The Ditchwalk Book Club is reading and discussing Rust Hills’ seminal work, Writing in General and the Short Story in Particular. Announcement here. Overview here. Tag here.
It’s one thing to say that every story has a beginning. It’s another altogether to conceptualize and execute the beginning of a work of fiction. As I’ve said elsewhere:
Storytelling problems are storytelling problems: they are expressly not problems of grammar, spelling, punctuation, usage, language or syntax.
They are also not problems of critical study. Learning how to write stories by reading stories (even thousands of stories) can’t be done any more than can learning how to play music by reading music. And if it seems that last sentence should read that you can’t learn how to “write music by reading music,” instead of “play music by reading music,” then you are at the heart of the matter.
Being a storyteller is to storytelling as being composer and musician and instrument (analogous to the distinctiveness of an author’s “voice”) are to music. Where critical analysis can teach how various techniques have been used by various authors, storytelling requires that the author learn when a given technique should be used, and how they themselves will use that technique as part of their voice.
To begin a story, whether for the first time or next, is to do more than simply merge imagination with the tenets of craft. It is also to embark on an inherently solitary and fragile pursuit. So before we entertain Rust Hills’ comments about what the beginning of a story should do, I want to take a moment to talk about the beginning of the writing process.
Permission to Begin
When you are contemplating a new work, no matter what your level of experience, chances are a little voice in the back of your mind will pipe up at some point, solely to remind you that you are doomed to fail. Maybe it’s the voice of a teacher who hated you because you dared to dream — all through math class. Maybe it’s the voice of a family member who gave up on their own dream. Maybe it’s your own voice, reminding you that you’re no Ernest Hemingway or Stephen King, or whoever you secretly want to be. Or maybe it’s your voice reminding you that the last thing you wrote did stink.
It doesn’t matter what your baggage is because this isn’t a post about solving your emotional problems. It’s a post about how to begin a story, and you can’t begin if you don’t give yourself permission to begin. Whatever it takes to make it okay for you to walk up to a blank page and give success a shot is what you need to give yourself.
If you’re a pessimist you can confront your fear by giving yourself permission to fail. Put it in a contract with yourself and sign the damn thing if that’s what it takes. If you’re an optimist you should remind yourself that no matter how your story turns out you’ll improve as a writer if you keep cranking out pages. Granted: both approaches imply a long-term commitment, but since I don’t respect people who want easy answers or effortless success that’s fine by me.
Clearing the Mind
Whatever your motivation for beginning a story, you should do what you can to set that impetus aside. Approaching writing with an agenda other than telling a particular tale as well as it can be told can in itself lead to failure. If your expectations don’t corrupt the story outright you could still end up with something warped by conditions imposed on it, rather than an organic story that’s the best you can do at that time. Isn’t writing hard enough as it is?
I think every writer profits by limiting expectations. Whether you’re writing for yourself or because you signed a two-book deal, nothing about the circumstances surrounding your story will make your writing better. (It might help you meet a deadline, but that’s a separate concern.) What will make your writing better is having a clear, focused mind so you can approach questions of craft honestly in shaping your story for the intended audience.
If you have fantasies or dreams about success that’s fine. What else is a writer going to think about during all those inexplicably available non-writing hours? How you define success is up to you, but so is how you manage your expectations of success — and here I’ll add the expectations of others if you’ve allowed any to take hold. (Do not allow anyone in your personal life to have expectations of you as a writer. Not your friends, not your family, not your partner, not ever.)
The Craft of Beginning
For Hills the question of how a story should begin is narrow: he’s concerned with the modern literary short story, and as discussed in previous sections it’s a uniquely permissive form. Whatever you want to say you have hard-won permission to do so in any manner you see fit. For longer works, however, and for commercial works that aspire to mass appeal, there are probably some things a writer ought to do at the beginning to establish the story and prepare for what follows. Unfortunately, some of the common suggestions you’ll find in How-to books about storytelling are antithetical to those goals.
Here’s Hills, kicking off the list of abuses:
“Capture the reader’s attention,” these books say; and readers are supposed to be immediately intrigued by a line of dialogue: “‘I’ve got a secret to tell you,’ Miranda said to Martin” — that sort of thing.
The conviction that audience attention must always be seized affects simple minds in every entertainment industry. Whatever your authorial aspirations, I urge you not to go there. Or at least to consider the difference between being a storyteller and a marketing weasel. Storytellers are givers: they want to share what they create, and to welcome people to those creations. As a result, they tend not to treat the beginning of their stories like thirty-second hamburger commercials. Marketing weasels on the other hand are takers: they seek to create a compelling need by any means necessary, including fraud. Which is why they tend to be indistinguishable from con artists.
If you want to be a professional writer I’m supportive of that goal. But as I’ve said before you’re going to have to go to pretty extreme lengths to out-weasel the professional weasels. Besides, given the Attention Deficit Age we now live in, if someone is willing to read the first sentence you’ve written, you can probably assume they’ll stick around for the second — and maybe even the whole first paragraph.
