Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Where do I begin??

Patti began our Roundtable discussion on Monday talking about what to cut from your novel, particularly at the beginning of a piece. In the Comments section it was asked, how do you know where a story truly begins? And is there a rule about when backstory comes in?

Well, let's see what the pros have to say in reply.

Sol Stein in Stein on Writing (pg. 15), says:

Elia Kazan, brilliant director of stage and screen as well as a late-blooming novelist, told me that audiences give a film seven minutes. If the viewer is not intrigued by character or incident within that time, the film and its viewer are at odds. The viewer came for an experience. The film is disappointing him.
Today's impatient readers give a novelist fewer than seven minutes. Some years ago I was involved in an informal study of the behavior of lunch-hour browsers in mid-Manhattan bookstores. In the fiction section, the most common pattern was for the browser to read the front flap of the book's jacket and then go to page one. No browser went beyond page three before either taking the book to the cashier or putting the book down and picking up another to sample ... first sentences and first paragraphs ... are increasingly important for arousing the restless reader.

I can attest to the truth of the study. If page one of a novel doesn't engage me, I move on. My reading time is precious to me. I don't have time to waste or wade through a slow beginning.

Elizabeth George in Write Away (pg. 65), which is one of my personal favorites, wrote in her journal:

...I'm beginning to have more clarity on the novel. What I haven't seen yet is precisely how or where in the story to begin.

Then, regarding the decision of where to open, she goes on to say:

The way I see it, you have three alternatives. You can begin the story just before the beginning; you can begin it right at the beginning; or you can begin it after the beginning.


Well, she actually makes sense as she continues:

Starting just before the beginning, you ... have to come up with a scene that illustrates the status quo of the main characters before the primary event occurs.
If you choose to start your novel right at the beginning, you are making the choice to introduce simultaneously both the characters and the primary event that gets the ball rolling ...
Beginning your novel after the beginning of the story means that you are choosing to start after the primary event has occurred. The ball, in other words, is already in motion and the reader is plunked down in the middle of the action.

James Scott Bell in Plot & Structure (pg. 56), cuts right to the chase and gives us a nice check list:

  • Get the reader hooked.
  • Establish a bond between the reader and the Lead character.
  • Present the story world---tell us something about the setting, the time, and the immediate context.
  • Establish the general tone of the novel.
  • Compel the reader to move on to the middle. Just why should the reader care to continue?
  • Introduce the opposition.
This is all great advice, and by examining our beginnings we can see if we're hitting any of these targets, but it can still be difficult to know if we've hit on the right place to start. Elmore Leonard, who wrote among other things Get Shorty and 3:10 to Yuma, once said, "I try to leave out the parts that people skip." Yeah, me too. That's especially important when it comes to those opening paragraphs and pages, because, like Sol Stein discovered, if a reader isn't engaged by then, he's not going to be.

As an exercise, turn to the beginnings of half a dozen of your favorite novels and study the openings. What was it about those first few paragraphs that kept you reading? Conversely, was there something that nearly derailed you---even if you're glad you kept reading? Judging by the advice of our pros, did those beginnings line up with the advice they gave?

I'll give an example from one of my favorite novels, Blue Hole Back Home, by Joy Jordan Lake. First of all, it was the cover that got me to pick up the book, which was a title I'd never heard of, by an author I'd never heard of. But the cover intrigued me, so I opened to the first page and read:

Likely it was only two dreams crisscrossing paths, one snagging on the other in passing, but somehow the face that walked by me this morning, not four feet away, got tangled up with one from my past ... And I swear time backstitched on itself ...

I loved that last line, loved how it sounded, loved the picture it drew in my mind. But this is what took me straight to the cashier:

In that moment, the smell of espresso got overpowered by the scents of my past: pine needles and boy-sweat, salted peanuts and Coke. I heard bluegrass guitar and banjo all mixed up with rhythm and blues and a rope swing ticking forward and back, keeping time. I was barefoot in the back of a pickup, believing that it was love that makes people brave and gorgeous and clever and kind. Believing, and being wrong.

Man, oh man, that was the line that hooked me. I've read the book several times and recommend it to anyone who will listen, and I grow fonder of it each time.

Besides Blue Hole Back Home, I highly recommend the three books I cited today. I've read each of them more than once, and I learn something new every single time. Write Away has so many notes and sticky tabs it's getting difficult to wade through. It may be time for another copy.

I'd like to hear your observations on the passages I cited. We'll talk about backstory when I post in a couple of weeks.


Henrietta Frankensee said...

Imagine that! Beginnings are hard. I recently discovered that "It was a dark and stormy night..." was the beginning of an award for bad beginnings.
On Saturday I attended, by satelite broadcast, Sir Kenneth Branagh's Macbeth. Shakespeare begins with a battle. Blood and gore from the start. Action aplenty. That's the way I like it!

cherryodelberg said...

Looking forward to more on backstory. Also loved the quote about time backstitching -wonder how many readers know what it is like to backstitch by hand?

Sharon K. Souza said...

Cherry, it's an excellent book. In answer to your question, probably not many today, but I sure do.