COMMENCEMENT EXERCISE — CONCLUSION
by James Lincoln Warren
Last week, I challenged the Gentle Reader to manipulate a piece of short fiction, “Simon’s Secret”, in such a way as to open the story according to a number of listed techniques. Alas, not one reader responded, so in today’s concluding article, I’m afraid all of the examples showing how each of the techniques alters the story’s character are from my own lonely pen.
The original story was told in chronological sequence, something I called the Genesis Approach. Here’s the opening I would have written had I applied the Epic Approach, i.e., starting the story in the middle of the action:
Simon knelt in front of the safe. The dial was almost impossible to see clearly in the dark, but he could just make out the tiny numbers impressed on the dial. Sweat broke out along the length of his arms as he slowly began to turn it.
He knew that his future was inside.
His hands trembled, just as they had when he’d opened the envelope and read the blackmail note.
The letter had come with the rest of his mail at work, without a postmark or return address. He slipped the little silver letter opener under the flap and pulled out a single sheet of paper, folded like all business correspondence in a neat tri-fold.
YOU DIDN’T KNOW THERE WAS A CAMERA, SIMON, DID YOU? I HAVE PROOF OF WHAT YOU DID TO JOE. IT WILL COST YOU. –TED
How could Ted have learned his secret? Was there really a photo, and if so, where had it come from?
He was distracted on his way home … etc.
With such a very short story, there’s really nothing gained by beginning the story at the safe rather than in Simon’s office, but the principle is still amply illustrated. Rather than beginning with the actual point of conflict, the Epic Approach allows us an earlier insight into Simon’s desperation by clearly depicting him in the middle of a criminal act. It’s a hook.
The next approach, which I called the How Did I Get Into this Mess Approach, opens at the climax and then backtracks:
Ted fired. Simon fell backwards against the safe. He didn’t feel anything, didn’t see anything, didn’t hear anything. Maybe the flash of the pistol’s muzzle had blinded him. Maybe the loud report of the discharge had deafened him.
Or maybe there wasn’t anything to feel, to see, to hear.
Simon’s hand shook as he read the blackmail note. How could Ted have learned his secret? … etc.
The only real difference between this and the Epic Approach is where the action picks up—the effect is roughly the same. But this approach may be preferred if there is nothing else in the narrative to viscerally grab the reader’s attention before the point of climax.
The Sheherazade Approach frames the main action within another story:
“I’m so sorry, Betty,” Ted said, gently touching her shoulder. “Simon was a really good man. If I hadn’t been late, maybe none of this would have happened.”
Bravely trying to hold back the tears, Betty nodded in gratitude. “You don’t know what that means to me, Ted.”
“You can rely on me, Betty. Always.”
Simon’s hand shook as he read the blackmail note. …
Simon never heard the shot.
All at once, Betty’s composure collapsed and Ted pulled her to him, lightly stroking her hair and gently shushing her as if she were an infant. It was good she couldn’t see his smile. Things were going to be better now that Simon was gone.
Widows were Ted’s specialty.
The advantage of this approach is that it expands the story beyond its initial constraints and places it in a context. If the Gentle Reader mayhap found Ted’s murder of Simon in the original version to be something of a stretch, the frame provides a more thoroughly realized motivation, i.e., that Ted is just as evil a son of a bitch as Simon was.
I’m not going to attempt the Jewish Mother Tells a Joke Approach, where the elements are all out of sequence, mainly because I don’t care for disjointed narratives. But there is another approach I forgot to mention last week, and that is the Prologue Approach, where the story begins with an incident far in the past that informs the present.
He watched Joe step out onto the edge of the precipice, thumbs tucked into the straps of his backpack to relieve the pressure from his shoulders a little. Joe stood there, grinning, looking out at the magnificent scenery, and took a deep breath.
“My God,” Joe said, “what a view. It really makes a man glad to be alive!”
Glad to be alive? That bastard. He thinks I don’t know, that this male bonding crap will somehow disguise the fact that he’s screwing my wife.
He sidled up beside Joe and put his left hand on the top of Joe’s backpack.
“Enjoy what little life you have left,” he growled, and pushed.
He watched Joe all the way down, and winced when Joe’s body bounced off a boulder into the ditch.
An intern whose name Simon couldn’t or didn’t bother to recall dropped off his mail on Simon’s desk. There was the usual, but also a letter without a return address or a postmark. Probably some invitation to an office function. He reached for his letter opener.
It wasn’t an invitation. Simon’s hand shook as he read the blackmail note. … etc.
One of the common features of the Prologue Approach is that you don’t necessarily know how the characters in the prologue relate to the characters in the main story until All Is Revealed. This may seem a little gimmicky, but it engages the reader’s interest by making him wonder how the Veiled Past relates to what are seemingly unrelated circumstances in the present. At other times, the Prologue Approach provides necessary exposition to explain what drives the action in the present–a good example is the film “National Treasure”, which provides an explanation of how the treasure of the Templars was hidden by our nation’s founding fathers, thus providing Nicholas Cage with a suitable object for his quest.
The use of prologues is one of those topics that generates a ton of controversy. Some writers think that using one is the sign of a tyro. Certainly at the hands of a neophyte, prologues frequently contain completely unneeded backstory that only slows things down, but I don’t think that any narrative technique should be despised out of hand, except for the deus ex machina of the hero waking up to discover it was all a dream. Sometimes a prologue can be used to tell a story more economically and reduce the expositional overhead. But if you use one, it had better have a hook.
So where should you start the story? Not to be too Socratic about it all, but the answer is in the question, what story do you want to tell?