Last Monday, I took a Grub Street class called All The Right (Opening) Moves:
We all hear that the opening moves of a story or novel must grab the reader and capture her imagination. But how exactly does that happen? In this seminar, we will look closely at the first two pages of a range of short stories and discuss the strategies they use to immediately activate character and plot. You'll then have the chance to try these strategies out with the opening of one of your fiction projects.
According to instructor Jasmine Beach-Ferrara, there are SIX ways to start a piece of fiction:
- The Plunge
- The Wind-Up
- Aerial View
- The Rumination
- The Hook
- The Experiment
Jasmine explained some of these in movie terms, which I have to admit helped me really visualize and understand the options, so I'm going to pass that along to you.
The Plunge is the close-up view: boom, you're in the middle of the action, in the car with the hero, running down the street with the heroine.
The Wind-Up is the montage: the main event isn't happening yet, but we're getting critical and select pieces of information so that when the main event does happen, we'll be ready for the ride.
The Aerial View is, well, the aerial view. The panorama of the story's environment before we swoop down to street level.
The Rumination is the voice-over, giving you the main character's actual thoughts and ponderings.
The Hook is the incredibly high-voltage, dramatic, intense scene (followed by a screen that says "four hours earlier..." at which point the story backs up and begins at the beginning).
And The Experiment is just a way of saying that, if you're going to do something really weird and novel with your fiction, you should signal that to the reader up front. Like Memento starting out with footage of a Polaroid photo developing and being shaken in reverse: the whole movie is comprised of scenes patched together in reverse-chronological order, which could leave a viewer feeling confused, tricked, or blindsided if not handled properly. So, there's a funky device used right up front, letting the viewer know s/he should expect something extraordinary.
Note that these are styles you can use to start your story, they're not about content. It's easy to picture "the plunge" as starting at the moment of conflict but this need not be the case. You can zoom in close to the narrator before or after the moment of crisis as well. This is only about the method in which information is delivered.
And, of course, there are lots of ways to combine these elements. I think my first novel starts with a kind of plunge-rumination: you're right there, getting my main character's thoughts at the precise moment she realizes that she has a real problem on her hands. (But it's not an extended rumination, like, say, the first page of Lolita; we quickly move on from her thoughts, but stay close alongside her.)
WHICH STYLE DO YOU WRITE? Have you ever tried other methods for the same piece? I tried out the wind-up, the aerial, and the experiment for my in-class exercises, and I think my current short story is really going to benefit from "the experiment" method in particular.
Other students read variations of their openings out loud, and in some cases seemed clear which style worked better (and often the runner-up method seemed like it would work quite well later on in the piece, so it certainly wasn't wasted effort), but in other cases our opinions were mixed. But I think it's easy to forget that we have choices. Try out one you've never done before. I think you'll be pleasantly surprised.
Oh, and just for fun, check out the 100 Best First Lines of Novels as chosen by the editors of American Book Review. I gotta say, #4 does nothing for me, but I think I'm in agreement with all the rest...