Writing Report August 18, 2018
We’ll do something a little different this week; we’ll compare and contrast two ways of starting a story.
First, an opening from a story I have circulating right now:
To set the record straight, before we start let me state that I am a professional magician. A professional stage magician. A conjuror, an illusionist, a prestidigitator, a sleight-of-hand artist, a trickster.
In short, a liar and a con man.
Not the most reliable of narrators.
But what I tell you, I tell you to be true.
You must make of it as you will.
The next, from a story that will be polished and on its way making the rounds in the next week or so:
“You want to kill my granddaughter,” Madame Grochowska said. “Good. I want her dead, too.”
Tone is a crucial, often overlooked component in story telling.
How a story is told can make a crucial difference in what is being told, why it is being told.
The oft-revived Broadway stage musical A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum had a bad series of out of town rehearsals.
Audiences didn’t know what it was they were supposed to be laughing at.
Was it a romantic comedy? A comedy of manners? A light farce?
By the time the audience figured out what the production was going for, the play was half over, and the zing it needed, the energy that feeds off the interplay of performers and playgoers, was absent.
Their solution? A brand new opening number “Comedy Tonight!” in which the lead character, the conniving slave Pseudolus, sets up the scene and plot, introduces the other characters, and explains to the audience exactly what kind of a comedy they’re about to see (i.e., a low-brow knockabout farce).
By the end of this high energy song the audience is primed and ready for the lunacy that follows, and what had been tentative laughs in previous performances now became sustained guffaws.
Tone. It’s important.
When we go see a movie, savvy filmmakers let us know, typically no later than the second scene, exactly what kind of a movie we are going to see.
Is it a spy thriller? Well, is it a realistic spy thriller? A Bond-style adventure? A world weary drama? An intricately plotted scheme?
Tone matters, because if we have settled down to watch one movie and it suddenly changes into something else, we’re jarred out of our suspension of disbelief.
And we almost never regain it.
Let’s compare my two openings.
In the first example, I’m letting readers know they need to settle in for a longer, deliberately paced tale.
I let them know it will be worth it by citing the contradictions of the narrator up front, but in doing so, I’m also telling them, ”It will be worth listening to him…but can you trust him?”
That’s a crucial bit of information to convey.
I’m letting the reader know that no matter how mundane the story starts, it’s going to go someplace unusual, someplace the reader may not fully believe when it gets there.
But they have been warned.
They are primed for a gradual unfolding.
And when the reveal comes -- and whether the reader believes it or not -- it doesn’t seem to come out of left field.
They’re primed for it and, while they didn’t know what to expect, they knew something was coming.
The second =bang!= gets us started on the conflict immediately.
We have no idea who Madame Grochowska is, who her granddaughter is, why she wants her dead, or why the as-yet-unnamed person she’s talking to wants the granddaughter dead, but holy shamoley, we sure know what the stakes are!
No leisurely build up here.
We’re going full pedal-to-the-metal from the opening line, and what follows is going to drag the reader along at a breakneck pace.
And such an unexpected opening tells the reader, ”You don’t know what to expect in this story!”
So when the even wilder plot twists develop, the reader will accept them.
Could you switch the tone of the two stories?
Not if you wanted them to keep their narrative integrity.
The first story will end up asking the reader what they think is true.
The second takes them on a madcap rollercoaster – it doesn’t care what the reader thinks.
The first story hinges on what the reader can believe from the narrator.
The second can’t afford to have any doubts about the veracity of what it shows the reader -- it is what it is, folks!
It can make all the difference.
© Buzz Dixon