((This is part 1 of a 3 part thinkywritything on storytelling. Part 2 is here.))
And the Lord hung a rainbow as a sign, Won’t be water but fire next time.
Throughout my life I’ve found beginnings to be the easiest part of a story to tell. When the idea is as fresh in your mind as newly trimmed grass and just as fragrant, and every part of you is bursting to get more words onto a page is the best part of a project. Unfortunately this is also the most misleading part of the project. I have drives and folders full of aborted beginnings and one liners, opening paragraphs and story ideas. I love the short story, the 5-second film or the 1 minute punk song.
Beginnings are so interesting because nowadays the likelyhood that we consume a media is based so strongly upon it’s beginnings. We click off and shut down quickly if the opening doesn’t catch our interest. This is more of a problem for some mediums than for others. (I hear for blog posts the readers tend to be more intelligent and are willing to read for longer with a more bland introduction).
I love one liners and openers. I remember in high school we learned to start every essay with an “Interest Creating Device” (or ICD) at the top of our papers. These were supposed to be pithy one liners that we semlessly led into our papers with. For my senior paper I wrote a 2 page interest creating device and turned the paper in 3 months late and somehow passed the class (thank you Ms. Cano!). I’d invite you to detour from this for a moment to read or skim http://americanbookreview.org/100bestlines.asp the 100 best opening lines from books, ICD’s aplenty here, though it misses some key ones… “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit”, “We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold.”, “The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed”, and of course these are just books. When you add in movie and TV shows you have epic beginnings that boggle the mind beyond just literary masterpieces but full sensory freak shows that grab ahold and won’t let go.
The thing about well crafted opening lines and scenes, and the reason we love the beginnings of stories so much, I think, is that we are being told a promise. We have entered into a sacred covenant between entertainer and audience. It used to be a very simple promise, but it’s grown incredibly more complex as time has gone on. But all good beginnings are really just one thing.
They are a promise.
They are a way of a storyteller saying “Hey, I’ve got something to share with you, and if you’re willing to give me just a little bit of your time, then in return I’m going to share with you a story that I’ve lovingly crafted to entertain you for a while”.
The catchy openings and scenes, if you think about it, are just variations on this promise. They’re the paperwork you show the loan officer to get them to be willing to enter into the bargain. Unfortunately as things have grown more complicated, so too has this agreement become complicated.
I like beginnings because they’re like the early stages of a romance. They’re fresh and new and even when they’re familiar they still have some spark of passionate nuance to them. When they don’t, you know soon enough that your heart hasn’t been broken. You wanted to love with everything you had but very quickly you learned that they just weren’t for you.
In this way beginnings are hard to have a problem with. At worst you won’t read a book who’s beginning you didn’t find interesting. I’m sure Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle is great, but I couldn’t get past the first few pages and as a result I never finished them, but I don’t hold any animosity for them because I never purchased into the story enough to have it matter.
Beginnings can be more than opening one liners too, however. Nowadays, in a story, the “beginning” can be a full season of television, a trailer, a prologue, maybe the first few chapters, or the first 10 books in a comic run. In all these cases your beginning has a chance to mature because every time you’ve come to write or work on your piece you know this is the first thing people will see. If people don’t look at any of the rest of your work, they will at least read this. It’s why you often see very polished pilots and first episodes that seem to fall apart. These have been worked and reworked and reworked over years until they found someone willing to breathe life into them, and when the time comes to write a sequel you spend a fraction of the time on those aspects of the story (though sequels are for a later story, consider yourself foreshadowed).
This exists in computer games too, though in an odd and different way. In a computer game your opening levels teach you how to play the game and how to interact in a meaningful world with the environment. The beginning of games now are lessons in mechanics and mini-teaching exercises that we have come to expect before we can get into the meat of a game, and by that point our narrative is solidly underway. In these cases the mechanics become the focus of our story and description about our game since they’re what we focus on so much in the beginning of our games. (And if this is interesting to you I highly recommend reading Love Does Not Exist by my friend and amazing human being Heather Campbell – http://heatherannecampbell.com/love-does-not-exist/).
In many games even before you get to this point, you spend time creating your character. You choose your background and your history. In the case of Spore you design your creatures. And in many cases this part of the story is more interesting to us (In the case of the video game Spore the creature creature wound up being more popular than the actual game). Once you give a rich background and the tools to craft a character in that world, you may lose your audience to their own imaginations. My friend Christian and I love making characters for RPGs. We could roll up some characters for any game, and then even if we never get to play them that’s ok. We have fun figuring out why your roided out professional wrestler has a +2 to his Enchant Magical Objects skill. That story and discovery is enough of a short story in it’s own that we hardly need the payoff of a crafted story. Make a good enough sandbox and the creative individuals will find their own stories without you, and in these cases if you force them to participate in your story, it’s very important that you remember….
You made them a promise. You promised them you had a story to tell them. You asked them to set down their blocks and give you their undivided attention. As thanks for them doing that, you better not have lied to them.
So this is my promise and introduction that I have a bit more of a story to tell to you. I wanted to tell more about the beginning and the ending, but every story has to start somewhere. I hope you’ll take me up on my promise though. I hope you’ll pick up this thread of storytelling and read a little more, and more importantly give me some feedback on what you think. I love storytelling and love talking about it.
Thank you for sticking with me through the beginning. Not THE beginning, but a beginning. I hope to uphold my side of the promise, all I ask is that you come with me, gentle reader, ever onward.