Friday, October 29, 2010

Opening with theme

Submission slush again. I've been reading more openings, and I keep coming back to the need to focus-- on something, character, setting-- but just ONE thing in the first paragraph. Too many writers string together a bunch of long sentences that jerkily introduce the character, the setting, the other characters-- it's hard to know what's important.

Think about starting the book with a hint of the theme. This is a lot easier to accomplish probably if you've finished a draft and have a good idea what your theme is. But I think it's
important to realize that it's the process of reading the book that creates the theme, so the actual theme or message should maybe start in the opening, but not be stated out-- the reader evolves understanding of the theme through the whole book.

So how can you "open" a theme? (And of course, you don't have to do this in the first paragraph!) Well, a couple thoughts. You can sort of set up a question. For example, here is the opening for
Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery":

The morning of June 27th was clear and sunny, with the fresh warmth of a full-summer day; the flowers were blossoming profusely and the grass was richly green. The people of the village began to gather in the square, between the post office and the bank, around ten o'clock; in some towns there were so many people that the lottery took two days and had to be started on June 2th. but in this village, where there were only about three hundred people, the whole lottery took less than two hours, so it could begin at ten o'clock in the morning and still be through in time to allow the villagers to get home for noon dinner.

See how it opens the question: What is this lottery? And it gives a few clues-- it's right around Midsummer (or just after the solstice-- I never figured out how Midsummer can be just a week after summer starts). It's scheduled (10 o'clock, ends by noon), and it's not unique-- other towns
have a similar lottery. But it's important. It's held in the town square, and everyone from the village comes. It seems kind of like a celebration, but certainly an accepted annual ritual.

But it doesn't answer the question. It just poses the question and gives some clues. The story as a whole answers the question, and it's through the process of being lulled into thinking from the opening paragraph that this is some ritualized holiday, boring, perhaps, but traditional, that
develops the real theme about what Arendt later called "the banality of evil," the domestication of brutality. That is, we need this happy, flower-strewn opening to set up how paradoxically horrible people can be to each other. (It was, not coincidentally, written shortly after the Holocaust.)

So one thing to do in the opening is pose (subtly) a question.

Another thing to do is to start a motif, and the motif here is numbers, the "o'clock," the number of hours, the number of villagers, the date. That of course will support the theme of the sort of mechanization of brutality, mimicking the Nazis' preoccupation with efficiency and numbers.

Finally, the opening can establish a tone. This is, in fact, probably more important than starting the theme going. The tone tells the reader a lot-- is this a comedy or not? Should the events be accepted as real or figurative? Is this going to be internal (within a character) or external (outside/omniscient)?

This doesn't mean that you have to start exactly as you're going to go on, but there probably ought to be a progression of tone. For example, the above paragraph starts "happy," with positive words like "morning" and "sunny" and "fresh," and references to flowers and grass. But that "fertility" motif (which is what it really is) is immediately undercut or maybe deepened by that mechanical focus on numbers. That is, there's a rapid progression AWAY from the happy talk, suggesting that the summer and the village square and the ritual celebration are somehow deceptive.

Now watch how the tone becomes slightly ominous in the second paragraph. There's still the ritual nature of the tradition, the sort of "ho-hum" attitude. But watch how individual words get a bit more unpleasant:

The children assembled first, of course. School was recently over for the summer, and the feeling of liberty sat uneasily on most of them; they tended to gather together quietly for a while before they broke into boisterous play. and their talk was still of the classroom and the teacher, of books and reprimands. Bobby Martin had already stuffed his pockets full of stones, and the other boys soon followed his example, selecting the smoothest and roundest stones; Bobby and Harry Jones and Dickie Delacroix-- the villagers pronounced this name "Dellacroy"--eventually made a great pile of stones in one corner of the square and guarded it against the raids of the other boys. The girls stood aside, talking among themselves, looking over their shoulders at the boys. and the very small children rolled in the dust or clung to the hands of their older brothers or sisters.

And of course you see how Jackson starts repeating that word "stone," which not only sets up the plot action, but also starts another motif, the stone, the stony attitudes of the neighbors, the implacability of tradition.

So just an example. Think of the opening as not primarily designed to establish the FACTS (though it's nice to do that), but to set up the tone and the "question" if you can. In fact, I'd really suggest that if the opening doesn't just come to you perfect -- you know how that sometimes happens-- you might not worry too much about the facts and rather "feel" the tone of the opening and write from that. Or choose one motif you want to get going on, and work from that. It's a start, so you should just start, and then see if you need to add anything later.

