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!
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.
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.
I once had the privilege of knowing an artist. Sculpture was his primary expertise, though he made wonderful drawing and paintings as well. He took me to an art gallery once, and I of course wanted to know his opinions on all of the various pieces. He was quite resistant to divulging that, though, simply stating that if I liked a piece that was reason enough to call it good.
He did at least explain to me one piece of criteria he used when evaluating a piece, though, and I was struck by what he said. He explained that he would never buy a work of art on the same day that he met it. Rather he would remember it, and then wait until he had a truly joyful day. He would come to look at it again in that mood and see if it still spoke to him as strongly as before. Still he wouldn’t buy it though, now he would wait until he had a truly heartbreaking day, then he would come to look at it again and see how he felt about it then. He explained that if something was going to be in his house, it needed to be a work that could speak to him at all times.
With that I understood why he didn’t want to influence my opinion on any individual piece. In the end all that mattered was whether it spoke to me or not, and whether it resonated with all parts of me, or only during one particular mood.
I’m sure you have heard the saying “this too shall pass.” This quote is attributed to a time when a monarch commissioned his wise men to give him a quote that would both cheer him when he was sad and give him pause when he was joyful. “This too shall pass” was the result of their combined wisdom. A saying that has not one meaning, but many.
Some of my favorite stories are ones I appreciate because of how they are able to speak to me at any point in life. Although I also appreciate how I have been able to find meaning in books that once I disregarded. But what is it that makes a story timeless? How do you write a tale so that it can fit to every mood and every day? Well, there’s a few different approaches that seem to work well.
Speak to Many)
The first approach is simply to broaden the audience you are speaking to. Caution has to be exercised here, though, making a story too broad can also make it meaningless. A story that tries to be all things to all people tends to be too unfocused to have special meaning to anyone.
But consider how A Christmas Carol works to make Ebenezer Scrooge as relatable of a character as possible. It uses flashbacks to extend its story over the entire duration of a man’s life. So many moments are captured that almost any male will be able to connect with the experience at one point or another. We have the youthful version that has no friends, the young man who has no money, the driven man who has conflicting interests, the old man who is full of regrets. Wherever you happen to be in your own life arc there is an Ebenezer Scrooge for you.
I certainly have returned to this story multiple times and often find it is different scenes that speak to me most each time. For an added bonus, this approach also has the benefit of making Scrooge a more interesting and rounded character, one full of nuance and development.
Another approach is to write in a way that evokes two emotions at the same time, a phenomenon that arrests a reader’s attention and prompts deep introspection. A slight variation of this is to evoke the two emotions so closely to one another that the first is not forgotten before the second begins. To accomplish this one must realize that an emotionally charged scene creates an aura that lasts longer than the scene itself. When George Bailey desperately pleads for a second chance at the end of It’s a Wonderful Life, the shadow of his intense remorse still lingers even after he receives his wish in a moment of triumphant joy.
This enables the viewer to be feeling both emotions in the same moment, which disparity both confuses and fascinates the mind. If those two scenes had been separated so that they were experienced independently, then they still might have been moving but they would not have been timeless.
When our mind recognizes that we are receiving conflicting emotions it processes how this came to be. It looks for a meaning behind it all. For example, in this particular case one might conclude that because the happiness immediately followed the sorrow means that the former caused the latter. George Bailey was in a bind, and was only able to be happy because he was willing to first be sad, healed because he allowed himself to be broken. That learning experience makes the moment stick. Every time we see it the mind will remember the previous process, and either reaffirm the conclusions or else produce another interpretation.
Captivate the Imagination)
The last approach is to ask the reader to supply their own meaning. This is not to suggest that one should make a plot intentionally obtuse, but rather it is an acknowledgement that sometimes stories deal with elements that defy our human languages to fully express. Rather than try to find the right words, the author instead tries to find a way to replicate the right feelings. The reader will only be able to find closure by experiencing the story and then giving their own silent interpretations to it.
Franz Kafka’s Die Verwandlung (The Metamorphosis) is an excellent example of this sort of tale. In this book a man wakes up in bed, reminisces on his life situation, and presently comes to discover that he has transformed into huge insect! A very strange plot follows, detailing the way he deals with this embarrassing turn of events, the burden he becomes on his family, and the tragic demise that eventually befalls him.
