Saturday, February 18, 2017

When you're burned by the sun: Starting a story

Here comes the sun, doo-do-doo-dooo.

And it’s all right. But it’s kind of an unsurprising way to start a story.

Almost any occasion I’ve had to read lots of unpublished fiction in one place—a submission pile, contest judging—I’ve noted the phenomenon. Writers love to start their stories with time markers, and their first thought seems to be a description of the quality of light or dark. That’s how it happens that the sun becomes the main character of most novice stories, at least for the first paragraph or so.

The sun is our most obvious timepiece, and it’s more evocative than a Timex. So we got to it, start after start after start.

The sun was just cresting the henhouse on old farmer Jenkins’ land …

Morning sun played over Josie’s eyes as she lay in that unfamiliar bed …

The midday sun beat down on Bubba’s bald pate …

Sun dappled the orchard as Cletus finished his day’s picking …

OK, I made those up. But for anyone who reads fiction submissions, there is nothing particularly nutty or overblown about these examples. If you’re reading a stack of five stories, one of them is bound to have the sun in the first paragraph—or the twin suns of the planet Jabbar, or the thin cuticle of moon, or the gathering clouds that obscure the afternoon sun …. I’m carried away with examples, but not with numbers. One in five feels conservative to me.

When story writers don’t start with the sun, they frequently begin with other timepieces. There might be an actual clock. Someone may be tapping a foot impatiently while waiting for something or someone. A tolling might be heard from the distant square.

I write less fiction than I do poetry, and I can say that this is also one of my habits—one of those things I do repeatedly without realizing it. I’m looking at files of failed poems, and I see that I’ve started several of them “Yesterday, …,” or “One morning, …,” or “When I was a child ….”

There’s certainly nothing wrong with orienting a reader, but the problem comes when we do this too frequently and our beginnings lack the element of surprise. In a collection of twenty stories, is it OK if five of them start with the sun, or if ten of them start with setting details? I don’t think so. In fact, I’m afraid such a writer could look a bit like a one-trick sunfish.

The solution is obvious, whether with a poem or a story or an essay, and it is to jump right in, in medias res. The sun isn’t generally part of the action, so starting in medias res—“in the middle of things”—eliminates the obvious opener. There are lots of ways to start a story, but beginning with action has the advantage of mixing things up in a very natural way. Our stories usually feature different characters doing different things, so starting out by throwing them into a situation is a way to avoid repetitive openers. Even if we always start in medias res, every “res” is different.

I happen to think that starting with the sun or a similar time marker amounts to a windup, a warm-up. Writers do this because we’re looking for a toehold, a ladder up into the story. In my poetry, I’ve learned, finally, to kick away the ladder. I may still write it, but I target it for revision almost every time.

It’s good to respect what gets us to the dance. But it’s not necessary to “dance with the one what brung ya.” How we start working on a piece of writing doesn’t have to matter to the finished product. I recommend that any writer go to town on the sun, if it gets the pen moving or the keyboard clicking.

But today you’re going to walk out of your house, and it’s likely that you won’t even think of the sun, even though it’s literally the largest influence on our lives, mass-wise—even though it’s ubiquitous and ever-changing and even pretty interesting. 

When the story is working, its characters and their actions should be more interesting. What your characters do and think and feel should give off its own light.

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