Starting as you mean to go on

‘Nothing so solidly anchors a work of fiction in readers’ minds as knowing when and where something is taking place.’ Ron Rozelle, Description & Setting.

Nancy Kress says in Beginnings, Middles, & Ends, ‘The truth is, you have about three paragraphs in a short story, three pages in a novel, to capture that editor’s attention enough for her to finish your story…(so) incorporate the qualities that make an opening interesting and original: character, conflict, specificity, and credibility.’

Perhaps it’s just me but when I start reading a story I lose patience very quickly if I can’t figure out what’s going on, where it’s happening and who it’s happening to. Even feeding in something like the character’s name helps make a connection for me because I want to empathise with the character as quickly as possible, or the situation, or else I find the story a struggle.

I made a faux pas recently with a submission, realising at the last moment that I had introduced a new character in a scene, someone who was going to be there to the end of the novel and I didn’t even feed in any details of what he looked like leaving the guessing of who he was to the reader by his conversation with one of the main characters. Even though I gave his name and characterised him through dialogue, I knew I should have wove in a few more details.

I definitely do not want to get to the end of a short story or chapter and find out that it was not set in modern times but actually sixty years ago or a character looks nothing like I thought they did. Feeding in details about character, location and period as soon as possible assists the reader. For example:

‘While they drink vodka and orange juice in the trailer park on the cliffs above Lake Huron, Neil Bauer tells Brenda a story.’ Opening line in ‘Five Points’ by Alice Munro, Friend of my youth.

‘She said she didn’t care where he let her off. ‘Just wherever you’re going,’ she had told him as she climbed in, and the indifference with which she’d spoken left him uncomfortable. He turned back to the road and didn’t say anything more until the truck rounded the dusty track leading up into the Andalusian village he’d lived in all his life.’ Opening paragraph of ‘Free’ by Claire Wigfall, The Loudest Sound and Nothing.

‘Shortly after the priest died, a woman moved into his house on the Hill of Dunagore. She was a bold spear of a woman who clearly wasn’t used to living on the coast: not five minutes after she’d hung up the wash out on the line, her clothes were blown halfway up the bog. Margaret Flusk had neither hat nor rubber boots nor man.’ Opening lines of ‘Night of the Quicken Trees’ by Claire Keegan, Walk the Blue Fields.

Yes, I think it is just me. As I looked for examples of intriguing beginnings in a variety of short stories, I found that I was drawn to the ones that introduced characters and characterised them quickly, along with hints about location and time.

Characters made real

Getting sick and forced to stay in bed does have its advantages; I got to start reading books I have stacked in a pile of ‘must reads’. In fairness, the ‘must read’ pile has been growing for ages; it takes up a whole shelf in my study so it’s about time I made a dent in it.

I picked a collection of short stories called ‘Friend of my youth’ by Alice Munro. A member of my writing group mentioned that he found that she tended to span many years in her stories. I hesitated after the comment but was curious all the same and now I understand why she is such a phenomenal short story writer. Wow, the ease with which she weaves her characters lives, from present to past, is flawless, detailed, intricate. A comment by the Daily Telegraph on the back of the book says

‘The particular brilliance of Alice Munro is that in range and depth her short stories are almost novels’

and that’s exactly it. After each story you feel that you have read an entire novel and been with these characters forever. They are so real, unique and well defined along with the settings that I feel that I am with them, in Canada or Scotland, in whatever location, Alice Munro has set the short story.

Even the descriptions do not feel intrusive, they pull you in, make you privy to a range of secrets about these people, and the choices they make in their relationships to themselves, their partners, and the other people in the narrative. At the heart of each story is someone, sometimes more than one, coming to a stronger position of realisation of their situation, indeed their own future. In the story ‘Pictures of the ice’ even with the weaving of the stories of two main characters both is moving to a new decision that takes their life to a better (their choice) place.

Overall, the stories show people choosing how they live and the choices that have gone on before. These are not stock characters, they are living breathing individuals.

I fully believe Alice Munro knew her characters intimately as she wrote about them and this book is a master class in character development and the integration of ‘telling detail’ through a story that never holds up the plot. That’s what I want to achieve in my characters.