Stories open in any number of ways, but ultimately, all point toward the current circumstances of a character and his desire to work through some sort of initial, story-relevant task. As your reader peruses your opening, she will want assurance that this story will be worth her time. You can suggest that import by stitching opening action to context.
Even while pushing ever forward, backstory can provide that context.
In the way a dash of salt can either bring forward the full flavor of a dish or ruin it, you’ll need to use a light touch. Right up front is rarely the time to break away for an extended backstory scene:
The wood hissed and spat as heat built within the campfire. In the distance, loons cried out their haunting calls. A pack of coyotes yipped.
Uncle Bob rubbed his hands and then raised them to the fire, as if these motions were needed to conjure his tale. We all leaned forward so we wouldn’t miss a word.
But before I tell you what he said, you have to know a few things about Uncle Bob. Born in Syracuse, New York, he was quite the punster…
Kind of breaks the spell, right?
So how can we weave in the kind of context that will extend our story’s frame and strengthen its import, right from the start, without breaking the spell? Here are a few nuts-and-bolts examples.
Use continuity words
A word that suggests continuity or repetition is a subtle yet effective way to suggest there’s a larger story at play than the specific action you are about to read. Once the writer has hinted at a pattern, our own history with story kicks in: we know that this is a pattern about to be disrupted. Look how casually these simple yet impactful words are dropped into these openings (emphases mine):
From This Boy’s Life by Tobias Wolf:
Our car boiled over again just after my mother and I crossed the Continental Divide.
From Waiting by Ha Jin:
Every summer Lin Kong returned to Goose Village to divorce his wife, Shuyu.
From The Bigamist’s Daughter by Alice McDermott:
She is almost beginning to believe him.
From Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier:
At the first gesture of morning, flies began stirring. Inman’s eyes and the long wound at his neck drew them, and the sound of their wings and the touch of their feet were soon more potent than a yardful of roosters in rousing a man to wake. So he came to yet one more day in the hospital ward.
Prolific short story writer Alice Munro is a fan of this technique. She uses it to great advantage in these openings:
From “Walker Brothers Cowboy”:
After supper my father says, “Want to go down and see if the Lake’s still there?”
From “Dance of the Happy Shades”:
Miss Marsalles is having another party. (Out of musical integrity, or her heart’s bold yearning for festivity, she never calls it a recital.)
I don’t keep up with Hugo’s writing.
Description as backstory
Literature gives us all the tools we need to enter a moment fully, evoking both a character’s past as well as his present. This can be accomplished right on page one if you set aside attention to his three-day scruff and her red, flowing locks to make room for description that can bring your character’s inner world to life. [Read more…]