Ever wonder why great novels always seem to get a better start than just about all the rest? If not the perfect first line perfectly delivered, then the perfect opening scene that seems to embody the story’s every narrative potential, like some quantum flux about to give birth to a narrative universe.
Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.
You better not never tell nobody but God.
First of all, it was October, a rare month for boys.
Mother died today. Or, maybe, yesterday; I can’t be sure.
The authors didn’t choose a strong beginning or a good beginning or a powerful beginning. They chose the right beginning.
It was the best of times and the worst of times for a reason. The clocks strike thirteen on a cold day for a reason.
In this post I’ll be exploring two conditions that create the right opening lines or scenes in master storytelling.
First, the opening lines – like the titles – are fully keyed-in to a driving contextual core that lies at the heart of master stories that have been given the right start. Second, the master writer’s understanding of in medias res (in the middle of things), differs from the way we average schmos understand it.
And by the way, chances are if a story has the right opening it’s going to be one of those powerhouse novels that just keeps a hold of reader consciousness no matter when it was published. It’s because the writer who understands the difference between a good opening and the right opening already understands his or her story to the bone. It’s this deep consciousness of the story’s context that won’t let the story go off the rails.
So – contextual core? You’re probably thinking: What on earth is a contextual core?
Glad you asked.
Context is defined by a set of conditions that create meaning or signification. Woman murders husband. Battered wife kills abusive husband. Mother kills abusive husband as he holds a gun on their children. Same people, same story, but context is what lets us understand what’s happening more clearly.
In fiction the set of contextual conditions in a story create agency.
Pay very close attention to that idea.
Context can make all the difference between a Tolstoi and a Jackie Collins. Without clear context, everything from tone to authority and credibility are compromised. Place Anna Karenina in modern-day Hollywood and you take away all the contextual influences that hold enough agency to push Anna toward her end. All the same plot points transposed into Hollywood conditions would turn Anna’s suicide from social tragedy to mere melodrama. Huge difference. If you’re writing melodrama, that’s one thing. If you’re aiming for social tragedy and do a belly-flop into melodrama, chances are your context is wrong for the story.
Without a particular contextual foundation, each unfolding outcome would lose more and more credibility and authority – and, eventually, the reader.
In fiction there’s context and there’s the right context. Great stories embody an exact mix of contextual elements that fit together like the pieces of a puzzle.
The Quiet American. A Tale of Two Cities. The Year of Living Dangerously. Middlesex. The Shining. Gone With The Wind. Heart of Darkness. The Spy Who Came In From the Cold. Rebecca. The Power and the Glory.
These are contextually almost pitch-perfect, and it shows in their openings (lines or scenes). When you come across stories like these it’s like coming upon Michaelangelo’s David in Florence. You can’t explain why, but you know you’re looking at a piece of art that’s like nothing else. The hands, the expression (dead-on and from below), the stance – none of it could ever be any different. It’s as if that sculpture was always in that block of stone from the beginning of time, awaiting only the right artist to come by and recognize what had to be chipped away to reveal such a wonder.
It’s the same thing with master storytelling. It’s as if the entire story has always existed fully formed,buried there under a pile of words and letters until some genius comes along, dusts away the excess and reveals this marvel of narrative construction.
So what does context have to do with getting it right in story creation?
Remember the old chestnut write what you know? Well, the master storyteller writes what s/he understands. That’s a world of difference. You can know life under the torture of a drug abuser without ever understanding it. What great writers understand about themselves and life seeds their storytelling context, which in turn becomes the reader’s deepest, most subconscious connection to the story and, inevitably, to the writer and humanity.
Graham Greene, for example, understood the psychological double-bind of his devout Catholicism and his personal moral failings. He explored it to great effect in his best works, thereby creating vital connections between himself and the reader through narrative.
Greene’s The Quiet American opens with Thomas Fowler waiting for Alden Pyle to show up for their dinner plans. Even the names are perfectly chosen to suit the context, especially the apt mangling of Fowlair on the French colonials’ tongues. Opening at this exact moment is brilliant because (spoiler alert!) Fowler isn’t really waiting for Pyle to show up for dinner, he’s awaiting a defining moment of moral conscience – to see if he has succeeded in getting Pyle killed or not.
