Explosions: An Exercise for Plotting a Narrative
Cathy and I were having a perfectly pleasant Sunday. We’d had a lovely gathering of students the night before, had slept late, and then gone to brunch. I was in the kitchen, steeping a cup of tea, while Cathy was putting away some clean dishes. Somehow—she doesn’t really know how it happened—a Pyrex measuring cup tumbled from a shelf, hit the granite countertop, and shattered. Really, it exploded. Glass shards went everywhere. Some of them traveled a great distance. Luckily, our orange tabby, Stella, was out of the way of the explosion, and luckily neither Cathy nor I got cut. Of course, I know this was more of an annoyance than anything, but it got me thinking about how we can use “explosions” in our writing.
Sometimes a narrative can open with a shaking of the earth. Maybe it’s something grand, or maybe it’s something small. The key is to let the opening startle the main character and require their action. The aftermath of an explosion can be just as life changing as the explosion itself. This passage from Richard Ford’s story, “Optimists,” may help to illustrate the point: “The most important things of your life can change so suddenly, so unrecoverably, that you can forget even the most important of them and their connections, you are so taken up by the chanciness of all that’s happened and by all that could and will happen next.” You can think you know certain irrefutable truths about your life. You can convince yourself you know who you are, whom you love, and who loves you. You can hold faith in the values you think you’ll have forever. Then the world can show you how precarious all our beliefs really are, as wobbly as a glass measuring cup on a shelf—a cup that’s about to fall. All it takes is a slight vibration to send it tumbling down.
Try it. Open a narrative with simple statements of fact. Maybe you begin with something like this: One evening, Louise came home and told her husband Frank. . . . What might she have to say that will shatter Frank’s world? Probably our first respond would be she’s having an affair, or she’s leaving him, or she’s been diagnosed with a serious illness. All of those are possible, yes, but something on a smaller scale might work as well. Maybe she’s been embezzling money from her employer. Maybe she ran a red light and struck a pedestrian and then fled the scene. Maybe she mistakenly received a compliment from a co-worker—a compliment that should have been delivered to someone else—and Louise accepted the admiration herself. Now she feels guilty about it, so guilty that she can’ go back to work. You get the idea. Anything that will create difficulty for Frank, will require some action on his part, will challenge everything that he thought he knew.
The story that follows, then, concentrates on what Frank decides to do, where it takes him, and what it will mean for his marriage to Louise. Try this exercise to open a narrative with something that threatens to shatter the main character. Watch that character try to avoid the exploding fragments. Create a causal chain of events that follows the explosion to a point beyond which nothing will ever be the same. Remember that the aftermath of something earthshaking can be just as significant as the event itself.
There’s so much pressure to write a powerful opening page or even first sentence. It can be paralyzing. How to overcome that?
Angela, my strategy is to create an opening that contains some sort of instability as viewed through the consciousness of a character. I also try to immerse my readers (and me) in the world of the story or novel or memoir by paying attention to sensory details. The opening sentence doesn’t have to be stunning. It only has to be genuine and vivid as it begins to establish narrative momentum. Thanks so much for the comment and the question.