As bizarre as the story may be, one cannot shake the sense that it isn’t simply weird for the sake of being weird. There seems to be some sort of purpose behind it, some allegory or moral to be revealed. In some ways these sorts of stories feels like reading through a dream, and people have long believed that special meaning can be found in their night visions.
With my next blog post I’d like to try my hand at writing a memorable story, and I’d like to try to approach it with the third of the methods I’ve mentioned here. I want to write something that feels different and even dream-like. Something that is based off of a sense or a feeling that I do not know the words to express, but which emotion I hope to recreate in the reader. If I succeed, then we will be able to mull these inexpressible things together, and maybe some good will be able to come of that. Come back Thursday to see how it turns out.
Oscar regarded the mounting storm behind him, then turned his attention back to the docks ahead. He was less than a quarter-mile out, and he’d be moored and warming his boots in Lenny’s Tavern within the hour. Younger fisherman were often frustrated when a storm arose sooner or heavier than the weather forecast had predicted, but old salts like Oscar knew that these things just happened from time-to-time. Today he had to cut his trip short and return empty handed, another day he would manage a double haul. Fate ebbed and flowed like that. If you waited long enough it evened out it time.
If ever an auditor endeavored to tally the sum total of all the givings and takings of the ocean, they would no doubt find that the scales were tipped slightly in favor of the sea. It kept both the ledger and the terms, so who could be surprised that it pressed its advantage? Penny-by-penny a man found himself a little poorer each year for trying to live by it.
The locals knew this truth. They had even come up with a term for it, they called it the “slow toll.” When they spoke of a fisherman being weighed down by the “slow toll” they meant how he had begun to develop the same brooding brow and the same cynical sensibility that they all eventually came to. It was what the old fishermen meant when they said that the ocean had “etched its salt into their bones.”
But was that really so much worse than anywhere else in the world? Didn’t they say there were sharks in Wall Street, too? The world was just as askew wherever you went, the only difference was that the hustling and bustling metropolis sold you dreams while it robbed you blind. The ocean might be a thief, but at least it wasn’t a liar.
“The ocean doesn’t try to make a fool you,” the would say. “It makes no bones about it, the house will always win, same as anywhere else. Only the ocean has the decency to let you play for a while first, dries you out slow and regular.”
Oscar knew better than most that in sudden, greedy moments the ocean took more than could ever be excused. At times he hated it for that.
That you, Oscar?
Oscar fumbled for the mouthpiece of his radio. “Yeah, Sam, it’s me.”
“A little, but I had to let it go. Woulda just spoiled during the storm.”
Sorry to hear that, Oscar.
“It all evens out.”
Sam was a good lighthouse keeper. Where some fisheries rotated whose turn it was to watch, all of the boat-owners in Brynnsdale contributed a part of their profits to put Sam up permanently. He knew all of the fishermen by name and could recognize them by their boats. Whenever they made a good haul he cheered for them, whenever they didn’t he gave just the right amount of sympathy without becoming pandering.
“Everyone in already?” Oscar asked. “I can make out Bart’s and Joe’s there.”
All in but Harry.
Oscar’s radio crackled static, signifying that Sam had released his mic button. Signifying that Sam had nothing more to say until Oscar spoke first.
Oscar sighed heavily, dropping his eyes from the lighthouse to his feet. He saw the way his legs swayed to the movements of the sea. He reached over and grabbed the mic.
“Do you know which way he went?”
Went for mackerel, around the cape. Probably why I haven’t been able to raise him.
“He woulda seen the storm coming even so.”
“He shoulda made it back far enough already that we’d see him now.”
Crackling static again. Sam wouldn’t say it. He wasn’t the sort to try and tell people what they ought to do. He was the sort to let them decide it do it themselves. And what if Oscar said no? What if he said Harry was a fool for having gone around the cape even when it was just a low storm warning, and that if he was caught in a gale that was his affair? If Oscar said that Sam probably wouldn’t even hold it against him. Sam would know as well as anyone that Oscar had reasons enough for it.
“I suppose I better go after him,” Oscar rasped into the mic.
If you think that’s best. I won’t blink an eye until the two of you get back.