There’s so much wrapped up in starting precisely at this moment – Fowler’s manipulation of the situation, of Phuong and Pyle, the authorities, his ability to psychologically hive off and justify his own moral failure but not Pyle’s, his opportunism and narcissism. All these are characteristics Greene knew well in himself, through his many affairs and betrayals, and his own personal character and politics.
There’s also a pivotal geopolitical context in this specific opening: Fowler (colonialism) thwarting an early (1955) attempt at American interventionist policy (CIA/Pyle) in Vietnam (Phuong). It’s not just genius, it’s downright prescient. The perfect context sets up the story conceptually, symbolically, thematically, relationally, and morally.
When Dickens opens A Tale of Two Cities on those famous lines, It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, he’s setting up a context of dissonant binaries that define and fuel the entire story – geopolitics, morality, social structures, family, love.
Context – the right context – informs not just story development, but character development as well. It’s what lets it all work together, separately, to move a story in the right direction instead of just toward some kind of plotted conclusion.
Unsound context creates dissonance with readers. Scarlett O’Hara is a very different character than Pansy O’Hara would have been had Margaret Mitchell not renamed her heroine at the last minute, even if not one other detail about the story had changed. The name alone would have been a confusing red herring, intimating weakness and frailty and, perhaps, somehow the inconsequential. It would have stripped GWTW of an important driving subtextual allusion: Scarlett and the scarlet woman, the whore of Babylon; Babylon with Atlanta, Atlanta with Belle Watling, the whore of Atlanta; Belle with Scarlett the Southern Belle; Scarlett connected with ruin through Atlanta and Rhett (the beast upon which the whore rides). The average reader might not pick up the chain of allusion, but it’s there in the background pulling a vital part of the storytelling load.
A story with no context at all is unfocused, weak, lacking in life force and drive. That’s when writers just throw in some random opening because it’s “hot” or puts the character in a high-action moment to get readers interested, only for the story to crumble to pieces with every page and chapter.
The right context won’t let that happen. The right context gets a story off and running in the only way that’s possible, and keeps it going toward the only ending possible, not in a way that suggests predictability or stock storytelling, but in the way that David could only have been sculpted as it was.
In Medias Res
Whenever you hear or read people discussing this idea it’s always somehow associated with the middle of the story’s action – something linear, a moment in chronological time.
Actually, if you look at the greats (and why look at anything less?), in medias res has less to do with the story action or chronology, but rather a contextual crossroads (yes, that again!). It’s a 3-D collision point, after which we witness the unfolding carnage and aftermath.
In The Year of Living Dangerously, a brilliant and forgotten masterpiece by Christopher Koch (the movie is a pale but beautiful ghost of the novel), the story opens at a crossroad of the characters’ lives both individually and together as a group, and in terms of geopolitics, driving symbolism, and Wayang allegory. Although Guy Hamilton is technically the protagonist, the novel introduces Billy Kwan first. It has to. Billy is the spark that sets everything off toward conclusion. That’s agency. Without Billy, Guy’s story would have slogged through with a resounding meh.
The Power and the Glory does the same thing, opening on what seems like an odd note: not the morally compromised Whiskey Priest, the story’s protagonist, but a sickish, abstracted ex-pat dentist heading through a dusty, broiling Mexican town toward a wharf to pick up canisters of ether. This scene sets up, first, the contextual breadth of the story’s experience with the Whiskey Priest. Second, it establishes the oppressive atmosphere and menace that bring the Whiskey Priest to us in the middle of it all and, eventually, delivers him into legend. The heat, the poverty, the corruption, the hopelessness – all work together like cogs. The story’s eye can’t be focused directly on the priest, but rather obliquely; an internal exile on the run, he enters and exits, enters and exits each scene and each perspective, so that we the readers feel the dogs of pursuit (his own, personally, and ideologically) that continually drive him on toward martyrdom. It’s a fraught, contextually rich opening scene.
To create good stories, and to engage in storytelling as the only delivery system possible between writer and reader, you need a solid contextual bedrock.
How powerful is it to get context right?
Context helps you put the right characters into the story, with the individual and collective agency to enact your storyline. It keeps you on track, focused, because you’ll understand what your story is about instead of just following a series of plot points that, alone, can’t generate the vitality or dynamic momentum that otherwise originate in the writer, from inside the story, out toward the reader.
Even a strong theme and premise can’t do that.
Starting with the right contextual core and understanding its power means that the right opening will be easier to find – the in medias res, that crossroads, that quantum flux where your story’s universe will come to glorious life.