A good piece of fiction opens by putting together some sort of knot that will have to be untangled by the end of the narrative. This knot can be constructed from characters who are at cross-purposes, or from a problem that has to be solved, a journey undertaken, a visitor whose presence challenges the status quo, a touch of mystery, a character at odds with him or herself. The key word to all of these situations is “instability.” From the opening of the story or the novel, a world is in the midst of changing even if the characters don’t quite realize it.
Here are a few strategies for creating this narrative knot:
We can open in the midst of a pressing problem. Stephen Crane’s “The Open Boat” begins in the aftermath of a shipwreck with these lines:
None of them knew the color of the sky. Their eyes glanced level, and were fastened upon the waves that swept toward them. These waves were of the hue of slate, save for the tops, which were of foaming white, and all of the men knew the colors of the sea. The horizon narrowed and widened, and dipped and rose, and at all times its edge was jagged with waves that seemed thrust up in points like rocks.
The inciting episode, a shipwreck, has happened off the page before the story opens, but still danger and uncertainty abound. What will happen to the men in the boat? This strategy always produces that curiosity of what will happen, but we can’t forget that the real substance of the narrative will come from the way the characters rub up against one another.
We can begin with a situation that gives rise to a specific action. Such is the case with John Cheever’s “The Swimmer,” which opens with the description of a mid-summer Sunday when everyone sits around the suburbs with hangovers. From there we move to our main character Neddy Merrill. While Neddy is in the pool at a neighbor’s, he gets the idea that he can swim home via a string of backyard pools. The psychology of the character is the thing to pay attention to here. To write from this strategy means to consider how the character’s action creates a situation that changes that character. Neddy starts out full of enthusiasm. By the end of the story, he’s reached the depths of alienation and despair.
We can begin with an interesting proposition. Kent Haruf’s last novel, Our Souls at Night, opens with a call from seventy-year-old, Addie Moore, to her long-time neighbor, Louis Waters. Both are widowed, and Addie’s proposition is simple and direct. She’d like Louis to come to her house and sleep with her in her bed. She makes it clear she’s not interested in sex, merely companionship. This narrative strategy relies on the proposition being just a bit out of what we would expect. It has to have a touch of strangeness to it that eventually disappears as the narrative continues.
A novel can also open with something that’s already happened. Here’s a few lines from the opening of The Great Gatsby:
When I came back from the East last autumn I felt that I wanted the world to be in uniform and at a sort of moral attention forever; I wanted no more riotous excursions with privileged glimpses into the human heart. Only Gatsby, the man who gives his name to this book, was exempt from my reaction — Gatsby, who represented everything for which I have an unaffected scorn.
We understand that our narrator Nick Carraway has lived through something in the East that has shaken him, that he’s been entangled in some sort of knot that has changed his view of himself and of others. With this strategy, the key is to make the thing that’s already happened worthy of its own story, complete with character entanglements and plot complications and a rising line of narrative intensity. Otherwise, it will seem as if you’ve used the trumped up opening to give significance to a narrative that is ultimately anticlimactic.
I’ve barely scratched the surface of how to create a narrative knot in a piece of fiction. I invite you to take a look at other stories, other novels, to see the countless other ways writers invite us into an unstable world, one that requires a narrative to explain it. Keep in mind that no matter the strategy that you use, something in the world of the story or novel is already starting to change with the first words you put on the page. Once the narrative knot is in place, all you have to do is attempt to untangle it. In the process, you’ll create your ending.