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?