As I write this, Hurricane Sandy is still swirling around the Eastern seaboard of North America, a big quake has rattled the Canadian Northwest (the latest aftershocks are still reverberating), and the moon will be full on Halloween for the first night since 1955. These events are all a darn interesting prelude to the U.S. presidential election on 6 November.
Or a prelude to anything, really. Life is continual grist for the writing mill. But where do our narratives begin?
At the point in which our lives, or our protagonists' lives are changed forever. Or in the case of narrative nonfiction or a feature article, in the place where something important happens.
We begin our stories at that critical impact of form and emotion that draw us inexorably forward. This is where Hurricane Sandy pulls us from our observation point into sea or the big one rattles our house off its foundation into pieces. We begin with a defining moment from any point in our lives or the lives of our characters and work forward.
Anything else may be little more than warm-up. When I was a new writer, my stories often began down the page, or maybe even on page two or three. I warmed up to my stories’ entry point with backstory, or maybe descriptions of my protagonist or the setting, or perhaps chewed around the edges of the scene itself.
Warming up and not wanting to cast away the warm-up is a perennial problem that new writers display. More experienced writers also sometimes warm up as a way to get into the meat of the their scenes or into their characters heads, but have the good sense to delete or revise these throat clearings.
I’ll never forget when I attended a writing conference for the very first time. I had the good fortune to sign up for workshops with Brady Udall and Mary Sojourner at the 1999 Hassayampa Institute, back when the program was a week-long conference. Brady told each one of us fledgling writers when he critiqued our fiction at his daily workshops: “your story starts here” – on page 2 or 3 or even 4 – of our shaky, green manuscripts.
I now think of Brady whenever I begin a short story or an essay. I think of Mary whenever I try to find just the right words. I can't thank either of them enough for their influence on my writing life.
Mary Sojourner makes readers catch their breath with the lyrical, descriptive phrases in her fiction and nonfiction. During her 1999 workshops, she didn’t emphasize the place to begin writing so much as crafting prose around a vivid character or turn of event. But she displays both aspects of good writing both then and now by example:
“I finish my reading at a Southwestern Writers’ Conference. I have spoken about crippling pain from a hiking fall and seeing a dust cloud from the Gobi Desert turn the sun moon-silver over the Black Rock, and how a volcanic out-cropping seen against sunset can become figures from a Javanese shadow play. A woman in the audience stands. ‘Could you please tell us,” she says, “your writing process?’”
Sometimes our story map is so compelling that we naturally begin on that vivid, high note and progress through the story with ease. Other times it takes some experimentation and lots of exploration and revision to achieve the right presentation. I’ve written successful stories in a few hours in one sitting that needed little revision and have also written and rewritten stories for as long as a decade until they finally opened well and had the proper flow and clarity to hold a readers’ attention.
If you want to look at this issue through a magnifying glass, crafting a compelling story opening may also depend upon a strong opening line. Not all first lines have to be stellar as long as the opening paragraph offers readers a tantalizing ferment of action and emotion, but it doesn’t hurt to begin with a clever hook. Most readers can quote an opening line from their favorite books, essays, or short stories, or even historic speeches. Examine these, then examine the opening lines of your work, whether stories, novels, essays, poetry, or even feature articles. Does your first line naturally propel the reader into your work?
There’s such a thing as being too clever. A hook crafted for effect that doesn’t particularly blend well with your story may be misleading or confuse the reader. An effective hook might be compared to an essence of the story, a scent that wafts from within the work, and leads the reader into the heart of the story. Some extremely effective hooks are used in a circular fashion in which the same imagery or prose is repeated at the end of the story. Or the story returns full circle in some way to the beginning of the piece.
In this circular way, story imitates life. We enter a situation, then move from moment to moment, or paragraph to paragraph and scene by scene in a circular or spiral fashion. We gain experience and knowledge through these real or fictional encounters, whether pleasant or fraught with pain and obstacles. Eventually, we complete a particular phase or mission in our lives, or our characters reach an epiphany, or our prose leads the reader to the place in which greater understanding of a topic is reached
Sometimes when it seems we or our characters or our nonfiction prose is stuck and running in place or going in circles and that we’ll never reach a conclusion, we succeed in telling the story and find we’ve spiralled upward in understanding, or that our characters have moved onward and upward on the spiral of the story arc.
No matter what genre we write in, we have to propel the writing forward from the most meaningful moment and then spiral through it to that golden point of understanding. Our writing process is life and the way we tell the best stories is by showcasing the most memorable and vivid moments.
When we’re able to ride this spiral in writing poetry or prose while simultaneously enjoying the words and yet not noticing them, then we succeed in inviting readers to take our journey.
|Life moves in a spiral, not marching down a line . . .|