In the beginning…

Last weekend, at the Christian Writers Renewal Conference in Seattle,
Dennis “Doc” Hensley taught a class on literary fiction. I touched on
a few of his points in the last post. Today, I’ll pass on what Doc
said belongs at the beginning of any story.

A. Introduce the main character so the reader can bond. SHOW the
character doing what he does and who he is, as opposed to an
information dump in a narrative paragraph. For example, if the
protagonist is a competent, neat-freak, high-powered business woman,
show a conservatively dressed woman march into the office, order the
staff around, and straighten a picture on the wall. The reader
understands her from her actions and her speech, and it whets the
reader’s appetite for more.

B. Let the reader know what kind of story it is. If it’s a murder,
begin with a body. If it’s a comedy, begin with something funny.

C. Set the tone quickly and clearly. If the story is full of irony and
cynicism, those must be present in the first few paragraphs. If it’s a
horror story, set the dark mood.

D. Establish the locale, both where and when. Nothing drives a reader
crazy like reading a story set in the Caribbean on a cruise ship, only
to find out six pages in that the story takes place in 1945 instead of
modern times.

E. Get to the conflict quickly. Doc offered five different ways to
accomplish this:

1) Show a strong descriptive passage, as in “Red Badge of Courage.”
The description of the scene (the unfolding of a battle scene) sets an
ominous tone that leaves the reader feeling something spectacular is
about to occur.

2) Show tension through dialogue, as in “The Return of Tarzan,” when
the old man’s wife catches her first glimpse of the ape man and utters
her lustful reaction aloud. Her husband is clueless and demands a
reason for her reaction. She refuses to elaborate, with her eyes still
glued to Tarzan.

3) Start in the midst of the great tension, as in “The Moon is Down.”
This Steinbeck novel shows enemy forces overrunning a small town
without any resistance.

4) Start right at the beginning of the action, as in “The Cask of
Amontillado.” Montresor states that he will have his revenge against
Fortunato, then the tale is off and running, showing the reader
exactly how that revenge is achieved in the wine catacombs with bricks and mortar.

5) Suspenseful dramatic irony: the reader knows what’s going on (what
the danger is), but the protagonist is clueless, as in “Jaws.” The
reader knows the shark is coming; the swimming teenager does not. Her boyfriend begs her to leave the water, the shark closes in, she doesn’t come out of the water, the boyfriend begs, the shark gets closer…

That’s where my notes end. Class broke for lunch, and if Doc had
anything further to say on the matter, he didn’t elaborate. In my next
post, I’ll talk about Janet Lee Carey, a fantasy author who taught a
fabulous class on “How to revive a Failing Story.”


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