Monday, October 12, 2009

Story beginnings

From 8/7/09:

I was playing around on Twitter the other day (August 4th, during lunch break) after thinking about the contest entries I had judged, and decided to spit out some potential first lines of stories. Of course, it being Twitter, you're limited to 140 characters. It occurred to me that that limitation is great for forcing a writer to try to get the essence of a story into a few words, which is really what you want in a beginning. The beginning of a story should foreshadow the rest of the story. The conflict should be there, or at least hinted at. On Twitter, I came up with four within 15 minutes:

11:55 AM Aug 4th
Random story beginning: "Amanda had never seen the point of sweeping corners, but since bits of gold kept showing up, she had incentive."

12:01 PM Aug 4th
Random story beginning: "Ever see Bermuda much?" "I'm looking at the Space Needle, so no."

12:08 PM Aug 4th
 Random story beginning: "It wasn't that Scott disliked designing bridges. It was just that his client was a troll."

12:10 PM Aug 4th
Random story beginning: Sometimes Sir Galadriel could slay dragons with one stroke. Other times, the best he could do was fold underwear.

My last comment on my spate of first lines was:

"Okay, I'm saving that last story beginning. It has potential."

No analysis at that point; this last story beginning hit me in the gut: I knew it was one around which I could write a story, as odd as that particular Tweet may sound. When I think about it now, I realize it's because it has the seeds of conflict in it and it's also high contrast.

It's possible to have a solid story without a high contrast, high conflict first line. In fact, I do it all the time. However, I do think the first few paragraphs--the FIRST paragraph, preferably--should contain the essence of the story conflict, and what helps to keep it succinct is NOT to tell the conflict up front, but show images in the first paragraph that represent the conflict.

Each one of the first liners above has the seeds of a story; I could make something up around them. In fact, the third one is fairly intriguing as well. There is conflict in that one—the guy is designing bridges, but his client is (literally) a troll, and that can’t be good. What is the bridge designer going to do about that? So I could go with this line of thought. But it’s not as high contrast.

But the last one is very high contrast. Here is Sir Galadriel, who is capable of doing extraordinary and heroic things: not only can he kill dragons, but he can kill them with one stroke. But on other days...well, he can only fold underwear, which is very simple and very mundane, less than mundane, because dang, it’s underwear. So immediately I’m wondering, why is a hot-shot dragonslayer folding underwear? Is it his own? Is it someone else’s? Even more important, why is it the best he could do some times? And then I wonder, does he like killing dragons? Would he prefer to fold underwear? If so, why?

See the contrast? Hotshot dragonslayer = heroic and unusual. Folding underwear = ordinary. It creates questions, and questions demand answers. A story is about coming to terms with that contrast—-resolving the conflict.

Having it up front tells the reader, “look, here are some questions. Come with me and see how they’re answered.”

I may end up posting random story beginnings every once in a while. It's always good to have a few stored away for a rainy day.