find the secrets to your novel in your beginning

 

 

Accomplished writer and teacher (and all-around interesting dude) Les Edgerton tells of some advice he gave to a student who didn’t know how to end her story. “Go back to the beginning,” he said (I’m paraphrasing), because often the beginning of your story holds the clue to the ending.

The opening of your story establishes your contract with the reader. You set the tone, you establish the storyworld, you succeed or fail to initially prove yourself as a writer (as in: you have the authority, style, and confidence to deliver – and if you don’t, your reader, especially if it’s an agent or editor, is through with you already). You pose the first story questions that will capture the reader and draw her in to the rest of the work. You open up a mystery (no matter what kind of genre you’re writing in) and promise that the mystery will resolve by story’s end.

Screenwriters pay a lot of attention to opening and closing images. These images book-end each other: the closing image echoes and subverts the opening image in a way that implies the change and journey the characters have undergone.

Something else that screenwriters will do early in the story is to have one of the characters state the theme in what seems to be a casual, throwaway line of dialogue (it’s not like they know they’re stating the theme). For example, I watched the movie THE INSIDE MAN last night, starring Denzel Washington. In the opening minutes, Denzel is puzzling over the price of the engagement ring his girlfriend so clearly wants: “What’s the cost of a diamond these days?” The story goes on to answer that question in some unexpected and interesting ways.

I was thinking about this as I reread the opening to my work-in-progress, THE DECADENTS. Here it is:

Yesterday I read through Angelina’s journal again. Some of the passages I know by heart, and even the ones written in her most illegible scrawl — black ink pressed in the page –have decoded themselves, if not into individual words then at least the general meaning.

Afterwards I smoked on the deck and watched darkness come down on the mansion-studded valley. Coyotes yipped in the shadows of the pines, the eucalyptus. It’s a wild, lonely sound, and I can’t think of Los Angeles without thinking of the coyotes. I called Gabe on my cell and told him I was going to write this book. His response flickered in and out – it wasn’t a good connection – but I heard him wish me luck, and the irony in his voice.

I have no more respect for secrecy. Someone could argue that these are not my secrets to tell. But they extracted costs from each of us, and so in that sense belong to us all.

And Gabe says he’s told me everything.

Looking at this now, I see how I’m establishing a story that’s going to be about identity, secrecy, the violation of boundaries (reading someone else’s journal). I establish a mood of isolation and solitude (the darkness, the yipping sound of coyotes) and uncertain or hazardous relationships (the telephone connection that flickers in and out, the ‘irony’ in Gabe’s voice). I connect this to a certain wealthy milieu (Los Angeles, the ‘mansion-studded valley’) and I’m promising the reader that these characters will go through something significant and damaging (“extracted costs from each of us”) and that there will be revelations and exposure (“Gabe says he’s told me everything”, the fact that she’s writing a book about secrets that “belong to us all”).

Do I see, in these paragraphs, how the story will end? Yes I do (although I’m not going to tell you, because I hope one day you might want to read the book) even if the ending is something I’m still mulling over. But these paragraphs will act as my north star, pointing me in the direction I need to go in, reminding me of the contract I need to carry through with the reader.

What are your opening lines? (Share them in the comments section below…) What do you see in them? Can you find or intuit your ending? What is your opening image, and how could your closing image both echo and subvert it?

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Feb 19, 2010
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Great post, Justine! It made me think quite a bit. Especially about setting the mood for the entire story. Thank you…

“What do you mean you won’t accept my cargo? You ordered the damn stuff!” Captain Jeremiah Keel banged his fist on the console in front of him for emphasis. . The two other men in the room, Mark Sandor his First Officer and Jon Blair his Chief Purser both jumped.

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You know one thing that’s really helped me stop throwing everything but the kitchen sink at the plots of my books?

Reading the earlier stuff. I reread the first chapter every so often, and now that I’ve begun to chapterify my work as I write it, I always reread everything I have of the current chapter before I start writing each day.

On a story level, I think it’s helped give my plots, and the style of the writing, a coherence they didn’t have before.

And more importantly, when I reread, it makes me squee a little every so often because I can see how what I already have builds into what I am or will write as I proceed to the end. That really helps motivate me to write more.

My current novel-in-progress’s first line is also the name of my blog. Huh. I didn’t realise that before — I began this draft after I started my new blog.

