Inside or Outside?
Simple Guidelines for Opening Stories and Scenes
We’ve all read them. Some stories just grab you by the throat and make you keep reading. Others kind of meander along, and you fall asleep before page two. Everyone wants to write the first kind of story. So, how do you do that?
I’d like to say it’s simple, but of course it’s not. It takes practice and craft. This essay is about some simple guidelines–craft, if you will–that can make opening paragraphs more compelling.
It’s worth starting with a bit of theory. Some of the greatest literature of the nineteenth century used an omniscient narrator. This technique places the author–and the reader–outside the events of the story, looking in. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with this approach. However, modern commercial fiction has almost completely abandoned the omniscient narrator. Today, about thirty percent of all commercial fiction uses a first person narrator, while the overwhelming majority of the remainder uses third person limited. The purpose of this short essay is to discuss the latter approach and its consequences for opening a scene in a short story or novel.
One way to think of telling a story–a modern way–is that it is a guided dream in which the author leads the readers through the events. In doing this, the author needs to engage the readers as active participants in the story, so that they become the author’s partner in imagining the story. Elements of craft that engage the readers and immerse them in the story enhance this fictive dream. On the other hand, authors should avoid things that interrupt the dream and pull readers out of the story. In his books on the craft of writing, John Gardner was one of the most articulate champions of this idea.
To be sure, there are other theories of fiction than the one Gardner advocated. Many powerful works of modern literature deliberately use a “distancing effect” (German: Verfremdungseffekt), promoted by Bertolt Brecht among other masters. This competing idea purposefully reminds the readers–or the audience, in the case of theater or cinema–that the fictional events are an artifice and thus strives to engage the readers on a more critical and intellectual level.
However, this essay is about commercial fiction, and in this arena Gardner’s ideas have become dominant. One might think of the “fictional dream” as drawing the reader into the story from the outside world, while the “distancing effect” places the reader outside the story, looking in, hence the title for this essay. Commercial fiction today is firmly on the side of putting the reader inside the story.
This dichotomy is certainly an over-simplification, but it’s a helpful paradigm to keep in mind. If you want to construct a fictional dream, you need to draw the reader into the story and hence into a dream-like state. You want to avoid things that pull the reader out of that state. While the readers are inside the story, you do not want them thinking–you want them believing, imagining, and feeling.
It’s not that you don’t want your readers to ever think–surely every author has a message they want their readers take away from their story. However, you don’t want them puzzling out the details of the fictional world while they are reading the story. Later, as they reflect on the meaning of tale, that’s when you want them thinking.
So, the basic idea is to draw the readers into a fictional dream. The readers become the author’s active partners in imagining the fictional world, in a state of suspended disbelief. In crafting the opening of any fictional work, it’s the author’s primary task to launch this dream. Each change in scene runs the risk of disrupting the dream, and so the author must use all the tools of his or her craft to keep the dream-state alive and to lure the reader into the new setting.
Here are three simple guidelines.
- Launch the scene with action, usually by having your point-of-view character doing something. The old saw, “start in media res,” in the middle of things, is still good advice.
- The action should orient the readers. The reader needs to knowwho the point-of-view character is, where that person is, what they are doing, and why they are doing it. If the scene is embedded in a bigger story, the readers also need to know when it’s taking place relative to the earlier scenes.
- At the very start of a scene, put the readers inside the head of the point-of-view character.
These are simple ideas, but difficult to carry out in practice. It’s amazing to me how many stories I read where the authors have omitted all the informational tasks listed in the second guideline. The third step, putting the reader inside the point-of-view character’s head, is even more challenging. Let’s look at an example, starting with a basic opening and then tweaking it.
It was dinnertime when John walked into his brother Tom’s hospital room. He felt bad seeing Tom’s injuries and wished he’d been more careful when planning their hunting trip.
These two opening sentences accomplish the basics of orienting the reader:
- We know who point-of-view character is: John. We’ve established we’re in his head because we know he’s “feeling bad.”
- We know where he’s at–in a hospital.
- We know what he’s doing and why he’s there–visiting his brother.
- We know when the scene takes place–dinnertime.
Thus, this opening does the basic job of orienting the readers. Note you have toname John to answer the “who” question. The sooner you name him, the better, as this helps readers to identify with him.
Do not start by writing, “It was dinnertime when he walked into the room.” The pronoun “he” has no antecedent and makes the reader stop and think about who walked in. Even if the point-of-view doesn’t change between scenes, a new scene marks a break in the fictional dream. Reinforcing that we’re still in John’s head helps maintain continuity of the dream-state.
Do not start with dialogue. A disembodied voice will almost surely put the reader outside the story looking in, hearing the words on their own instead of through the point-of-view character’s ears. Establish the point-of-view first, before anyone speaks. Further, opening with dialogue will lead the reader to think about who is speaking and where they are. You don’t want them thinking–at least, not yet!
The worst thing about this opening is that it does almost nothing to put the reader inside John’s head. Doing that takes thought and craft. The author needs to beinside John’s head, imagining entering the room, imagining the sensations and emotions that pass across his psyche as this scene opens.
John hesitated in the hall for a tremulous breath, and his nose tingled with astringent hospital scents. He stepped into his brother Tom’s room where a nurse’s aide huddled beside the bed, spooning a liquid dinner of steaming soup into Tom’s waiting lips. John blinked back tears at the sight of the casts immobilizing his brother’s limbs. Guilt clenched at his stomach and tightened his throat while memories of yesterday’s hunting accident came flooding back.
This opening is by no means perfect. Instead, it’s constructed to make some specific points about craft. It starts with John doing something personal–hesitating for a “tremulous” breath. We learn that he’s in a hospital when his nose tingles in response to the “astringent” hospital scents. All of this combines to make this bit of information more intimate and immediate, since it’s about what John smells rather than just telling the reader that he’s in a hospital. In the next two sentences, we learn about Tom’s injuries in specific ways: he can’t feed himself, he’s on a liquid diet, and his arms are immobilized in casts. We also learn that he’s getting dinner, which answers the “when” question. Finally, we learn that John “feels bad” through descriptions of his physical responses to seeing his brother: he blinks back tears, his stomach clenches, and his throat tightens. These are all visceral, inner sensations that help to put the readers into John’s head and establish him as the point-of-view character.
It takes approximately twice as many words to establish the point of view–the first opening is 29 words and the second is73 words. But notice that the second does a much better job of drawing the reader into John’s head and hence into the scene and the story.
Never forget that guidelines are just that. They are suggestions, based on both theory and practical experience. Your story may have different demands or structure. Maybe you want to employ the “distancing effect,” in which case nothing in this essay applies. Maybe, for example, discovering why the character is where s/he’s at is integral to the plot, and thus you’ll leave the “why” out of the introductory paragraph. Always follow your muse, not that of someone else. At the same time, take advantage of things that make sense for your story and your style.
Good luck, and good writing!