Huh. You're still here? I'll be damned.
Well then. Let's just go ahead and pick up where we left off last week, which if I recollect, was the beginning. Or at least, that's where you stepped into my world. Now, how you think about beginnings has a lot to do with how you tell a story, which in turn has a lot to do with why you're telling the story. And a beginning isn't always even where a story starts, it's just where you decide to let your reader step into your world, dig?
Now, easiest and most straightforward way to go about it is to give an account of events in the chronological order they occur or occurred, providing just enough information about the who/when/where/why at the start for the action to make sense. While this is the way law enforcement officers prefer you go about it, and it gets the job done, it's also not exactly dynamic storytelling. I mean, the cops HAVE to listen to your story because it's their job to get the facts straight about why that car is in that swimming pool, and who needs to be held accountable, right? But outside of formal or informal interrogations (remember kids, you don't have to answer those questions without an attorney present), we're just trying to tell a good story here, and whether or not anyone sticks around to listen to ‘em depends a lot on how we begin those stories.
So where do you let the reader walk into your world? Let’s look at your narrative in three aspects: the main narrative action we'll call the “present”; this is where the story takes place. Then there's everything leading up to that main action, that explains why these things are happening, and can stretch back anywhere from a couple of hours to the beginning of time; we'll call this the “past”. Then you got what we'll call the “future”, which is positioned decidedly after the main action of the story occurs, reaches its dramatic climax, and is concluded or resolved. You can begin anywhere. C'mon! Let's go!
Now, taking it from the top like we're giving an account to the cops or writing a history, I done talked about that. In that case, we're beginning the story where your characters begin their story. The peril here is that it takes you too long to explain what's going on and why your reader should care that they check out before you get to the point, let alone the action. They might not want to sit through a detailed history of your super cool futuristic dystopian fantasy world before your hero ever starts blowing up Nazi cyborg orcs or whatever.
Don't like to waste time with exposition? Just throw ‘em right in there, they’ll figure it out. Depending on how different your story's world is from the world your reader inhabits or is familiar with, not knowing exactly what's going on or who the good guy is or what characters' relationships are can keep readers' attention. Ah, good ol' curiosity! That's how you end up fixated on soap operas or telenovelas in waiting rooms, right? It's fun to wonder what the hell is going on in this crazy futuristic dystopian fantasy world… for a while. You eventually have to start giving 'em bits of information. Good writers often spread out these bits of information- the what/when/why/where stuff- as the story progresses to reward the reader at just the right time to keep them wanting to find out more. Do not try that approach with the cops.
Who doesn't love a flashback? Besides trauma victims and drug users, that is. Opening your narrative with a scene from before your main action even starts can provide important background or set an atmospheric tone for your characters, world, or plot. Maybe it's the nuclear apocalypses a hundred years before the Nazi cyborg orcs took over, maybe it's a bad sandwich consumed several days before your main character wakes up as a hideous mutant with strange new powers, or maybe it's a scene from a character's childhood that foreshadows events in your narrative present. This can work in a similar “baiting curiosity” kinda way as just tossing your reader into the middle of your world. It can also function to quickly get your readers up to the good stuff by knocking out that pesky who/where/when/why. In that respect, one device is to have a character remembering or looking back on events prior to or leading up to your story's present, or an omniscient and impartial narrative voice detailing the same.
Similarly, instead of looking back on the past from a position in the present tense, you could choose to begin after your story's already over! So when the narrative starts, the present is actually the past and the future is the present. Am I like, blowing your mind yet, man? Hell, I ain't even got to “begins with a dream sequence” yet!
There are countless ways to mess around with all this, and next week I'ma talk specifically about some of my favorite beginnings in comics of all kinds, break down what they're doing, why it works to engage the reader, and how it serves the narrative as a whole. There's also a lotta aspects of these concepts I ain't even touched, and a whole lot more that probably could and oughta be added. So in between now and then, what do y'all think? Where do you choose to let somebody into your world, how do you itroduce them to it, and why?
HyenaHell at 1:02AM, Feb. 10, 2017
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