Saturday, June 20, 2009

On Taking the Plunge and Other Ways to Open a Story

I start most of my stories by leaping headfirst in scene, into the action. But the opening to my first novel isn’t working, and I couldn’t figure out why. It has high stakes, lots of tension, an unusual setting. Why, after countless rewrites, is it still not doing its job?

Recently, for the long drive back from my college reunion, a friend had lent me some short stories on tape. I listened to these stories as much to learn something about structure as to be entertained. What struck me was that several of these began somewhat languidly, laying out a back story, poking around the head of a key character, or stepping way out for a view of a place or a time in history. If I believed that a novel should start in the middle of things, I had even surer convictions that a short story must catch our attention even more quickly. How else to do this than to plough right in? Clearly, despite regular evidence to the contrary in my own reading, my vision had been clouded by something I had learned or heard that had etched itself in my writer’s brain.

A few days later, thanks to Grub Street Writers instructor, Jasmine Beach-Ferrara, and her informative three hour workshop, “Nailing the Opening,” I now have the language to apply to my analysis. Ms. Beach-Ferrara laid out a framework (along with easy to remember names) of five different kinds of openings that could also be combined with each other. These are:

“The Plunge.” That’s me. Immediate, out of the gate, immersion into the action.
“The Wind-up.” A more deliberate entry that may cover a lot of time, maybe even recounting a backstory.
“The Rumination.” I begin a lot of chapters with these, but I’ve never begun a story this way. In this opening, a character ponders “life’s truths.” The rumination is particularly useful to introduce the voice of a first person character and may give us some sense of the theme of the story/book.
"The Aerial View.” This kind of opening orients us to the world we are about to see. It is useful when that world operates differently from the one we know. The aerial view is distancing.
"The Hook." We all know this as the clever sentence or two that immediately snares us, intrigues us, surprises us, makes us take notice and want to know more.

Of course, many stories combine these kinds of openings. Later, I went back to some of my favorite novels to see how they began. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest introduces us to our narrator, Chief. At first glance, it looks like “The Plunge.” We are in the middle of a scene, but it is a scene that has probably played out before. Kesey skillfully lays out the unfamiliar world of the mental institution for us, giving us an “aerial view,” but at closer range. In Catcher in the Rye, Holden insists he doesn’t want to give you any back story, but then he does (A Windup)along with some rumination until he gets us to where his story begins. We have an immediate idea of who this character is, and we are along for the ride. Memoirs of a Geisha, another first person narrative, begins with a short rumination before leading us into the tale that takes place in chronological order. In contrast, the curious incident of the dog in the night-time, takes a short plunge, gives us a piece of back story to help us understand the narrator, and then brings us back to the action.

In that short evening class, we had the opportunity to apply four different opening techniques to a piece we were working on. In just eight minutes each, I spent time in my narrator’s head making observations about this new identity she had assumed (rumination), had her consider the past that brought her to that place (wind-up), described the strange world she inhabited (aerial view), and had her jump in and out of the water more quickly than I had before. What a simple, yet brilliant exercise that forced me out of my comfortable patterns! Now I am so giddy with the possibilities, I hardly know where to begin….


  1. Belle, this is so helpful! You've inspired me to pay a lot more attention to openings in stories and novels.

    Burns Woodward

  2. Belle - what a great post! I tend to use "The Plunge" and "The Hook" the most. I think this is because as an impatient reader, I want to be "in medias res" and/or grabbed right away.

    Glimmer Train is holding a very interesting contest for "Best Start".

  3. Burns--glad it's helpful to you, too! And Teresa, thanks for the news about the contest!

  4. Belle, this is such a fun exercise--thanks for sharing. Something doesn't feel right in my novel opening, and I'm going to go back and try out different openings to see what works best. Playing with those five options will also give me plenty of time to procrastinate before tackling other parts of the story that need revision. : )