One of the things you're required to do when taking swimming lessons is to jump in at the deep end of the pool, dive under water smoothly, and rise up to the surface. For most swimmers, diving under the water and then swimming to the surface poses hardly any problem; it's the jump at the deep end that unnerves one. Most of us prefer to ease in unobtrusively from any other area of the pool and loiter at the deep end, pretending that we did jump in.
Somehow, this tendency of easing into the pool is the analogy that compares with the fictional technique of beginning storytellers -- an absolute no-no in fiction writing. Stories that grab the attention of editors are the ones that start in the middle of a critical scene, especially important in mystery fiction.
In my short mystery story, "A Message from Beyond," recently published by Orchard Press Mysteries, the opening scene shows the heroine, Myrna, gazing longingly at shiny brochures describing delectable spots in Italy and Spain. Yesterday, she'd just played the grieving widow at her husband George's funeral.
A few years back, I might have been tempted to go into a lengthy description of why Myrna happened to be looking at travel brochures by herself. In this story, however, the first few paragraphs plunge the reader into imminent action, which is Myrna's visit to her neighbor's house, where, unknown to Myrna, a seance is about to take place.
No matter how informative your backstory, it's the onstage action that holds the reader's interest. In his short story, "Secret Window, Secret Garden," Stephen King opens with a dramatic claim from the antagonist.
Terse and to the point, it draws the reader into the story, especially if the reader also happens to be a writer. For the writer reading this, it hits home because being accused of plagiarism is the ultimate nightmare. In his interviews, King has often stated that his short stories and books derive from his fears, and this particular bogey-man has stalked him relentlessly, if mostly in his own mind.
But for the reader who's not a writer, where's the appeal in this opening?
Even those who profess not to be writers are interested in the writing process -- the mechanics and the release of ideas; it wouldn't be hard to imagine that the reader might therefore be curious about the premise depicted in the opening of King's story.
Lawrence Block, in his book, Telling Lies for Fun and Profit, says, " . . . by beginning at a point where events are already in motion, you involve your reader in the flow of the action and get caught up in your fiction right away. Then you can back off and let him know what it is he's gone and gotten himself interested in." This is as useful, Block says, in short fiction as it is in the novel. But short stories have to get to the point quickly, and one way to manage this is to begin them with the story already in motion.
I learned the importance of changing Chapter Three to Chapter One when writing my second novel, Maid to Order. Chapter One had originally described an outdoor society fundraiser during which I thought I should provide backstory in description and dialogue so as not to baffle the reader. My critique partner, however, (thank goodness!) had dramatic flair enough to pull Chapter Three -- where the hero walks up the stairs of his building to his luxury apartment, unlocks the door, and finds an attractive waif (the heroine) fast asleep on the sofa -- and to suggest that this be my new Chapter One. Nothing would thwack the reader -- and the hero -- between the eyes like finding the heroine fast asleep on the living room sofa. Questions would then arise in the reader's mind. Who is she? What's she doing there? And more to the point, how did she get in when the hero had to unlock the door?
The mystery novel, Letter of Intent, by Ursula Curtiss, demonstrates a subtle variation of beginning in the middle. Although not titled as such, the book begins with a prologue, which is really a scene from the dramatic ending, where the protagonist, a scheming woman, feels a growing dread that her cold, calculating game may be up. The gripping nature of the story speaks to Curtiss's skill, when the reader might well abandon a book with a protagonist who has no redeeming qualities.
The prologue traditionally tends to slow down the action, and therefore, not popular with editors. But Curtiss, by delivering in the opening a glimpse of a fast forwarded high point of the story line, has dealt a chilling promise of events to follow.
One of the biggest effects of starting your tale with a bang is being able to keep the reader engaged while you hand out the backstory stingily, a hint here, a piece of dialogue or question there. This can be a challenging task, but worthwhile, and the basis of all strong fiction. It's surprising how little the reader needs to know at the beginning of your book or story. The writer's job should be to unravel the story in a way that resembles peeling off onion skin, one skin at a time.
In the opening scene of The Mulberry Tree by Jude Devereaux, we're told nothing except the following: "He needed me. Whenever anyone asked how I coped with a man like Jimmie, I smiled and said nothing. .. . Once I made the mistake of telling the truth to a female reporter. . . I said, 'He needs me.'"
Who would have thought that a second of unguarded honesty could cause so much turmoil?"
Page by page the truth unravels. What we really have here is an overweight, insecure, no-head-for-business widow of a wealthy man. A woman who obeyed her powerful older husband's every command, and whose husband lately deceased, has left his millions to his siblings. Now she has to start her growth in independence with one small baby step.
The best way to achieve the onion skin effect is to ask yourself questions rather than providing answers. If you're asking questions, you can be sure your reader will ask them too. And then you weave in the answers in small quantities.
There's nothing like dialogue to give your story fireworks effects. Dialogue can establish the direction of the story, reveal characterization, and show the dynamics between characters. My short story, "Swing Shift Shot," opens with dialogue.
Leona Evans turned her aching head toward the clock on the bedside table. Seven o'clock in the morning. Richard was home from work. If the house didn't smell of coffee the moment he came home, it drove him crazy.
'Sleeping in again. What you do around here when I work all night I can't imagine.' He dumped his big blue lunch box onto the kitchen table.
'Last night, I had to work late. One of the girls didn't show up.'"
We know from this exchange that Richard is soon to be in trouble and why.
Short story magazines frequently prefer to have the story told exclusively through action and dialogue. These are some techniques to dazzle the reader with a vivid opening, and with a little practice it can pay far-reaching dividends. With practice also, you'll find the device that works the best for you.
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