I have to confess to a problem. I’m afraid to tell stories. It’s not that I fear the actual telling, writing about a series of events that build to some sort of climax and/or resolution. Rather, I’m afraid to begin a story. After a quick opening, I usually veer into backstory or explanation and get stuck telling something other than the story I’m trying to write. It stems from a worry that the reader won’t have enough information. I’ll give you an example:
I was waiting for Julia at the bus stop. We were headed to New York to meet her ex-fiancé who was holding her record collection hostage in return for the ring. It was raining and the water came down in sheets. Luckily I was alone in the shelter. I huddled at a back corner and only felt the misty splash of water on my ankles.
Julia and I were friends going back to pre-school days. I remember riding tricycles with her around the apartment complex where we lived, she ahead, me following, the tassels from her handle bars twisting behind her. I remember the time she said I wasn’t her friend anymore. A bunch of other kids from the complex were using a hammer and chisel to crack open a coconut that had fallen from one of the many palm trees growing in the courtyard. She wanted a piece of coconut meat. For some reason that meant she had to be a friend of those kids instead of me. Her affections couldn’t be shared.
After my parents announced their divorce when I was seventeen I spent weekends at her house to escape the arguing at my own. By that time Julia’s mom realized we weren’t sleeping together and never would. I still had my sleeping bag from an early try at the Boy Scouts and slept in that on her bedroom floor even though I had to choose to either lie in it with my shoulders and chest sticking out of the top or lie on my side with my knees curled to my chest.
I can’t tell you how many of my stories begin this way: setup and then flash back. While the jump to the past might be important and eventually useful for the reader to fully appreciate the situation, what it doesn’t do is actually get the story started. It doesn’t show us what’s at stake, what emotional and psychological jeopardy the story will eventually describe. Worse, it does a poor job of interesting the reader.
This is probably one of the many reasons I have difficulty getting published. If I can’t entice an editor to read past page one, what chance do I have of getting her excited enough to put me into print?
Compare my start to the opening paragraphs of Roxane Gay’s story “North Country.” It originally appeared in the journal Hobart 12 and went on to be included in the Best American Short Stories 2012. It also appears in Gay’s collection Difficult Women.
I have moved to the edge of the world for two years. If I am not careful, I will fall. After my first department meeting, my new colleagues encourage me to join them on a scenic cruise to meet more locals. The Peninsula Star will travel through the Portage Canal, up to Copper Harbor and then out onto Lake Superior. I am handed a glossy brochure with bright pictures of blue skies and calm lake waters. “You’ll be able to enjoy the foliage,” they tell me, shining with enthusiasm for the Upper Peninsula. “Do you know how to swim?” they ask.
I arm myself with a flask, a warm coat, and a book. At the dock, there’s a long line of ruddy Michiganders chatting amiably about when they expect the first snow to fall. It is August. I have moved to the Upper Peninsula to assume a postdoc at the Michigan Institute of Technology. My colleagues, all civil engineers, wave to me. “You came,” they shout. They’ve already started drinking. I take a nip from my flask. “You’re going to love this cruise,” they say. “Are you single?” they ask.
Gay offers one or two sentences as context, but other than that we’re off and running. Her genius is what we learn in scene rather than through explanation or flash back: the narrator has moved to a part of the country where she doesn’t know anybody; she’s an obvious outsider; she’s unsure if her decision was a good one. (It helps that Gay’s language is perfect. The narrator is a lonely “I” against a “they.” The brochure’s cheeriness contrasts with, and therefore emphasizes, her outcast state. The way she has to “arm” herself with a flask betrays the trepidation she feels over the outing she’s about to take with her colleagues.)
Gay trusts the reader to follow her into the story with explanatory language. For example, it’s only later do we understand that the question “Do you know how to swim?” is subtly, though probably unintentionally, racist. The question, “Are you single?” misogynistic. She doesn’t come out and say (the way I would) something like “I was the only black woman in my department. They made assumptions about me without thinking.” But once we do get it, the story becomes that much more satisfying.
“North Country” sets up conflict right away. It might not be the main conflict, but it does entice the reader into the story. Has my story begun by the end of the second paragraph the way Roxane Gay’s story does? Is there a conflict? Are the emotional stakes of my story evident? We haven’t even met the person the opening line implies will be the other main character. You’d think someone so important would make an appearance earlier.
So, new craft advice to myself: Don’t be afraid to tell your story. Create an interesting situation and just go with it. Take the reader on a trip. The story will be better for it.
I see what you’re saying, and I agree for the most part. And thanks for the great example to show us exactly what you mean. But I do find the Julia story intriguing, I have to say. Just as interesting as the “North Country” example. I want to know what happens to both protagonists.
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