A smart guy named Aristotle once wrote that a dramatic structure (story) has three parts: a beginning, a middle, and an end. This sounds like common sense until you try to put it into action. Pretty quickly, you’ll realize that something as simple as a beginning is actually difficult to find. Where does a story begin? Unless the story starts with your character’s birth or conception or with the Big Bang, the first page won’t necessarily be connected to any chronological beginning. So, you must locate a moment somewhere in the character’s lifespan that makes sense as a place to start.
Matthew Salesses uses a great fast-forwarding strategy to discover such a beginning in his new novel The Hundred-Year Flood. You can read an excerpt at Hyphen Magazine.
How the Novel Works
When I was in grad school, it was a running joke in workshop that the professor would, at some point in a class, hold up the story being discussed and tear off the first three pages. The point was that writers, like old television sets, often needed time to warm up. The place where the story began was usually on page four, not page one. What got dropped to the floor usually consisted of backstory. With that in mind, look how Salesses begins The Hundred-Year Flood. (It’s actually the start of Chapter 2. The first chapter is a teaser for where the novel is headed: a hospital rehabilitation center, with the character remembering who he is.)
The day Tee decided to go to Prague, his girlfriend pulled him aside at a birthday party in Boston. The talk had turned to 9/11. “Stop acting so tragic,” his girlfriend said in his ear. “For God’s sake, others are suffering worse. Your uncle only killed himself. He didn’t die in the towers.” That was when Tee knew he couldn’t stay in America. He downed his IPA and said, “Only?” Everyone was talking about death, but he had to keep quiet. He was filling a container inside of him. Into it, he put the things he couldn’t say—about the seduction of forgetting. When his container was full, he would dump himself out in one dramatic move. A case in point: by the end of that week, he had broken up with his girlfriend and requested a leave of absence.
This paragraph contains multiple opportunities to begin a story: 9/11, the day Tee’s uncle committed suicide, and any number of scenes that would have charted the rising conflict between Tee and his girlfriend. All of these could have been good places to start. In fact, another writer might have chosen one of them. But Salesses did not. He chose to begin the novel with his character moving to Prague, and all of the action takes place there, with the flood from the title serving as a kind of ticking clock for Tee to resolve the issues that took him to the city in the first place. As an arc, it makes perfect sense, and it gives the novel a sense of coherent wholeness.
That said, given the events identified in the paragraph above, there was no structural requirement for Salesses to frame the story as he did. One of the mistakes that beginning writers often make is believing that there is some golden ratio for narrative, that if they can simply locate that ratio in their story, everything will come together. This is part of the allure of screenwriting books that lay out story beats like connect-the-dots puzzles. Those guides can work for some writers, but for many other writers, discovering the arc for their stories is a process of trial and error. The genius of Salesses’ novel is not that it frames the story as it does but that it identifies its frame and then quickly moves the reader into it. There’s no need to rip away the first three pages. He condenses them into a single paragraph, orienting the reader, and then the novel is on its way.
The Writing Exercise
Let’s write fast-forward through alternate beginnings using The Hundred-Year Flood by Matthew Salesses as a model:
- Identify the story you want to tell. One approach is to think about what will appear on the back cover of the book. Here’s what appears on Salesses’ novel: “Tee contemplates his own place in life as both mixed and adopted and as an American in a strange land full of heroes, myths, and ghosts.” This is what the novel is about, and the story is whatever series of events best allows Salesses to portray Tee’s contemplation. In literary fiction, the story, or plot, often stems from an internal conflict as much as from an external one. So, figuring out where to begin often requires knowing what that internal conflict is. Try summing it up with an internal action word: contemplates, struggles, grapples, wrestles.
- List possible starting points for that conflict. Perhaps the conflict predates the character, which is sometimes the case with internal conflicts that result from external conflict (war, bias, hatred). Perhaps it begins with a relationship gone sour (romantic, parental, work, neighbor). It might start with an event with a quick resolution (like death, as in the death of Tee’s uncle or the deaths on 9/11) but with emotional consequences that ripple away from the event. Or, as in Salesses’ novel, the conflict might begin in earnest when the character makes a decision. After all, a conflict requires two actors. If one side is doing nothing or not resisting (even passively), then there isn’t really a conflict, only the potential for one. List as many possible starting points for your conflict as you can.
- Pick one. The story has to begin somewhere. Which of the points on your list seems to have the most immediate potential for narrative? The answer might leap out at you, or you may need to start writing from each point and see where your writing sustains itself and keeps going and where your writing peters out. To some extent, a beginning is about energy. Without that energy, the story can’t go anywhere.
- Summarize the points leading up to the chosen beginning. Try giving yourself a temporary title for a paragraph: How the character/narrator got to this point. Keep it short and quick. If you’ve got kids, imagine telling someone this summary over the phone while your kids jump up, reaching for your phone. You may end up using this paragraph to start your story. Or, it may serve as a warm-up that eventually is discarded. Either way, the paragraph can prepare your mind for the narrative you want to tell and the arc that you’ve created.