the bedroom of her forty-eight year old brother. But as we discover via a very lovingly rendered description, this is no ordinary forty-eight year old:
. . . he sits on the floor, cross-legged, with his back to the door. Above his ears that protrude a little too prominently from his head, his short brown hair is sticking up in several places. Not a gray hair in sight for him.Sometimes when I see my brother’s innocent joy, it is easy to forget that he’s a forty-eight year-old man. A two by four board is across his legs. His right hand grips the top of the hammer to gain more control.He only moves the lower part of his arm as he taps on the wood. Yes, he is trying to be quiet for my sake.
By way of this careful, sensitive description, the author avoids stating what soon becomes obvious to the reader: that the brother is mentally handicapped. This judicious description, which broadens to include the brother's room, takes up the rest of the first page, and never ceases to be wisely and carefully observed, down to the structure the brother has assembled from his Lincoln Logs, "shaped like a square, missing the bottom rung on one side, so it leans to the right."

The trouble with all this carefully wrought description is that it lacks that crucial arrow. What it says essentially is "I have a retarded brother." Note the passive verb. What it doesn't say is "Something happened" or better still: "Something is going to happen." The thing "happening" here is, or seems to be, a meticulously described routine: the brother playing with his hammer and nails. In a word, this opening is static.

Here is what I would ask the author: what is the inciting incident, the event that propels these characters out of their routine? At what point in the story, as written, are the words "One day," or their equivalent, stated or implied? Begin there, and let the status quo emerge in the context of extraordinary events so it won't be static, so it has something to play against.

Routine cannot be dramatized.
It is antithetical to drama. And that's true even if the routine is unusual or exotic, like having a mentally handicapped brother, or disarming land mines, or carrying water for elephants in a circus.

An exercise to help writers discover whether they are writing routine: see if the words "as usual," "normally," or "always" can be inserted in the prose. If so, the answer is yes.


  1. Here i like the way the story starts out with a scene but then I think you go into describing many things. I think this many be because you don't know what you want to happen yet. I would suggest spending time planning your story.I believe this will help you a lot. Lastly you seem to hint at the protagonists unintelligence, but you don't say if he's mentally ill or just likes kid stuff. This is withholding information and it can do more harm then good. State the reason from the start. Hope this information is helpful.

  2. My favorite parts of this piece were the descriptions you gave. The first lines about waking up to the soft thumping and squinting at the clock were really nice. I think that more of these descriptions would make for a more vivid image and would also slow down the pace of this first page.
    Starting off a story by going right into a scene can be effective, but I think that this story might be better off with a more general description of the brothers' relationship/situation. By not directly telling the reader that the narrator has a mentally challenged younger brother, it makes us guess and it seems like this is the focus of the story. The fact that his brother is mentally challenged just the starting point, but the story should come from the plot.