Friday, June 11, 2010

Pulling Aside the Curtain: The Beginnings of Story

Being faced with further revisions to my novel, I currently find myself rewriting the opening scenes. In fact, I have to completely change the opening scenes of my novel and begin from a different character's perspective or narrative point of view.

This may sound simple, but the character in whose mind or presence a novel opens is utterly crucial in terms of the narrative skew of that story.

If we open with the internal monologue of a brick, the whole novel becomes brick-flavoured from that point on. Whoever else speaks, be it air, dust, stream, periwinkle, dog, human, alien - everything comes to us served alongside that underlying idea of brick.

Hardy understood that when he opened The Return of the Native with a lengthy description of 'heathy, furzy, briary wilderness', a landscape as much metaphorical as real.

An opening scene needs to introduce a world and a narratorial mind-set, not merely a character in a situation.

It might also suggest what lies ahead through the idea of conflict and opposition, i.e. if our opening character is naive to the point of absurdity, she may have grown cynical by the last page of the novel. Or if cynicism was her abiding state, then her faith in human nature may have been restored. A violent man may find death - for each world has rules, and consequences for breaking them - while a peace-loving man may stand over the body of his enemy blowing smoke from the barrel of his Smith and Wesson.

In other words, this is the reversal we hear talked about so much in writing classes and manuals. The reversal is inherent in the 'ordinary world' in which the story begins, built into the trigger or 'inciting incident' which signals the start of our plot. For a story is not a plot. Plot only begins when something actually happens. Until something happens to knock that first domino into its neighbour and so set the whole row tumbling, the story remains inert.

And within the visual and mental picture conjured by an opening scene should lie the seed or kernel of the plot. The opening narrative should be, or at least come to represent, the story as metaphor.

That's what I'm trying to do right now. Find the correct metaphor for my story, and open the prologue or first chapter with it. I had the perfect metaphor in my original first draft, but the story has moved on from that point in terms of character development, so I can no longer start there. It has to be something which perfectly unites all my ideas about theme and character and conflict, and which also points ahead to the resolution of the story without giving any details away.

The opening scene in the movie Twilight - also a kind of prologue in the book - is of a fawn, or young deer, running innocently through a fairy-tale forest, with the underlying sinister implication that it will soon meet a violent end, as all such vulnerable, beautiful, but ultimately mortal creatures must in their journey through the dark forest of life. It's a clear metaphor for the story, and combined with a heavy-handed voiceover by the main character Bella, it points ahead to the dangers and possible consequences of her choices in Twilight without giving away the details.

This metaphor has no connection with the next few scenes, however, and so feels clunky and out of place. It's not until later, when the real-life forest with its dangerous, unearthly inhabitants is encountered, that it becomes more acceptable to the viewer as an opening scene. In searching for my opening metaphor, then, I'll be looking to avoid that slightly awkward join to the rest of the novel.


Poetry Pleases! said...

Dear Jane

Good luck! That's why I don't write novels. I wasn't really designed for hard work. We've just got back from visiting my step-daughter in Tunisia so I missed the Hay-on-Wye festival. (Compared with previous years, it was a pretty feeble line-up anyway.) Whilst abroad I had the weirdest dreams about Andrew Motion. We used to be sort of cyber buddies until I pushed my luck by requesting him to help me find a publisher. Suddenly I found myself excommunicated. I hope that you and your family are thriving.

Love from Simon

Jane Holland said...

Yes, asking people to find you a publisher does tend to put a dampener on a relationship. People have divorced for less.