“I know you won’t, Sam.”
Oscar sighed once more and began to turn the wheel. Away from the safety of his berth he now swung back to face the rising storm. Where before he had only given those mounting clouds a cursory glance he now held them in serious scrutiny. The muddled gray of the sea was lost in the muddled gray of the low sky, the line between them only occasionally discernible when a fork of lightning split the void. The clouds were as whipped by the wind as the water was, all strayed out in longs wisps, yet so numerous as to crowd out the sun entirely.
As now he set his boat against the tide he felt the beat of the waves increase twofold beneath its prow. Those waves weren’t so tall that he had to worry about being tipped yet, and he turned his boat at a slight angle for a more direct line to the cape.
The Broken Horn it was called, and its rocky form was looked black as ink beneath the shrouds of fog. Intermittently Oscar pulled for his radio tried to raise Harry, but all to no avail. It really seemed the man was still around the rock, and if so then something must have certainly gone wrong.
It wasn’t the first time things had gone wrong in a storm for Harry.
Oscar adjusted his approach to steer well clear of the shore as he neared the Broken Horn. There were treacherous shoals that reached out from it, and the last thing he needed was to get stranded out here himself. That meant steering directly against the waves and that was proving to be a more difficult prospect now.
The wind was howling and the rain drove straight against the boat’s face. The waves looked black and came in like choppy spikes, trying to break anyone fool enough to be on them now. Oscar began to tip backwards and pitch forwards, moving in time to those waves. He kept a steady hand on the wheel, watching for when his craft started to stray to one side or another and righting it as quickly as possible. If he got turned sideways then the waves would swamp him in an instant.
If only fools willingly chose to ride in waves like these, then perhaps Oscar was a fool. For still the storm was not at its worse. He turned his motor up as far as he dared, trying to squeeze every possible yard out of every possible second and get himself out of this foment as soon as possible. Now and again he glanced sideways to the lump of the cape, gauging how soon he could turn back and cut across the front of it.
That front was nothing more than bleak cliffs with jagged edges. If a boat didn’t snag on the shoals then they were torn to shreds by the cliff. If Harry had run into trouble anywhere else Oscar probably would have left him to run aground, but here there was no “aground.”
Oscar spun the wheel and made his way around the point of the Broken Horn. His boat was the only white speck between the black abyss of the rock vaunting up into the sky and the black abyss of the water spinning below. Holding the wheel steady in one hand he grabbed the mic and began calling out into the storm.
“This is Last Horizon. Repeat, this is Last Horizon. Does anybody read me?”
“Last Horizon calling Broken Wing. Broken Wing do you hear me?”
A gust of wind picked up and Oscar let go of the mic as he used both hands to wrestle his boat back into its line. The gale subsided for a moment and he roared his frustration back into the mic.
“Harry do you hear me?!”
All at once the crackle of static changed to a small voice, timid and broken, yet tinged now with fresh hope.
“Yes, yes, Harry here. I see you Oscar, I see you! Bearing 80.”
Oscar looked to his right and barely made out the light outline of a boat against the pitch black sky.
“What’s your status, Harry?”
“Engine trouble. It’s barely turning at all. I can’t make it around the cape, just been tryin’ to hold steady for as long as I could. I was real scared there, Oscar.”
“Yeah, well I still am. Stay put there, Harry.”
Oscar opened up the throttle, making his away across the choppy tide. His little vessel churned forward, throwing up spray that covered his vision, offering only brief occasional glimpses in between of his progress.
“You gotta turn a little more windward, Harry,” he called into the mic. “I’m gonna come up on your starboard side and throw you a line. You be ready to catch it and then run like anything to get it through your bow cleat.”
Harry glanced behind to his beam. He punched the release and dropped the net off of his line. Then he pulled the lever to let the rope out, and it slowly unfurled itself on the deck. He waited until he had about fifty feet of line and then locked it in place. As he did all this he came up closer and closer to Harry’s trawler.
“Alright now, Harry,” he called into the mic. “You ready!”
