It’s a new year and a lot of people will be starting new pieces of writing. In this video we look at how to start a piece of prose fiction. D.D. Johnston considers the differences between the openings of films and novels, and he explains why starting a story is like placing a lonely hearts advert.
One of the challenges writers face these days is that we all spend a lot of time watching moving images. Even prolific readers are probably exposed to more film than they are to text – you’re watching a film right now.
And when people start to write a prose narrative, they’re often influenced by the mode of storytelling employed in cinema. I’ve spoken before about the limitations of the cinematic mode of narration and all the wonderful alternatives open to prose writers. Cinema’s very limited. Unless they use voiceover, films are restricted to telling the story by acting it out. By mimesis.
And today I want to focus particularly on beginning a story. Because films and novels start in very different ways. Have a look at the opening to Hanna.
As we watch this, we have no idea what’s going on. I mean, there’s a girl wearing animal skins hunting a reindeer with a crossbow. Is this taking place in a fantasy world? In a prehistoric epoch? We have no idea.
Later, we learn that she’s living off the grid in Northern Finland because her dad is an ex-CIA operative in hiding. That old chestnut. But for the opening minutes, we don’t know what’s going on.
And this isn’t a problem. We have the visual wonder, the cinematography, to keep us interested. Plus, nothing important ever happens in the first five minutes of films because people arrive late or they’re busy taking their coats off and adjusting their popcorn. And if you’ve bought your ticket your not going to walk out of the theatre after two minutes because the setting is unclear.
But if you try to do the same thing in prose then your readers may not have the same patience:
A girl crouches in the deep snow, hiding amid the frozen sitka spruces. She is wearing animal skins, watching her prey. A reindeer pads through the snow. It is a still and frozen landscape but birds are singing in the distance. The girl tenses her bow and fires an arrow into the side of the reindeer. Panicked, the beast starts to run. It runs into the open tundra and the girl gives chase. Then the beast slows. Its footprints mark a trail in the snow. The reindeer staggers and keels onto its side. The girl catches up and pulls the arrow from the reindeer’s side. She lowers the scarf from her face. “I just missed your heart,” she says.
Now, by this stage your reader’s getting pretty fed up. What on earth is going on? Who is this girl? Why should be care? In prose, you normally need to tell us who the characters are and what the story is about right at the outset. So most novels and stories don’t start with mimesis – they don’t start with the characters acting it out. A good example is Richard Ford’s novel Canada, which begins:
First, I’ll tell about the robbery our parents committed. Then about the murders, which happened later. The robbery is the more important part, since it served to set my and my sister’s lives on the courses they eventually followed. Nothing would make complete sense without that being told first.
So you’ve got to tell us what the story is. Why is this going to be interesting? And you’ve got to give us key information. Early on, we need to know who the story is about, what it’s about, and where and when it’s happening.
In some ways, starting a prose fiction is a bit like placing a lonely hearts advert. Lonely hearts adverts were what people used before tinder. I’ve been having a look at some of these, for research purposes, you understand. So just for fun, here are some of the best and worst lonely hearts ads ever placed.
Bitter, disillusioned Dundonian, lately rejected by long-term fiancée seeks decent honest woman, if such a thing still exists in this cruel world of hatchet-faced-bitches.
Minimalist seeks woman
List your ten favourite albums… I just want to know if there’s anything worth keeping when we finally break up. Practical, forward thinking man, 35.
I’ve divorced better men than you. And worn more expensive shoes than these. So don’t think placing this ad is the biggest comedown I’ve ever had to make. Sensitive F, 34.
Buying me dinner doesn’t mean I’ll have sex with you. Though I probably will have sex with you.
Divorcee, 48, with fish fetish, seeks like-minded female. No weirdos.
SM, 56, WLTM sexy blonde F, 18-25. Must be very attractive and own car.
Aberdeen man, 50, in desperate need of a ride, anything considered.
Ideally, a lonely hearts add should make the advertiser sound interesting, but it also needs to convey key information. How old are they? Where do they live? What sort of person do they want to meet? And you have only a paragraph to convey all this.
Starting a prose fiction is similar. You’ve got to present an interesting scenario, and you’ve got to give key information. So Richard Ford begins by explaining that the story is about his parents, two regular people, committing a robbery. We’re interested, right? Then he tells us:
My father, Bev Parsons, was a country boy born in Marengo County, Alabama, in 1923, and came out of High School in 1939, burning to be in the Army Air Corps.
He starts to give us the information we need to make sense of the action that follows. It’s far into the novel before he goes into a dramatic scene and tells the story through mimesis. So if you do want to think cinematically, then I suggest you start your fiction with something that sounds a bit like a voiceover.
Thanks for watching, and good luck with your writing.
The thumbnail for this video uses a photograph by Blossom Vydrina. It is covered by a Creative Commons license and you can find more of her work here: https://www.flickr.com/photos/otterblossom/