Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Day 5 - The First Page - In The Middle of the Action

Back when I was at Clarion (many more years ago than I will admit to) I learned from Ajay Budris that a story begins with a character in a setting with a problem. It's the problem, and solving it, that creates all the interest and suspense in a story.

And so, of course, one of the ways of starting a story is to introduce the problem first and foremost, and the reader comes to know the characters and background along the way. Of course, if you do it this way, the problem has to be obvious and easy to understand.

Here is one of my favorite opening paragraphs, from Stuart Kaminsky's Smart Moves:

I was leaning out of the window of a room on the twelfth floor of the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York City, but I wasn't enjoying the view. My right hand was trying to hold on to the sleeve of a frightened dentist who dangled and swayed in the April breeze. My left hand gripped the window sill in spite of the arm behind it, which ached from a very fresh gunshot wound.

You don't have to know who the characters are to empathize with the problem here. (And, frankly, if you don't know who the dentist is at this point, it only creates more tension, because as far as you know, he's just an innocent dentist, as opposed to an annoying one who may quite possibly deserve being dropped.)

The great thing about this kind of opening is that you get an idea of what your character is really made of, what he's capable of. And by how you pick that moment, you may be able to either establish what a typical problem is for the character, and what's extraordinary. In either case, you hook the reader and make a promise as to what the story is about. Once you've made that promise, you get a little more leeway to slow down and set up the rest of the story.

In this case, Stuart Kaminsky is using an old pulp fiction trick: the scene is actually from the climax of the book, and once you're hooked, he goes back to the start of the story. He makes it do double-duty, though, because this happens to be a typical day and a typical problem for the narrator of the story, Toby Peters. The thing that makes it worthy of the climax of the book is simply the stakes. (Which, if I remember right, are the fate of the world, and the lives of Paul Robeson and Albert Einstein.)

However, the beginning doesn't have to involve gunshot wounds and dangling dentists to be a decent hook. This is the beginning of Sleeping Murder by Agatha Christie:

Gwenda Reed stood, shivering a little, on the quayside.

The docks and the custom sheds and all England that she could see were gently waving up and down. And it was in that moment that she made her decision -- the decision that was to lead to such very momentus events.

She wouldn't go by boat train to London as she had planned.

In this case, we don't know Gwenda Reed, but we already have a strong sense of a person in transition. Even if we weren't told that the decision would lead to momentus events, she's in a location associated with important changes. She's obviously been travelling or about to travel, and she is taking a step into the unknown. She's deviating from the plan - so she's taking a risk.

That may not be an actual problem, but it promises problems. There will be challenges to be met. Unexpected things will crop up.

When I think about those two books which disappointed me, I suspect that this is the kind of thing those writers meant to do. To start in the middle of something and create anticipation. They failed because there wasn't a promise of things to come.

And that failed because there just wasn't enough quality information. And not every story has gunshots or an evocative setting to set things going, but Christie gives us a hint of the other technique when she inserts the "the decision that was to lead to such very momentus events."

Sometimes it's good to just tell the story and not be coy about the information. More about that tomorrow.

Here are the direct links to each post in the series: Intro - how to start a novel badly 1.) In the middle of the action, 2.) Narration or storyteller's voice, 3.) Disembodied Dialog.

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