Harry didn’t respond, he was already out on his own deck, waving his arms so Oscar would see him. Oscar turned the throttle up again, pushing to just a little ahead of Harry’s boat. Then he locked the wheel in place and sprinted back to his rope. As quickly as only a weathered seaman could he coiled its end around his hand as he leapt to his port side. He barely made it there as his vessel slid backwards into line with the other, and with a mighty fling he arced the rope out into Harry’s waiting arms. Harry pulled his hands to his chest, securing the rope, then sprinted towards the front of his own boat to run it through his bow cleat.
Oscar dashed back to the wheel and spun it rapidly to make up for its drift. Now there was nothing but to wait for Harry to secure the rope, get back to his own wheel, and radio him that they were ready to go.
Then the true challenge would begin. Towing another boat was dangerous even in fair weather. One had to be able to maintain constant tension or else something would break from the intermittent slacking and tightening of the line. One had to be careful to maintain enough distance between the two boats so that the one behind didn’t come careening into the back of the other. One had to account for the fact that Oscar’s boat would be riding up the crest of one wave while Harry’s was down in the valley of the previous and vice versa. One had to be careful to stay in line, not letting the wind blow one boat off to an angle from the other. If that happened one or both might be pulled sideways into the drink.
There were many things that could go wrong, that probably would go wrong. For any other fishermen in their small town Oscar would have faced those dangers gladly. But for Harry? Well, evidently he would face them, but that was all.
And why was it Harry? Of all the men that could have been caught out here, why did it have to be the one he could never forgive?
Last week I wrote about the narrative tool of the chase, which takes many different forms all throughout literature. Almost immediately in this story a form of chase begins. Oscar is racing out to rescue another seaman before the storm catches and drowns them both.
But the more we hear his dread about doing this, the more we understand that in his heart he is chasing into another storm, one he has otherwise always chased away from. Chasing into hurt and anger long suppressed. What he is really chasing for though is peace, even if he does not know it himself. And ironically that peace can only be found, if at all, in the heart of deepest conflict.
Next week I will post the second half of The Storm and in that his reasons for bitterness will become clear. An important element of storytelling is knowing when and how to reveal information to the reader. In this first half I have disclosed Oscar’s feelings, but not the reasons behind them. You may find it interesting to know that when I first conceived of The Storm I had not intended to communicate anything of Oscar’s feelings at all. Indeed it was an entirely different sort of experience I had in mind then. Come back on Monday when we’ll take a look at that original idea, and the pros and cons of the changes that I have made. Until then, have an excellent weekend!
Every story has a mood, just some of them are intentional. Mood is something that is a difficult to pin down directly, because it always hangs in the background of a scene, forever just out of focus. In a single sentence you have a subject and an object, but neither of those are the mood, they are directly in the forefront. The adjectives and adverbs get you a bit closer to the mood, but still not all the way. The word “chilling” might be used in a thriller to describe the appearance of the villain, or in a romance novel to describe the temperature of rain the two lovers reconcile under.
Mood isn’t necessarily defined by what is happening then, it is more the way it is being told. Mood can sometimes be strongly evoked by a single sentence, but most commonly it is an ineffable quality that is conjured up by the combination of entire chapters, all contributing together to the story’s particular tone.
And sometimes the mood of a story is affected by more than the words alone, summoned by the very physical nature of its pages. My family owned an old copy of Oliver Twist, probably published sometime before 1940. The pages were all yellow, gave off a deep, musty smell, crackled as they were opened, and so seemed to literally exude the adventures of a bygone era.
Another way to think of mood is that it would be the music of a story. Usually the score of a film never breaks into the foreground of the action, instead providing subtle cues directly to your subconscious. Mood, like background music, is the artist sending you a silent message of what you are supposed to be feeling at this particular moment in time.
No amount of polishing a story is going to make up for a lack of mood either. The way I know that my work is lacking an evocative mood is when reading it leaves the overall sensation of “it’s nice and all…but flat.”
Usually the solution for this is rewriting scenes to have the same temperature across them. The fact is my “flat” work does have moods, every story does, it just is that those moods are so inconsistent that they never have enough space to actually permeate the story. If one sentence is happy, the next is sad, and the next is angry, none of the emotions are able to actually land.
I’ve seen many other stories, too, that are comprised of many fascinating and engaging chapters when taken individually, but when combined together jerk the reader back and forth so quickly it gives them whiplash. Now and again it is fine to place two opposite sensations back-to-back for contrast, but you don’t want to be placing them back-to-back-to-back-to-back.
