We are so excited to have RITA-winner and nationally known teacher in our midst today. I never come away from anything she writes without saying (with no small amount of envy, I might add), "How does she DO that?" We hope you agree and have questions for her--so that I can read the answers!
Thanks, Liz, for inviting me to guest blog! I would like to talk a bit about the openings of stories. The first chapter is often the easiest to write (because we're inspired!), but the hardest to get right. The first chapter has quite a few purposes! Some might include:
• Starts on the brink of change.
• Introduces the protagonist and provides a glimpse of his/her character, goal, and conflict.
• Sets up the world of the book.
• Shows "before" of the world and the protagonist, what they're like before the story events.
• Hints at backstory, or at least indicates there is some relevant backstory.
• Initiates the situation of the story.
• Shows the inciting incident that starts the plot.
• Sets up the major story questions (external, internal, interactional) and probably poses the external story question.
• Initiates the external conflict.
• Hints at the internal conflict.
• Shows the start point of the central relationship.
• Ends with the inevitability of change.
I'd like to discuss another purpose, as if the above weren't plenty already! :) That's how the opening can set up the ending: Starting the themes and ideas that the book will develop and the ending will resolve.
This is why I suggest that novelists write the preliminary opening first in that wonderful white heat of inspiration, write the rest of the story, then come back and revise the opening so it more effective in setting up the plot questions and themes. We probably can't know what to set up in the opening until we finish the ending. But once we have the ending conceptualized, we can figure out what elements in theme, character, setting, can provide coherence, connecting the opening to the closing.
Let me give an example. August Wilson wrote a cycle of ten plays about African-Americans in 20th Century Pittsburgh, one play for each decade. This is a monumental achievement, a true tour de force, and his life work. (I wish I'd started a life work earlier… too late now. Oh, well. :) I just saw the last play, Golf Radio, which takes place in 1996. Wilson finished this shortly before he died. What's intriguing is he wrote the first play in the cycle, Gem of the Ocean (taking place in 1904) just before that. That is, the middle eight plays were written before the first. Why? Wilson wanted to wait and see how the century ended, how Pittsburgh and the Black experience changed, before he started setting up the themes that would "close" in the final play.
So Gem of the Ocean takes place in the Hills neighborhood, and in a house on Wylie Street owned by "Aunt Ester," a wise and clairvoyant Black woman. She is known in the Black community as a "cleanser of souls," someone who can take sinners on a spiritual journey to expiate guilt. So a majore theme is set up in the redemptive journey. The two other major characters are Citizen Barlow (a young man seeking expiation) and Caesar Wilkes (Ester's maid's brother and a self-righteous policeman who insists on enforcing the law no matter what). The still-living memory of slave times is symbolized by another man, Solly, who was a former slave and once a conductor of the Underground Railroad. Notice how the theme of "journey" is set up— Ester leads sinners to redemption as Solly led slaves to freedom. Also, this first play starts the "justice theme," showing the impossibility of a just legal system in an unjust society. Caesar, the symbol of the law as a policeman, ends up committing a brutal murder of Solly, who represents the community's freedom.
That's the opening of this ten-play cycle. The last play picks up many of these elements, but transformed by time and all the events that happened in the other plays (the "middle" of the cycle). In 1996, Harmond, the grandson of police officer Caesar, is an attorney and real estate developer. (The action takes place in his office, not a home—notice the progression away from the personal to the corporate.) He is running for mayor, and this seems to show how very much the society has changed, that this great-grandson of slaves is about to achieve real political power. But his business is requiring him to destroy the little community shown so eloquently in the first play: He is going to build a modern apartment building (with a Starbucks!), but first has to get his own neighborhood legally declared a "blight".
He is led to redemption by another soul cleanser, the grandson of Citizen and the little maid who met and fell in love in the first play. Old Joe Barlow still owns the old house on Wylie Street, and so that house, introduced in the opening as gracious and spacious, is declared derelict and dangerous in the closing. This house is about to be demolished to make way for the new apartment block. Harmond must go on his own redemptive journey to recognize the value of the past and the community. To do this, he must sacrifice (as Grandpa Caesar never could) his belief in the primacy of law, and accept that he must rely on his own moral instincts to do what is right and save the old house and what remains of the legacy of the characters in the first play. There is even a journey, as Harmond leaves the office to go to the house to stop the demolition.
Of course, our own stories probably don't take place over a century. But we can still learn from this opening-closing dynamic. The themes of journey and justice are set up in the opening and come back (a bit transformed) in the closing. The characters in the opening have a corresponding (but changed) counterpart in the closing (in our books, the characters would be the same, but changed by the events of the plot). The setting is the same neighborhood, but notice that the move from house to office symbolizes the growing alienation from family/community. And there is one concrete "prop" in the house, which has deteriorated but still serves as a symbol of the community and century, and becomes the focal point of the conflict in the end.
Finally, when the grandson of the murderer Caesar chooses to honor life and seek redemption, the circle is closed. The praxis (or emotional action) is completed when the main character in the last play sacrifices his own goals to save his community. He completes the journey to redemption and ends with his soul cleansed.
Can we do that too? Can we set up one or two themes that the story will develop and which can be resolved in the end? Can we show what has changed because of the events of the plot, and what remains the same? Can we strengthen the parallels between the opening and closing scenes?
Some opportunities for coherence:
Some concrete object (like the house)
We don't want the end to MIRROR the beginning, but rather to resolve the questions and issues set up in the opening chapter.
What about your own story? How can you revise the opening to better set up the ending? How can the circle of the story be opened and then closed?
Alicia Rasley is a RITA-award winning novelist who has been published by major publishers such as Dell, NAL, and Kensington. Her women’s fiction novel The Year She Fell has twice been a Kindle #1 bestseller in the contemporary fiction category.
Her articles on writing have been widely distributed, and many are collected on her website The Writer's Corner. She also blogs about writing and editing at Edittorrent. Her Regency romance Poetic Justice is currently available as a Kindle Select book. She is also the author of the plotting guidebook The Story Within, available for the first time in electronic format.