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Great post. Did you hear Les just got a fiction deal signed? He posted on Facebook yesterday–a noir novel called “The Bitch.”

The opening lines of my work out on submission definitely ties into the storyline and the ending:

July 4, 1900
Amelia Lovecroft continued to pretend that the evening’s firework show was important to her. Other girls her age were likely eager for the festivities—busying themselves with trivial affairs, such as wondering if their hair ribbons matched their dresses, or if their mothers might let them finally wear a corset. Those issues didn’t matter to Amelia. At least today they didn’t. At dusk, Amelia was supposed to rendezvous with Boy.

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That’s a really interesting idea! I’m going to have to dig into my opening image and see what I can come up with.
__

This is what I’m doing right before the accident, trying not to think about Matt. I’m trying to focus on the upcoming audition, trying to “visualize success” as my mother always says.

I’m not succeeding very well.

The snow-crusted road slips away under the wheels of my car, throwing up mud on the newly washed red paint and the script on my passenger seat mocks me. I haven’t gotten a lead in a play for six months. My drama teacher even suggested that I take a break from acting and enjoy my job as director’s assistant. Refresh and refocus were his exact words.

Take some time, Becca. You’re only seventeen, you don’t have to do everything.

But I have to do this. I have to prove to myself that I’m okay. So I take deep breaths and I think good thoughts and I turn onto the bridge that leads to the New Meadows Community Theater and right into a patch of black ice.

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By coincidence, Colin Marshall quoted Peter Greenway on the subject of scriptwriting and storytelling today:

http://colinmarshall.typepad.com/blog/2010/02/why-movies-suck.html

“It appears that English and, even more so, American films are perfect in recounting a straight line narrative. They achieve it through the use of suspense and asking the viewers to identify with the main characters. That accounts for all those psychological dramas. I think that the greatest art works — and I exclude those found in film — have had far greater means at their disposal. Only cinema narrows its concern down to its content, that is to its story.”

* * *

“Christ was a soldier,” Father Renola began.

“Like you, he walked around from place to place, looking for people who needed help and for people who were causing trouble. He was also a storyteller, although with fewer of the bullshitting tendencies many of you cultivate so assiduously, God help you.”

The tent was full of infantry soldiers in full battle gear. They sat on the benches of picnic tables the combat engineers had built and arranged in neat rows on the plank floor. The flaps of the tent windows were rolled up and sunlight filtered in through the mosquito netting. It was late afternoon and very hot. Through the open doors of the tent, Father Renola watched a line of helicopters lift off, their noses low, full of troops. He raised his voice his little.

“Here’s a story for you to think about. Not a Bible story. Can you hear me? Can you hear me, Specialist Squires?”

“Five by five, sir!” Specialist Squires called out. The men around him were smiling.

“A Vietcong soldier leaves his village in the highest reaches of I Corps and goes off to fight the running dog lackey capitalist round-eyed American imperialists in the south. He’s from the highlands but hates the south – and who wouldn’t? The food is terrible, it’s too hot. The work pays badly. He misses his family – like all these slopes, he’s got a million sisters and brothers and in-laws and all their second cousins twice removed and so forth. All these people live up in the village he left behind.”

A jeep drove by, followed immediately by another. Renola’s time with them was short.

“Our guy fights in the south for years. He blows up trucks and sets booby traps. He re-supplies snipers in trees and mortars firebases when he comes across them. He ambushes the Americans and cuts their heads off and commits various and sundry other atrocities,” Renola waved his hand casually, “too numerous to mention here. He signed up for this work and was generally happy to do whatever was needed, despite otherwise poor working conditions and, of course, loneliness. In his hours of repose, he wrote sappy letters home to his wife and poetry in his journal, you know, the sorrows of war and all the rest of it.”

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Wow, I can honestly say that I’ve never thought about this before, but I guess we sort of unconsciously do it in our writing. I enjoyed the movie THE INSIDE MAN. Very clever. This post makes me want to watch it all over again.

We’re still playing around with our opening lines in our WIP (it takes us FOREVER to get them right), but as of right now we’re starting with:

For some girls not being able to remember anything that happened the night before might not be a huge deal.

I was not one of those girls.

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Love this post!

