Quick Starts

It’s a pleasant Sunday. Cathy and I have been out for breakfast and then to our favorite produce market where we got some Georgia peaches and locally grown tomatoes, zucchini, summer squash, cucumbers, and small, red-skinned potatoes. In the meantime, a granddaughter is about to give birth to her first child in North Carolina.

It’s this birth that leads me to think of beginnings and how the arrival of a baby brings with it a great hope. We hope for the good health of the child and the mother. We hope for the life to be lived. May it be filled with happiness and love. Unlike the characters we create, we want to protect the newly born and the life span in front of them. We want to keep them from harm. If we approached our writing from a parental perspective, nothing would ever get written because nothing would ever go wrong. Our characters would live ideal lives during which they would never suffer, and because of that they would never have stories to tell.

Of course, we know it’s unrealistic to expect a sheltered life. Injury and loss will come along with sadness and joy. If we’re lucky, we’ll understand it’s all right to feel our sorrows along with our moments of happiness. That’s what living is all about. The capability to feel deeply makes us more human.

That’s what we’re looking for when we create our characters and put them into narratives. We want fully rounded characters who are capable of many different emotions. It’s the pressures of the plots that bring those emotions to the surface. We’re money ahead, then, if we throw our characters into some sort of trouble or instability right away. Quick starts create immediate pressures.

Raymond Carver’s story, “I Could See the Smallest Things,” opens with this sentence: “I was in bed when I heard the gate.” Already, the story is leaning forward. We wonder who’s coming or going through the gate and what their arrival or departure will mean to the narrator. Tobias Wolff’s story, “Next Door,” depends on a similar quick start: “I wake up afraid.” We’re right in the midst of the trouble. Something has startled the narrator, and we wonder what it was to cause such fear.

Even slower starts can bring with them a certain measure of curiosity. Take this example from Ellen Gilchrist’s story, “The Young Man”: “This is a story about an old lady who ordered a young man from an L. L. Bean catalog.” Here we are, in the midst of a fable, and of course we wonder about what the arrival of the young man will mean to our protagonist. Or the opening of Joan Wickersham’s “Commuter Marriage”: “On the platform at Penn Station, at 6:30 on a Saturday morning, a young woman in a red sweater stood waiting for the Boston train to pull in.” We’re immediately curious about why this woman is waiting for the Boston train and how her life is about to change forever.

John Updike described his first steps onto the page this way: “I try instantly to set in motion a certain forward tilt of suspense or curiosity, and at the end of the story or novel to rectify the tilt, to complete the motion.” That forward tilt happens most easily if we refuse to protect our characters. Like parents who know they can’t always be there to save their children, we have to allow our characters’ missteps in order for our narratives to have the sort of momentum that will lead to the emotions we want our characters to give to the readers. Why not move them along in the very beginning? Think about opening lines that can get the narratives off to a quick start while also making the readers wonder what’s going to happen.

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