Generally, for example, the opening paragraph states the name of the main character. That lets the reader know "who am I"-- who is the central character, whose POV this is. Why
might Jackson have decided NOT to start with the character of Tessie (the one who becomes central)? In a way, I think she's saying that this is about the village, not the victim, that Tessie is randomly chosen and thus isn't actually as important as the process of choosing her. The
-process- is really the focus of this story, and so the story starts with the process, the assembly on a certain date and time, in a certain place.

So no do or don'ts, because I've learned my lesson. :) What works works. Don't do an opening because it's trendy or because some famous author "got away with it" (I hate that term-- so middle school) or because an editor described it as cool. What's right for your story? What's the
best way (or merely a good way maybe!) of getting your reader into the story? Of introducing your reader to you as the writer of this story? (I mean, the author theme and worldview-- we rather quickly get that Jackson, for example, is somewhat grim and shall we say, not touchy-feely warm fuzzy in her approach.)

As I said, I think it can be good to start with the sort of beginning of a question, maybe sneak in a motif. But the real purpose is to get them to read on. You can abuse this-- and many authors do-- by starting with a clever hook that doesn't actually match the story but is like a crash on
the side of the highway or a Real Housewives fight-- weirdly compelling yet oddly empty. (You do NOT want the reader going to Chapter 2 feeling ashamed of herself for falling for that trick. :) But you don't need tricks to interest your reader. You need, uh, something interesting and
connected to this story. (No false advertising! Don't start with a fabulous glitzy opening scene if the story is actually about a small town... unless, of course-- here I am with the no don'ts-- you want to contrast the glitz with the mundane.... which could be cool-- but you have to do that contrast. It's probably not enough just to have the glitzy scene and then the farmyard.)

Openings are hard. Really hard. And there's no shame in waiting till you have a draft all done and know what themes and motifs and conflicts the story will develop.


Jessica Silva said...

Oh, what a great topic--and another opinion on what seems to be such an important thing. I hadn't thought about starting with theme--plot, sure; character, of course. Definitely something to keep in mind when I come back to it later :)

Thanks, Alicia!

Deb Salisbury, Magic Seeker and Mantua-Maker said...

Eek! The Lottery! That story gave me nightmares.

I work hard on my openings, but I hadn't thought to introduce theme. I've been content to show a motif or two.

Edittorrent said...

Deb, well, motif supports theme, so you really are kind of starting with theme if you start with him on a beach, and "water" is a motif that supports your theme of "death" say.

Roz Morris aka @Roz_Morris . Blog: Nail Your Novel said...

Great post. I'm about to plunge into my final polish on my WIP and I will probably leave the opening until last. Your post has come at a timely point, as I'm mulling over many possible ways to get the balance just right in my opening scene. An opening is, as you say, so much more than what is going on in the first scene.

Anonymous said...

I have what may be an odd question... Where does the 'opening' end?

What are the parameters which define the opening?

Coolkayaker1 said...

The morning of June 27th was clear and sunny, with the fresh warmth of a full-summer day; the flowers were blossoming profusely and the grass was richly green. -- S. Jackson.

Far be it from me to comment about Ms. Jackson, but frankly, this first line could completely be left out, and to me, the opening would have more punch. Although the original blog post makes the argument that this first line sets atmosphere, the "happy" tone before the more ominous undertone, I would argue that it's a very pedestrian line--obviously in June the grass is green, the flowers are in bloom. It really conveys nothing that the date itself, which is already mentioned later in the same paragraph, doesn't already connote.

Edittorrent said...

I know, Cool, it's always uncomfortable to critique someone famous or an "important" story! I wonder what it would be like to be, you know, Hemingway's critique partner. "Hey, Ernie, how about combining some of these choppy sentences?" :) But we have to be willing to look beyond the fame, if we're to make any lesson of it, right? I like the sort of obvious there, because I think it's all part of the lulling, the banality, but that is really about back-understanding.

Anon, I think of the opening "ending" when there's a transition into something else, like the action of the scene starts up, or there's a descent into one character's mind. That kind of assumes the opening is a bit different, not just the start of the scene. Hmm. Good question. Will blog maybe on it. :)