When we construct a narrative, whether we’re writing fiction or nonfiction, we’re well-served by giving some consideration to the question of what readers need to know about what happened before the story begins. In other words, characters, whether inventions or real people, carry certain histories into what I like to call the dramatic present, by which I mean the sequence of events at the heart of the particular story line. Something has happened before that story begins to take shape on the page. Characters’ histories help create the actions and events of the stories we come to tell.
A common mistake writers make is to either ignore their characters’ pasts or else to overload the opening of a narrative with exposition. The question, then, becomes one of how to get a story underway with a proper balance between present and past.
No one does it better than Richard Ford, particularly in the stories from his collection, Rock Springs. Take, for instance, the opening paragraph of his story, “Sweethearts”:
I was standing in the kitchen while Arlene was in the living room saying good-bye to her ex-husband, Bobby. I had already been out to the store for groceries and come back and made coffee, and was drinking it and staring out the window while the two of them said whatever they had to say. It was a quarter to six in the morning.
The story opens in the midst of the dramatic present. The narrator is waiting for Arlene to say good-bye to her ex-husband. We don’t know the circumstances that have led to this good-bye, but we sense from the narrator’s direct, plain-spoken voice that the occasion for the telling is one of significance. Indeed, the second paragraph tells us more:
This was not going to be a good day in Bobby’s life, that was clear, because he was headed to jail. He had written several bad checks, and before he could be sentenced for that he had robbed a convenience store with a pistol—completely gone off his mind. And everything had gone to hell, as you might expect. Arlene had put up the money for his bail, and there was some expensive talk about an appeal. But there wasn’t any use to that. He was guilty. It would cost money and then he would go to jail anyway.
We now have a fuller idea of the story. We know that Bobby is going to jail and we know why. The dramatic present is still moving forward, but it also contains shadows from the past. Ford does a marvelous job of blending the present narrative with the important facts that have preceded it. He then lets us know where the narrator stands in this story of Arlene and Bobby:
Arlene and I had been together almost a year. She had divorced Bobby long before and had gone back to school and gotten real estate training and bought the house we lived in, then quit that and taught high school a year, and finally quit that and just went to work in a bar in town, which is where I came upon her. She and Bobby had been childhood sweethearts and run crazy for fifteen years. But when I came into the picture, things with Bobby were settled, more or less. No one had hard feelings left, and when he came around I didn’t have any trouble with him. We had things we talked about—our pasts, our past troubles. It was not the worst you could hope for.
We know the sort of relationship that Bobby and Arlene have, and we know exactly how the narrator fits into that relationship. We have everything we need for the story to pick up momentum as it moves through the dramatic present.
Too often, we see a narrative that works so hard to get underway. Sometimes writers are hesitant to give us the facts we need to fully appreciate the story, thinking, perhaps, that they have to artfully “suggest” through action and dialogue the sorts of things that a more confident writer will simply tell us. At other times, writers give us what we call an information dump, a block of back story that bogs down the forward motion of the narrative.
One of the keys to storytelling is to keep the action moving while layering in the important information from the past that we need in order to fully appreciate the narrative while also understanding its impact on the characters involved.