On the other hand, let us consider the atmosphere so effectively summon by George Orwell in his dystopian fantasies. These are worlds that feel sterile, monotone, and emotionless. Pristine machinations serving a totalitarian state where everything is clinically regulated and suppressed. How does he begin his novel 1984?
It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.
Bright and cold, they convey an immediate blandness, not only in their meaning, but also in being such short and to-the-point sort of words. The mention of clocks whose churning gears represent the machinations of the superstructure. The fact that they are striking thirteen instead of 1 PM conveys a military mentality. The mind does not necessarily process all of these facts, though, the reader simply feels them. And so Orwell’s signature mood is established, and then maintained by the story’s persistent reinforcement.
The Need for Variety)
But, of course, while some stories are famously known for how they evoke a single mood, the fact is that all of them are actually comprised of a great many moods throughout. To leave a reader steeped too long in a single state of emotion would soon dull the entire experience, making them incapable of still recognizing that overall mood. Therefore even the most tragic of stories needs to have moments of hope and levity to make the return of despair have its bite again.
And so it turns out that establishing mood is all about maintaining a balance of variation. Too little variation smothers the reader in blandness, but too much variation then smothers the reader in chaos. We want to journey to our destination and have the scenery change around us as we go, but mostly at a rate of just one sequential step after the other.
Let’s look at a classic example of a story with a strongly defined mood, that of Catch-22. The novel is famous for its lighthearted and flamboyant style, its many contradictions and paradoxes. The very idea of the “catch-22,” a situation in which two things simultaneously depend upon but also prevent one another, is already such a humorous concept that it easily pervades throughout all the rest of the novel. The mood is undoubtedly insane, but somehow cheerfully so.
But then, there are somber cracks that now and again appear beneath the insanity. The reality that some characters are dying, that planes are being shot down, that these men are facing death as their regular, daily routine. Eventually the mirthful craziness breaks apart and the final act is famously dark and depressing. Previously glossed over brutalities come into stark relief and the real catch-22 is the notion of depending on war to bring about peace.
By giving each section of his book adequate space to breathe, but also by allowing cracks of each to appear in the other, Heller is able to walk that fine line between having both a consistent mood, but also enough variety to flavor the whole.
Also, never forget that a single well-seasoned sequence will leave a lingering taste in the segments that follow. An example of this can be found in a small section from Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Specifically it is the portion dealing with the Demeter, a Russian ship that runs aground entirely bereft of any crew. The Captain’s journal is read and it gives the chilling account of one man in the crew disappearing after another, each seemingly plucked from their number by the devil himself.
Finally the Captain knows he is the last remaining, knows that the unseen vampire must soon be coming for him, and so he lashes himself to the wheel and waits. The nightmarish suspense creates a mood so evocative that it colors the story long after the episode passes. Though the following details of Lucy’s illness do not involve any of the members of that disappeared crew, their shadow looms over it, the mood still fresh in the reader’s memory.
It is easy to make the mistake of writing a story without any consideration for mood, to just focus on characters and scenes, and then at the end wonder why it somehow doesn’t have the cohesion you had hoped for. I would argue that consistent tone is the number one differentiator between narrative worlds that feel like they are composed of living, breathing environments and the ones that feel like they’re cobbled together with cardboard cutouts.
For my next short story piece I have only a very light outline: two characters wash ashore, one of them is pursuing the other. But what I do have a a clear idea of is the mood I want the piece to be saturated with: one of grim conflict, two beings that are locked into their own mutually assured destruction, brought from distant lands to wreak their havoc upon a quiet and idyllic countryside. Come back on Thursday to see how it all comes together, and have a wonderful week until then!
Now and again a familiar echo will take you back there. Seeing a field of grain, or feeling the warm sunlight washing across your skin. Hearing the croak of a frog at night. You close your eyes and the skin pricks with the memories, a familiar trance stirs once more.
Now you can hear the subtle raise in pitch as the wind passes between your arms. You taste the salt in that air as it passes to your lungs. The granular texture of sand caught in your hair. The heat of the unshaded sun mixed with the coldness of the ocean breeze, it causes you to alternate between shivers and sweats. You are somewhere else.
