A Small Appetizer

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A Story Dragging Its Feet)

In Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back we watch as the core heroes are divided into two groups, and we follow each one’s different arc until they converge back together at the end. Thus Luke and R2-D2 travel to Dagobah where Luke undergoes tutelage from Jedi Master Yoda, while Han, Leia, Chewbacca, and C-3PO are pursued in a long, extended chase, pursued by the relentless reach of Darth Vader.

But while these are the main arcs of the story, we don’t even get started on them until we’re more than a half hour into the film. Instead we open with an extended prologue, one where our heroes are trying to survive in an ice-planet’s secret base. Luke is nearly lost, but manages to survive with some newly-introduced force powers and the help of his friends. Then Imperial drones locate evidence of the base, and finally the Empire arrives out of hyperspace to eradicate the Rebels. A massive battle takes place before the Rebels must retreat, in which our main characters split into the two parties mentioned above.

Does having such a long introductory sequence serve a purpose then? Could it have been removed or abbreviated, to make a tighter, more efficient story? Given how well regarded that film’s story is, it would seem that audience’s weren’t upset for the prolonged intro. In fact it was such a successful formula that Star Wars repeated the same pattern with the Han Solo rescue sequence at the start of Return of the Jedi.

An Old Pattern)

But it isn’t as if Star Wars was unusual to employ this sort of story-telling structure. James Bond and Ethan Hunt always open their spy thrillers with some heist that introduces the characters and world before getting into the real meat of the latest conspiracy. The Matrix shows a relatively unimportant run-in between Trinity and the agents before we’re introduced to Neo. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone details Harry’s regular life a full three chapters (more than a sixth of the entire book) before he even finds out that he’s a wizard.

It isn’t as though Star Wars was breaking new ground with its pattern either. The Lord of the Rings novel, published two-and-a-half decades prior opens with a birthday party that has virtually nothing to do with its epic saga. Bilbo could have easily given Frodo the ring in a much more succinct way. And we can go back even further. A Tale of Two Cities, written two centuries earlier, spends its entire first chapter only laying the backdrop of the story. Then it spends nearly the entire second chapter with flavor-text, until we finally reach some dialogue that is relevant to the greater story right before the beginning of chapter three.

Clearly these stories are doing something right, though, for these are some of the most beloved, enjoyable tales of all time!

Settling In)

When I try to think of stories that don’t utilize this particular pattern, I realize there is a set of examples from after the centuries-old novels of Charles Dickens, but before the recent films of modern Hollywood.

Older films, those made in the first half of the 20th Century, were far more likely to take off with the main arcs right from the get-go. The Magnificent Seven opens with us seeing the main villain and his gang of bandits oppressing the city that will hire gunslingers to protect them. Charade opens with a man being thrown off a train, whose death will catalyze everything that follows. West Side Story opens with a musical number that summarizes the tension between the two gangs that is quickly driving towards serious violence.

So what is it that each of these films has in common? They are from the era where films featured the credits at the beginning of the movie, and would play the main themes from the film’s score while they were being displayed. This created a critical period for the audience to settle into the mood of the story, even before the first act began.

Later films moved the credits to the end, and obviously novels have always had the ability to skip straight to the pages of Chapter One. In these mediums it becomes necessary to start from a much colder opening. Thus we see in these examples the wide use of an introductory sequence just to get the audience warmed up to the story and its styles before really getting underway.

Palate Cleansers)

Go to an orchestra and notice how the musicians tuning their instruments prepares you to receive their symphony. Or go to a rock band and see how the smaller group that opens the show gets you pumped up for the main event. Notice how television shows often include a short title introduction where they play the main theme and show short clips to get you into the right mindset.

Audience members are coming in from any variety of contexts when they first set down to a story. Because of this, novels, films, television shows, and music all make use of an extended introduction to get the audience out of that prior context, and into the story’s. By the time the initial heist, or musical number, or side plot has resolved, the audience is well tuned to the story’s rhythms, and can now give the main arcs their full attention.

Of course this is not a rule. Not every story takes such an approach, and not every one needs to. Perhaps your story really does need to start off at full force right from the start, but it is well worth considering whether the technique will help you with what you are trying to accomplish or not.

On Thursday I decided to experiment with this structure, having an entire first chapter that has very little to do with the rest of the story’s narrative. But what it did do was introduce the world, the tone, and two of the central characters. In a short story this sort of introductory period might not have been the best fit, but I enjoyed the practice.

