For Wednesday, December 23, 2015:
“A story should have a beginning, a middle and an end, but not necessarily in that order.”
The most memorable beginning I can think of is in Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield: ‘I was born.’ It doesn’t get more straightforward than that, but of course Dickens was a class unto himself. Not everyone can open like that, take a few hundred pages to get to the end, and make it right.
Then there’s the author John Le Carre. “It’s a principle of mine,” he writes, “to come into the story as late as possible, and to tell it as fast as you can.” A lot of thrillers open this way, and many mysteries. That’s often the nature of these particular genres, and it’s a technique that helps move the stories along at a fast clip.
Poetry doesn’t always have to start at the beginning either. One of the things I like most about Rainer Maria Rilke, for instance, are the times he introduces his first stanzas with the simple word ‘And,’ or something similar. Thus he places us into the midst of the action right away. It may seem more casual than a thriller, perhaps – almost an ‘oh, by the way’ thought – but it’s just as effective. It’s as if Rilke invites each individual reader to join him in the ‘story’ as he observes, ponders, and lives his life in real time.
I sometimes find, in my own writing and in the writings of others that I edit, if something doesn’t work, all that’s needed is to switch the end to the beginning or vice-versa. It may mean a bit of tweaking to make smooth transitions, but it’s always worth the effort.
And it’s always worth trying. If nothing else, make an exercise out of reordering some of your pieces. See what happens. Sometimes a story or poem cries out for ‘I am born’ — though it might be interesting to see what it looks like if it ends with that — but there are others that simply need that ‘And.’