Even the shortest pieces of flash fiction are longer than a Twitter tweet or Facebook drive-by. Before they begin reading your short story or first chapter, then, readers know they may be in for a five, ten, even fifteen-page slog. If they’re willing to take that kind of entertainment risk, you should probably assume they’ll stay with you past the first ten words.
While it’s true you don’t want to start a murder mystery with two chapters on Elizabethan burial customs — no matter how critical those customs are to your plot — there’s nothing wrong with treating your reader like an adult. Somewhere there’s a How-to book urging you to put a sex act, an act of violence and five expletives on the first facing page, but as an author you don’t have to play that game. (Again, doing so only means you’re competing in a race to the bottom with people who already live there.)
“Make dialogue work for you,” these books say; and the writer is supposed to sneak a lot of the exposition — the explanation of what the situation is — into the opening dialogue…”
Hills goes on to provide an absurd example of exactly that kind of dialogue, and it’s as hilarious as you might imagine. Even allowing for his exaggeration (which Hills acknowledges) it’s impossible for me to disagree with the premise. Dialogue should seldom if ever do double duty.
After tracing the roots of this bad advice to days gone by in the live theater, Hills makes an interesting point:
…playwrights realize that the costs of seats being what it is, audiences nowadays have to stay in them through the first act at least, and that if an audience is a bit puzzled they’re more apt to pay close attention to what’s going on than if they’re given a lot of information in the beginning that they could easily infer as the action develops.
At first blush this might seem to contradict what Hills said earlier about capturing the reader’s attention, but it doesn’t. Hills’ point is that you have time to weave a spell with your audience. What the How-to books imply (if not state outright) is that you must hypnotize the reader with the first sentence.
Interesting the Intended Audience
From an earlier post of mine:
…writing is by definition a communication. If you’re not communicating what you intend then you’re blowing it, no matter how creative or visionary you may feel when you’re pounding keys.
Taking your intended audience into account when you’re writing isn’t selling out to the marketplace, it’s being responsible. If you speak to a crowd in English but all they understand is Japanese, that’s a problem. If you write a murder mystery and nobody gets killed, that’s a problem. If your prose is boring, confusing, insulting, or just plain incompetent, that’s also a problem. And all of those problems are your fault, not the fault of the audience.
I believe passionately in an author’s right to self-determination, but the idea that acknowledging audience interests necessarily undermines authorial intent is false.
The beginning of any story anticipates both the rest of that story and the intended audience’s reactions along the way. If you’re writing for crime-savvy readers your plot twists are going to be intricate and subtle; if you’re writing for children your plot twists — if there are any — are going to be simple and obvious.
Part of assessing your intended audience is making a judgment about how much time they’re going to give you to anchor their interest. Are your readers looking for something specific that you must deliver or at least promise in the first chapter? Or are they more flexible and forgiving? Are you writing to established genre requirements or exploring an experimental niche? Whatever answer you come up with, I honestly believe you have time to get your story underway without first dropping your pants.
The Curiosity Question
It’s not necessary to inject mystery into the first sentence. But as Hills notes, raising questions and letting them linger is a good way to involve the reader:
A reader is always more willing to guess than to be bored: if he is puzzled, he is at the same time intrigued. Lack of exposition can create a sort of low-grade tension and suspense.
While tension is clearly superior to mystery and curiosity in creating suspense across an entire work, any of those techniques can do wonders to encourage a reader to read on, even if the subject is subtly implied.
As Hills notes later, “The contemporary reader can intuit a remarkable amount…” I think that’s true not only for literary readers, but for fans of genre fiction as well. And probably all the more so today, because anyone considering your story has already demonstrated a willingness to pass on simpler distractions in favor of longer and more complex works.
The First Sentence
Here’s Hills’ only requirement for the beginning of a literary short story:
What the beginning of a short story should do, what the beginnings of most successful modern short stories do usually do, is begin to state the theme of the story right from the very first line.
Regular readers know I have a reflexive negative reaction to the subject of theme. Hills doesn’t address the subject fully until later in his book, but does state:
…the first sentence or two has implicit in it some statement or metaphor or image of the story’s whole meaning.
There is so much that can be communicated in an opening sentence that an entire book could be written on the subject alone. That may make the process of beginning all the more daunting to you, but consider instead the riches you can exploit. Your reader is open to you, the stage is yours, you have a clean slate, and you have time to weave a spell. Unless you’re a bumbling fool you should be able to engage the reader’s interest in a number of ways. Absent obvious gaffes, consider too that it’s impossible for a reader to know whether your first sentence stinks or not until you get them well into the book — at which point they’ll probably have forgotten all about it.
The Thing You’re Forgetting
Despite the fact that you’re the author, it’s unlikely that even you will know precisely how to begin your story. Yes, you might get lucky, but if you fall in love with your initial beginning you may end up trying to protect it despite what you learn along the way. And that would be a big mistake.
So go ahead and bash out a first sentence that gets you going, but with the certainty that it will need to be tweaked, overhauled or entirely replaced. Do whatever it takes to overcome your fear and expectations so you can fight your way into and through the first draft. Because that’s the only way you’re ever really going to know how your story should begin.
Next up: Middle.
— Mark Barrett
Nice. 🙂 Thank you, Mark.