Like Lisa and Laura, my opening has changed several times. These first lines, however, do give a notion of what the end will be, so maybe they’re “the right words in the right order”:

Squatting beside the body, Jessica reached a trembling hand into her raincoat pocket, pulled out a cell phone, and dialed the central campus number.
“I need the head of campus security at Alumnae House. Right away. Hurry.”
She pushed the stop button, then hit #1 speed dial.
“Teddy? It’s me. The switchboard is gonna call you. Don’t pass it off. I need you.”
Then she hit #2 speed dial.
“Monica? It’s Jess. Call me. Now. It’s an emergency. I’m on my cell.”
Jessica rose to her feet and stepped outside onto the front stoop. He gave her the creeps when he was alive. Dead, he was too much to even be near.

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I always know how my stories end, or I couldn’t begin them. Sometimes I’m wrong about the ending. Much more often, it’s only that I started out with the wrong idea about what it means – something I can only find out in the telling. That’s where the ouroboros chiefly comes in for me: re-reading the beginning and seeing if it still makes the right kind of sense.

I’m back on track with Three Katherines of Allingdale at the moment. This is structured as a diptych: the first panel is long written, the second is just now picking up steam again. The beginning of the first, which is subtitled A Song of a Summer:

*

Once upon a time, not so far away, three women all named Katherine rode up the eastern path out of Allingdale, looking for a strong and handsome prince. [The next paragraphs introduce them, immediately undercutting both their quest and their Glorious Leader.]

*

The beginning of the second panel, the Winter’s Tale:

*

This is a tale they tell in Allingdale, when the wind howls in the dark outside and the midwinter cold is gnawing through the wall. – On just such a night as this, a stranger came knocking at the Cock and Bottle in Blackwaterside, which lies over the hills and far away right up into the roots of Langdale. Old Mother Ag, she that was our Ness Watts’s grandma, she opened the door and let him in. He was a big grim man with cropped grey hair and scarred leathery skin and stone-cold eyes, marvellous blue like a frosty morning sky; and he had both knife and sword at his belt, and carried himself proud as any lord.

*

The first is a fairy-tale opening, to a story which is about the difference between playing at old fairy-tales and living them.

The second is closer in and grittier: a tale from the war our grandparents fought in, when all dreams seemed withered and blasted, until out of fires and terrors came a new tale never dreamed of before… And, yes, at the end of it, again three women all called Katherine must meet on the slopes of the Edge, and fulfil both the old tale and the new.

I may have to tweak the tone a bit, when I’m done. Both fairy-tale and grandmother’s tale openings tend to grade into a denser and more romantic style as their stories unfold. Not until I’ve finished can I really judge how well that works.

Where going back to the beginning has worked for me? When I’ve come to clutter up the tale with things that are between the beginning and the end, but have nothing to do with the arc from one to the other. Supreme example from this telling: as Three Katherines has come back to life, I’ve set aside the whole massive middle panel of the original triptych, because nine-tenths of it is completely beside the point of going twice up Maltby Edge and turning the world upside down in the interval.

Thanks for a good and true post: reflecting on it has cleared up in my mind a couple of things about why, and how, I’m doing what I’m now doing.

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Nnghh! This was me, distracted by misbehaving machinery…

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Hello Justine,

I am a writer, and I’m new to your blog. I’m finding it wonderfully beneficial and entertaining. Thank you for inviting me.

This is my first post as a writer, as Irving Podolsky. I have another identity, another career, another means of recognition. For now I wish to keep those two worlds separated. As well as the two me’s. Irv must grow without my help. I’m happy to introduce him to you now, with the opening paragraph from the trilogy, “Irv’s Odyssey.”

“My name is Irv Podolsky and I don’t fit in. Anywhere. A long time ago Bud Jones told me I was visiting and that I shouldn’t waste any precious time here. That idea never left me. In fact, I’ve come to believe I am a Visitor, inserted into a human body at birth so I can scrutinize and record the human condition. I’m not the only one. Occasionally I meet other Visitors, and although we don’t talk about it, we know who we are. We’re observers looking for reasons behind the reasons, the questions behind the questions, the answers behind the answers. And at some point, probably when we close our eyes for the last time, we’ll be summoned Home to report to our own kind just what it’s like to live among the wise and the insane.”

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Thank you for this! Extremely helpful advice for me, especially since I am currently struggling with wrapping up the ending of a first book of a trilogy without basically saying “. . .” in so many words. Now I have an idea, based on my beginning, to give it a somewhat self-contained, satisfying ending. :-)

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