Opening your eyes you see yourself transported to the familiar scrawl of that coastline, the lazy surf rocking against it and back again in tiny waves. Though you have not been here in years you remember the details perfectly.
Turning around you face east and see that you are standing only on a sandbar, the island proper now a hundred yards ahead. It is a hulking mass of green, mountain clothed in forest. The larger peak on the right side, the northern side, gives the landmass an overall lopsided appearance, as though it might unbalance and fall back into the sea at any moment. The mountainous green is skirted all about by outcroppings of gray cliffs against which the western tide crashes in frothing white foam.
Lowering your gaze to the island’s only sandy coast you spy the small shape of the Whit family’s vessel, a simple wooden boat tipped to one side with a stray furl of sail whipping in the breeze. Its owners are disembarking from it now, and though they are far off you know their silhouettes instantly: two men, a woman, and a small girl.
At the sight of them you feel a familiar ache in your core, a longing and regret. Why have you returned to this place? You have traced these paths many times already, and each time you have followed the same bootprints, bent the same leaves, broken the same bones. It never changes. Is peering into the sweetness of their faces worth the agony of their later corpses?
But you have arrived, and to begin a memory is to already slip to its conclusion. It must be seen through. And so, as if on cue, you feel yourself step forward into the water, splashing your way to the island and its explorers. The water is shallow, never rising more than halfway to your knees, sloshing pleasantly until you return to crunching sand.
The explorers are more familiar to you than family. Beings that live within. Nearest is the patriarch, John Whit. He is crouched beside the boat, packing away all of the charts and compasses of their completed sea voyage. Every instrument and paper has their proper storage place now that their use is complete, and the satchel into which he tucks them is just the right size to accommodate them all.
As he works he tucks his gray mane behind wide ears, exposing a long, bald forehead and leathery, copper skin. He is a proud man of a proud heritage, one that is noble in virtue, if not in blood. It is for his own late father’s great service that this very island was gifted to the Whit family.
John turns and faces the sea he led his family across. He charted their course well and saw them through with a careful hand. Indeed he hopes to chart them rightly still, for he sees in this land an opportunity to build on the foundation established by his ancestors. He wishes to take that which he was given and prove he was worthy of the gift by adding to it something more.
Beside him is his son, William Whit, packing seed and dirt samples into a large sack that he slings over his shoulder. He is the only child of John, and has lived life comfortably and well, so evidenced by the beginnings of a potbelly beneath his folded arms. His whole life he has wanted for nothing but an opportunity to make his own mark, to give expression to his great ambition. Perhaps his father has the careful hands to steer, but he will be the surging steed that carries the family forward.
For where John looks backwards to heritage, William looks forward to legacy. He stands erect and strokes his chin thoughtfully, ruffling the close beard as his deep set eyes peer out at their surroundings with a gaze that is both penetrating and discerning. Upon these untamed wilds William sees overlaid a future of bridges and statues, ports and shops, a center of trade and wonders of construction. Important diplomats and even royalty walk the streets about him, and deeper inland he can hear the hum of mills and factories. He sees the land rich and giving, and can hardly wait to plumb its secrets.
At William’s feet young Clara babbles to her doll. Her yellow curls stand in stark contrast to her father’s dark scruff. Ivory arms hold the toy aloft, and she speaks to it of the infiniteness of the ocean and how as they sailed across it she felt that they would remain motionless in its eternities forever.
From moment to moment her eyes stray from the doll to the hulking island mountain before her. There is a wariness of the unknown in her expression. All her short life “home” has meant one place and one place only, so that this new land might as well be an entirely alien world.
She mutters something to her doll about how these forests and mountains are more “real” than she had expected. Indeed to one that has only seen such sights in the sketches of storybooks, the living and breathing wild has so much more “realness” to it that it becomes as terrifying as it is exhilarating! She slowly crosses the sand to her mother’s skirts and buries her face in their familiar closeness.
Eleanor Whit strokes her daughter’s hair with a hand thin and veiny. Her slight frame is wiry and toned for labor. She was not raised in the comfort of her husband and learned while young how to do her share and still more. Her auburn hair is drawn back into a snug bun, the better to not get in the way of her work. The angular features of her face survey the rest of her family, even as the family surveys the land.
