WOULD YOU RATHER BE FRAMED OR FLASHED?
by Rob Lopresti
Those who read my column last week (both of you) may have noticed that, unlike several of my neighbors here at Criminal Brief City, I didn’t write about how to begin a story. Two reasons for that: I write these things slowly, and I turn them in early. I have told James if he doesn’t have my Wednesday piece by Sunday night he should check to something is wrong.
But I am happy to talk about starting a story, even though that process is currently making me miserable. I am working on a story that isn’t working and the beginning is the problem. I know that I want to start in the middle: the murder has been committed and the cop in charge is interrogating my hero. From there we go back to the beginning of the tale. And I think that’s where my problem lies.
You see, I was expecting to make this half of the story a frame. In a frame we start in the present, set things up, and then jump back into the past. Either the story rolls back to the present, or it cuts off at some point and we jump back to the present. (One odd exception is Henry James masterpiece “The Turn Of The Screw,” which is half a frame. A character shows the narrator a manuscript, which he starts reading. We never get back to the narrator. One weird element in a very weird story. And by the way,, if you like frames you should definitely read “No Story” by Donald E. Westlake, in which he tears the concept into small pieces and dances on it. But I digress.)
The problem is that my tale involves a large group of people and they have to move from place to place. I was feeling like a tour conductor instead of a storyteller. Are we all aboard? Cora, have you said something to establish you are in the room? How about you, Doctor Rosetti; do you need a piece of dialog?
Feh. I was reminded of Elmore Leonard’s comment that he owed his success to leaving out the parts people didn’t read. That’s what I needed to do.
So I decided to try making the first half of the story a series of flashbacks instead. Whenever things get dull I cut back to my hero who tells the cop what happened in a few words. This provides another opportunity for humor since what he tells the officer may not necessarily match up with what we see happening.
If this doesn’t work the next step is that old favorite, “Kill your darlings.” When a piece isn’t working, throw out the part you like best and see if that helps. So I might end up jettisoning my beginning and, uh, beginning again.
I have nothing else to add, he said with refreshing honesty, so lets look at a few of my favorite opening sentences, and what they say about how to start a novel.
“Art Matthews shot himself, loudly and messily, in the center of the parade ring at Dunstable races.” – Dick Francis, Nerve
Francis starts his books at the very moment the hero’s life changes, what Joseph Campbell referred to as the Call To Adventure. In this case you quickly learn that the narrator was standing next to Matthews when he committed suicide. And please notice the precision of that understated “loudly and messily,” which tells you a lot about the narrator, doesn’t it? My favorite Francis novel, Reflex, begins at the moment the hero’s jockey career ends, although he keeps riding in races for several hundred pages.
“Fontana liked to think he wasn’t a murderer.” – Earl Emerson, Black Hearts and Slow Dancing
That’s Earl’s way of introducing a new series hero. It tells you a lot about him in just a few words. Here Emerson takes a different approach.
“I was trapped in a house with a lawyer, a bare-breasted woman, and a dead man. The rattlesnake in the paper sack only complicated matters.” -Earl Emerson, Fat Tuesday
If I recall correctly, Earl said that when he first wrote the book, this was the beginning of chapter eight. But he quickly realized that this was the line that should open the book, so he started there, and eventually went back to tell the first part of the story. I know a bookseller who turns people on to Emerson by handing them Fat Tuesday and inviting them to read just the first sentence.
“Winter came in like an anarchist with a bomb.” – Ed McBain, The Pusher.
Describing the weather is supposed to be a terrible way to start a book, but in the 87th Precinct novels the City itself is a major character, so McBain often begins by describing her mood.
“Since it was the deciding factor, I might as well begin by describing it. It was a pink slip of paper three inches wide and seven inches long, and it told the First National Bank to pay to the order of Nero Wolfe one hundred thousand and 00/100 dollars.” – Rex Stout, The Doorbell Rang
Most Nero Wolfe novels begin in the office with a potential client (Death of a Doxy is an excellent exception.) So how do you make it different and surprising? Start with a crucial inanimate object, and then go back and explain why the client wrote it.
Another one I like but don’t have handy is John LeCarré’s Call For The Dead. He introduces master spy George Smiley not by showing him in action or describing his brilliant victories, but by describing what seems to be a unimportant fact: that Smiley’s wife has left him, again. His off-and-on relationship with Anne is a constant understory in the LeCarré books.
“June seventeenth turned out to be a six-biscuit day, and Vernon Lowe hated six-buscuit days.” – Robert Greer, The Devil’s Red Nickel
Greer has started with a minor character, one who doesn’t play a big role in the book. I think of this as the Law and Order opening because, until last season, most of their episodes started that way. (William Marshall also used this technique wonderfully in his Yellowthread Street mysteries.) Why start that way? If you are now wondering what is a six-biscuit day and what’s so bad about them, then Greer has you just where he wants you. Turning pages.
And however you start your novel, that’s why.