Saturday, May 28, 2011
GREAT OPENINGS FOR YOUR NOVEL, SHORT STORY, OR MEMOIR DEPEND ON...
…beginning in the right place. Once the writer understands this very basic concept, all of the “rules” begin to make sense.
And, what is the “right place?” To start with, it’s important to have an understanding of what stories are, either in fiction or in memoir. To wit: A contemporary story is about one thing and one thing only—trouble.
If that’s true… and it is… then that’s where the story must begin. With the trouble.
No place else.
What is “trouble” in a literary sense? Trouble is a story problem. While it can have many facets and permutations, it is a single, compelling problem. One that will occupy the protagonist from page one until the last page. It has to be compelling in that the audience will buy it as a problem significant enough that they will invest their time, energy, interest, and sympathy in. While the story problem is a single problem, it has two parts. The first part is what I choose to call the “surface problem.” That is the problem as the protagonist sees it in the beginning. However, the surface problem is only symptomatic of a deeper, more psychological and underlying problem that it reflects, which I’ve given the term “story-worthy problem” to. Perhaps an example is the best way to explain this.
In the movie Thelma & Louise, Thelma’s (the protagonist) surface problem is that she’s in an emotionally-abusive relationship with her husband Darryl and she suddenly realizes it’s gone beyond a bad situation into an intolerable one. Her goal becomes to escape his domination for a weekend vacation with her best friend, Louise. Her surface problem is that she’s forced to exist in a world dominated by Darryl. She doesn’t realize what her deeper problem is until she goes through the struggle to resolve her surface problem. At the end, and as a result of that struggle, she finally comes to the realization that her problem is much bigger than Darryl—it’s that she’s forced to live in a world dominated by men and that’s her story-worthy problem.
The “trouble” story-wise, is when she reaches her tipping point and finds herself at the place where she can no longer ignore or tolerate her situation with Darryl. That’s when the trouble begins, story-wise. Not before, even though she’s been in this situation with him for eight years. The story can only begin when the problem achieves the critical mass that she can no longer rest until she resolves it. Everything before that—the eight years of their relationship—is only backstory and doesn’t belong in the beginning.
Her story begins where it should—and where yours should—when the trouble starts and has reached the place where she can no longer put it on hold another minute.
And this is where your own story should begin. When the trouble begins. Not with backstory, description, unnecessary setup or anything other than when the trouble begins.
Want more stuff on beginnings? Check out HOOKED!