She sees the stoic resolve in John, the anxious excitement in William, the curious apprehension in Clara. Far more interesting to her than the island is the effect it will have on this family. Much like the water through which they have just passed, trials and opportunities serve to dichotomize individuals, buoying up those that are worthy and sinking those that are not. The isolated nature of this island is such that they, separated from the influences of the world and society, can grow intimately acquainted with who they are inside and become what they will ultimately be.
Eleanor does not regret the moment, she only gives it the solemn consideration that it is due. In the same breath she resolves to do her utmost to see them through to a happy end.
John gives their gear a final look-over and is at last satisfied that he has all they need to set up their first camp. He has distributed their equipment into three packs, one for each of the adults. The rest remains safely stowed in the bottom of the boat for them to return for later.
“How does it look, William?” he asks as he hands the first of the packs to him.
“Good, good,” William smiles. “Plenty of opportunity for manufacturing with all of the natural resources. Wood, rock… There’s also a couple bays over there that are large enough for a port, and with the distinct climate we could probably also grow some produce that’s hard to get on the mainland.”
“Sounds promising,” Eleanor beams cheerfully, stepping forward to take her pack from John. “So what comes next?”
“Well we need to find a camp first of all,” John asserts. “Somewhere further inland where we can keep dry.” He gestures to the rocky cliffs that mark the end of their beach. “That means finding our way on top of there somehow. We’ll need more rope.” So saying he turns back to the boat and extracts a few more lengths.
William turns and surveys the rock in question. “Yes, be good to get a better look at the rest of the island from up there, too. What about over there?” He points to the southern edge. “Can’t tell for sure what is round that bend but it looks like the rock slopes more gently there.”
As Eleanor follows William’s gaze she gives an involuntary shiver. It isn’t much, but her slight frame cannot hide it. John notices it and asks “Are you up for the climb, Eleanor?”
She is about to answer when Clara tugs at her sleeve. She, too, has followed the conversation and her eyes are wide with apprehension.
“I don’t want to, mother.”
Eleanor tuts at John. “Of course, I’ll be fine.” Then, turning to her daughter: “And there’s not a thing to worry about, Clara. You’ll be locked safe with me the whole way.”
John looks to William who just shrugs and nods.
“Well, what are we waiting for, then?” Eleanor asks. “Hadn’t we better get going?”
“The sooner the better” John concedes and they turn their backs to the waterline. Four abreast they walk down that long shore: John and William on the left, Clara clutching her mother’s hand and burying her face in it. Four embers reaching out for something to catch their spark and set the world alight.
And so they were.
This is meant to be the intro to the novel I’m currently working on. It is my first time doing anything past the planning and outlining stages, so I admit it was a bit daunting to actually give a voice to the story.
As I mentioned on Monday, though, I had as my guide the intention to establish the mood of the story and then begin on the first arc. Obviously there is a lot of mood here, in fact it might be too much, but at least it is pointing in the direction I want. Thoughtful, pondering, and reflective. I think that is captured even in the very first line “Now and again a familiar echo will take you back there.”
Also writing in the second person definitely stands out, and gives a distinctive tone. Again, I wonder if it isn’t coming across too strongly, but I do like how it naturally encourages introspection in the reader. I’ll probably be going back and forth on how deep I want this tone to be, and would love to get any feedback on it!
After establishing the story’s mood, though, my next object was to move directly into the first plot points and establishing the story’s main arc. And so I established that these are explorers trying to make something of themselves in their own virgin corner of the world. Amidst the hope and optimism I’ve sowed traces of underlying menace, and it is easy to predict that these themes will escalate throughout the tale.
By this method I’ve been able to establish expectations in the reader, which serves the double purpose of giving them a roadmap ahead, and also allowing me to subvert those expectations as desired.
Another interesting decision in establishing the mood was choosing where to begin the story geographically. I knew it took place on an island, but I could have opened in the forest, or on a cave, or any other number of places. I chose a coastline though because I felt it spoke to a subconscious association with things deep and timeless. That’s a notion I’d like to look at in greater detail next week, this idea of speaking in a universal and symbolic nature. I’ll see you Monday when we delve into it!
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!