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Thursday, December 8, 2011

Critical Thinking: Beginnings

After reading a few dozen more stories in the slush pile, I thought I'd talk a little about story beginnings. That right there, was a terrible first line. It was boring. Lesson #1: don't use first lines like that one!

The beginning of a story may be the most important part. Some of the slushies don't read past the first couple of pages. That means you don't have 2000 words to wow them. You may not have 1000 words. You need to do it right away. You need to wow them, amaze them, draw them in—all while making sense. It's possible, but it's a delicate balancing act.

Orientation vs. too much detail. I mentioned it before—how important is the appearance of your character to the story? Would describing the character add to the story, or take away from the narrative flow? (And, please, try to find a term to use other than "frame," as in, "He folded his long frame into the trash compactor." It's not bad, per se. We just see it a lot.) It does help to know if this is a sci fi story or a swords and sandals or an Elvis mystery, but sometimes too much detail is just boring. Annie Proulx once spent hours with a guy who hand-makes knives. She learned about the metal and the forging and the hilt…everything there was to making a hand-made knife. After all those hours, she used that information in one line—about how a knife fit in a character's hand. She was fascinated by the entire process, but it wasn't appropriate for the narrative. And she'll probably use some of that information in another story.

Action vs. empathy. Many good writers with more experience than I'll ever have recommend you start in the middle of the action. Maybe even in the middle of a fight, although "action" could mean anything that causes tension. I recently read such a story. It opened right up with a man fighting a monster—and continued for many, many pages. Here's the hard part, though: who cares? The fight was exciting and very well-written, but it can be difficult (especially for a plot-based writer) to get through that first intense scene and still make the reader care about the character. Humor helps, although I'm beginning to realize that writing humor must be a very rare gift. How you do it exactly depends on the genre and tone of the story, as well as the characters in play. Beginning with some kind of tension is definitely a plus, but we better get through that first scene with some kind of empathy for the character.

Depth vs. info-dump. How many of you have seen the movie Dune? How many minutes passed before the narrator was finished explaining the characters and the political significance of blessed everything? How many of you fast-forwarded through that part the next time you watched it? Dune is 137 minutes long. One hundred thirty of those are narrated. You don't have the advantage of Kyle MacLachlan's hair and Sting's bod to keep people's attention. You may not have four pages. Some of the slushies can tell within a few sentences if the story's going to be good enough. Flashbacks/reminiscing/internal-dialogue-remembrances should be minimized in a short story, anyway. They certainly don't belong, in bulk, in the beginning of the story. It's fine to have an idea of where the story fits into a larger world, but keep it short, keep it tight, and keep it relevant to the moment.

The most entertaining slush stories I've read are those who begin the story at the beginning. The authors weren't so in love with their created world that they had to explain every detail. And they weren't so condescending to their audience that they felt they had to spoon-feed the relevant information. They just jumped right in and trusted the reader to follow. Once you have the reader's attention, and the reader's concern for the characters, you can afford to ease up on the throttle a bit. It's a balancing act, and it may take a lot of work to get it right, but it's worth it.

Kersley Fitzgerald is having a good time reading the slush pile. Except, perhaps, the stories from authors who don't read the submission guidelines and fill their story with ickiness. Because, you know, "ickiness" is a literary genre.
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