It all starts with a sentence.
That’s the common ground between Daniel Defoe and Dan Brown. Well, some stories might start off with a sentence fragment, or maybe a picture, or a list, but still. The shape of the starting sentence is one of the truest determinants for the story that follows—and, if it does not directly inform the style and approach of the following writing, it is most certainly interrelated.
The opening, of course, is the dangerous part of a story—it’s the make-or-break, the Thermopylae (a pox on your house, 300, for cheapening a generation of Thermopylae references!) where the massed expectations of the reader clash against a finite expanse of words. The opening is what tends to be the most remembered the window into the narrative of the world created by the author. If it smells bad, the reader will stay away. If it is intriguing, then the reader will stick around and read.
I’ve been fascinated by the power a plot can gain or lose by its beginning. A lot of times, especially when people are discussing movies, you’ll hear them say something like “well, it was kind of slow at the beginning, but it really picked up.” My immediate response is that the story would have been put down if it was a book or a magazine. Four years of writing has taught me that the difference between the good starts and the bad starts are the difference between the quick and the dead. This is not to say that good beginnings are those that are literally “quick” or speedy (though I think Calvino wants to reign in here at some point—rest assured, there’s only one incoherent and rambling discusser-of-writing operating in this particular blog post), or, I am obliged to admit, that bad beginnings are literally “dead.” It’s all about the control of information.
In class, I provided them with a hands-on example. Having compiled a list of sentences selected by my students, I created a randomized list. Essentially, one student wrote a sentence, and then turned it into me—I gave that sentence to another student. These selections became the first sentences of an exercise that the students had to complete. I have to say, I got quite a mixed bag of submissions—sentences ranging from the purposefully vague to the packed-with-detail, with content that ranged from dietary problems to racism from unexpected sources. Of course, this kind of mix was what I wanted. Taking sentences from people and giving them entirely different subjects in return seemed like a good way to expand what the students would be willing to write about, and also challenged them to write about something outside of their comfort level.
After given time to elaborate on their sentences, I had the students read aloud their concluding sentences, to get an idea of whether the story flowed from A to B. This was mostly the case, but sometimes, it wasn’t—a lot of this was the result of having sentences that were vague or short. And those results weren’t negative results—quite the opposite, it demonstrated how vague opens (I suppose you could call them ‘cold opens’) offer a degree of freedom in choosing the parts of the story that followed. I had two examples that were brought up in class to illustrate this point:
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”
By the way, don’t ask me what A Tale of Two Cities is about. I’m the most illiterate literate person I know. However, I think that illustrates the point of the open—it’s very memorable, but the story that follows from it is not clear. What times? What’s best? What’s worst? Who knows. Who cares (well, presumably the people that read past this line—I was not one of them)?
The other example”
“A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…”
Granted this is about the same as a “Once upon a time”, and in that I think it gains some recognition in that sense, but it also lets the viewer know that the movie they’re about to see is a tale. It’s the call to suspend disbelief, indicating the other-worldly setting in a way that is both assertive, but not alienating. I think it works really well.
My students said they weren’t necessarily used to the subjects they were writing about, and, as such, hesitant, but their ability to do the work is an important step in getting creative experience. And that they did it so well makes me excited at their ability to meet the challenges I can dish out—as a responsible teacher, of course.