02 March, 2017

A Look at Story Beginnings

After years of reading, it strikes me that I fell prey to a fallacy in my early days as a writer.

We're so often told never to start with exposition. Get into the action. Hook them with a scene. Editors love scenes. Start in scene or they'll stop reading.

The trouble with this advice is, it is completely and utterly false.

(I point you towards an old post of mine: The Editor is Always... wait, what?)

Exposition is not the enemy. There is a running thread of it through every good book. It's the character's motivation, their emotion and reason for doing what they do. It's POV at its deepest. It's what the reader holds onto, while they're watching the action. And importantly, every story must start with something to hold onto.

I'll start by saying there are exceptions to the ideas set out below. Some rare souls like Roal Dahl have such a compelling voice that they can basically just talk to kids at the start, and the kids are rapt.  Matilda opens with, "It's a funny thing about mothers and fathers. Even when their own child is the most digusting little blister you could ever imagine, they still think that he or she is wonderful." Really Grandpa? Tell me more! Dahl is just fun to listen to. He knows it, and uses this superpower to great effect. Maybe one day I'll understand his magic. Until then I won't be so arrogant as to assume I have it.

Almost every story starts with some variant of "Once upon a time..."

It's possible to put this in action, but that action must ground the reader in an interesting premise. It must tell them that Once upon a time there was a boy who was half hedgehog (Hans the Hedgehog by the Brothers Grimm) or something, even if it happens with Hans rolling down the hill and landing, spikes first, into a pile of hay. If that opening's done well, the reader may learn what time period we're in, what kind of town/village Hans lives in, and almost certainly will learn that he alone is covered in hedgehog spikes. It will be action filled with exposition. Why? Because the thing that makes his hedgehoggedness compelling is what the opening is about.

The vast majority of stories take a more direct approach, especially in kid's fiction.  Kids have very little patience as readers. That's the chief difference, and that's why their tastes are so telling. They want to know instantly what the story is about and what's compelling about it, or at least some compelling idea that will keep drawing them forwards, whether it's that they'll get to read the life of an interesting character in diary form (the excellent Diary of a Wimpy Kid, for instance) or that they'll get to see some amazing events take place.

So let's look at some openings of books, mostly kids fiction.  I'll throw a couple of adult books in there too for good measure.  I'll also link to every one of them, because I'll only quote from things I think are excellent and that people should read.

Here goes:

"Coraline discovered the door a little while after they moved into the house."  O.o  There's a door, you say?  And a girl named Coraline?  This seems otherworldly, and I wonder what's behind the thing?  It's obviously something good, or the girl with a cool name wouldn't be so interested in it.

In other words, "Once upon a time there was a girl with a cool name who discovered a most peculiar door." Old timey fiction would have taken this kind of direct approach. The modern author must be more subtle, but must understand human psychology to the exact same extent. If anything, more so.

"If you walked into the Pish Posh restaurant on any given night, you would be sure to find a smallish eleven-year-old girl wearing large black sunglasses sitting by herself at a little round table in the back."

In other words, "Once upon a time there was an interesting girl in a snazzy restaurant who seems like she's either up to something, or at the very least doing something out of the ordinary. Oh, and according to the back cover this book is about a robbery."

Last of the kid stuff but certainly not least, one of my favourite writers, David Almond's awesome magnum opus. I cannot recommend this one enough.

"I found him in the garage on a Sunday afternoon."

Found who? And this person is so interesting he deserves an entire book? "Once upon a time there was an interesting person found in a garage." Just what kind of person gets "found" in a garage anyway? At this point, the story could be about a cat, a clown, or a physical embodiment of all the world's evils. We don't know. What we DO know is that they're interesting. They raise a million questions. Hooked.

Let's end with adult books, just to prove the trend persists into adulthood. This is not some testament to the simplemindedness of children. Take that attitude, and I promise you could never write for kids. Children's literature is more pure, more direct and in some ways more honest with its readers. Techniques employed in adult fiction are more apparent. That's all.

I'll start with a good hybrid, because like much of Ray Bradbury's works (when you count his short stories) it works well for YA too.

Two openings here.

Prologue: "First of all, it was October, a rare month for boys."  These kids are up to something, and it may well have to do with Halloween. This coupled with the story's title, which to my mind is possibly the best title ever, gives the "Once upon a time two boys did something interesting in October" a special kind of mystery.

But some people skip prologues, so onto the Chapter 1: "The seller of lightning rods arrived just ahead of the storm." This is such a stark and excellent example of an opening hook that it requires little explanation.

"Once upon a time there was a terrible storm, for which a lightning rod salesman upon whom our tale shall focus, arrived just in time."  My old timey version is long winded and sucks, but you can see the parallel.

"In the week before their departure to Arrakis, when all the final scurrying about had reached a nearly unbearable frenzy, an old crone came to visit the mother of the boy, Paul."

Almost Shakespearean in its obvious hookishness, we have an old crone, a symbol of prophecy, coming to visit the mother of a mysterious boy who's about to embark off to a mysterious place.

And for my final book, I choose one from probably my favourite living author, Connie Willis. David Almond and Philip Pullman are contenders for the top spot, but nonetheless. It was Ray Bradbury, then Harper Lee, and now that people can read Go Set a Watchman the way she intended (over her dead body... too soon?) the mantle falls to Connie Willis.

I choose this book because it does not start with a flashy obvious hook, but it does accomplish the same thing the kid's books accomplish. It just does so with a softer touch, for a reader who won't put the thing down just because the first sentence doesn't grip them like a vice. What it will do is compell them, make them at least have some impression that there's an interesting thing around the corner.

"Mr Dunworthy opened the door to the laboratory and his spectacles promptly steamed up."

So why did they steam up? These people are about to have an interesting conversation. We swiftly learn through that conversation that at some point in the far future there were a group of scholars who studied history via time travel. And it's called Doomsday Book? Uh oh...

These softer adult hooks remain significant. Of Mice and Men doesn't start with a hooky first sentence, but we swiftly learn that once upon a time there were two fascinating companions, one a quick witted little man, the other a giant with a child's heart, on an adventure through Great Depression America.  To Kill a Mockingbird doesn't begin with a really obvious hook (it sort of does, about the brother having broken his arm) but we swiftly learn that the brother broke his arm in a fascinating circumstance involving a conflict with some people who bear a closer look and a fascinating shut-in rather cruelly nicknamed "Boo".

All through my early attempts at getting published, I'd been told by the low-rung editors that you need to start in immediate action. I'd wilfully, for the sake of impressing them, blinded myself to reality. Stories begin with making the reader know, as quickly as possible, which usually involves telling rather than showing, that something interesting is going on. They begin with compelling exposition, otherwise known as a hook.

So I hope that helps a few people not make the same mistakes I did, or at the very least I hope you found it interesting. If you've decided to buy any of the books I mention, please do so by clicking the links from my page. It gets me money! I need money and you like good books, so everybody wins!