On Thursday I’ll be posting the second piece of that story, and we’ll see whether the time spent in the introduction helps the rest of it move more smoothly or not. Come back then to see how it turns out.

And Now We’ll Begin

time motion round clock
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New Year’s Eve is funny. Here we are on December 31st, and tonight at 11:59:59 PM it will be the absolute end of the entire year. And then one second later it will be the absolute beginning of another year. Clocks make endings and beginnings look so easy to craft. Any author that has sat down to begin their next great novel has no doubt found it a far trickier business to start putting the words onto an empty canvas.

The clocks are cheating, I suppose. They don’t come up with anything creative when they herald the beginning of a new year, or day, or second. They simply tick one iteration forward, the exact same process as for the moment that came before, and the exact same as for the moment that will follow. The truth is no new day or year is truly a beginning out of nothing. Each beginning exists within a context, being preceded by prior beginnings and followed by others.

That same principle applies to authors and the stories they craft. Virtually every tale is going to begin in media res. Characters are not springing into existence out of nothing. They were already born some time ago, have done and seen things, have developed personal opinions, and have expectations for what the world has in store for them. Thus when you begin your story you are not telling the start of your characters, you are not even telling the start of events, you are only telling the start of your story. Your story should have bounds, a scope defined by its themes and arcs. Once those bounds of the story are understood, it is already clear with what scene it should be opened.

Let’s look at an example. In preparation for Lord of the Rings, J. R. R. Tolkien developed one of the most extensive backstories ever known. He wrote a comprehensive history of the world and even charted out main characters’ family trees. None of that exposition is what he opens with, though, all of that information is tucked away in an appendix completely separate from the story. Because none of that context is relevant to the bounds of what his story is actually about.

What his story is actually about is a group of small and provincial people rising as heroes to hold back the hordes of evil for another generation. Therefore the arc of the story mandates that Lord of the Rings start somewhere in that quiet and provincial. Thus the first chapter is A Long-expected Party, and here we see that the greatest excitement in the lives of Frodo, Sam, and the other hobbits is nothing more than a big birthday celebration. The humble beginning is established and the arc is ready to run its trajectory.

But knowing where your story begins is only half of the problem. Even if you know exactly what your first scene is, you still have to figure out that opening phrase. The problem here seems to be an infinity of possibilities. We could describe the setting, or a character, or we could start right in the middle of a conversation and set the scene after the fact. What sort of narrator are we using? What sort of vocabulary? What if we just write something to get us started, and later come back to fix it?

My general rule-of-thumb is to start with the tone, or the mood. You hopefully have a sense of how you want your story to feel, the style it is going to be utilizing. You know whether you want it to be a fast-hitting thriller or a slow, simmering epic. You know whether it is humorous, or serious, or maybe a little bit of both. Your reader doesn’t know any of this, though, and it is one of the first things they probably want to be informed of, even before being introduced to main characters and themes.

Some of my favorite stories have used this technique, and every time reread I am instantly transported back to their domain through their use of tone-deliberate openings. Let’s look at examples of this from Moby Dick, A Tale of Two Cities, and Harry Potter.

Call me Ishmael. Three words and the tone of the story is already established. The narrator is speaking to us directly, and even has a personal name. We’re ready to hear a tale from an individual, a grizzled seaman with personality and perspective. We know that the story is going to be colored by his opinion and belief, and that he’s willing to break the fourth wall.

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. We have a far more traditional and omniscient narrator here. As such we do not expect the story to express personal opinions, but rather the absolute “facts.” Also we should note that the writing already has a poetic balancing of opposites. Best and worst, this is a central theme of the entire story and we’re already introduced to it within the very first sentence.

Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much. There is an unmistakable humor to this opening, one that suggests to us a more lighthearted and fun tale. Furthermore the emphasis on things being “perfectly normal” seems to be exaggerated, and thus hints to us that things are not going to remain that way. Strange and adventurous things are coming, and probably very soon.

A story that begins with a strong sense of mood and then presents the first of its overarching themes is instantly engaging and consistent with all that will follow. These are principles that I have been following while crafting my current novel. On Thursday I will present the introduction to that novel, and you can be sure it will start with mood and arc. I can’t wait to share it with you to start off the new year!