Saturday, February 21, 2009
Perhaps one of the most pivotal points in laying out a short story is where to begin? According to Michael Kardos in his excellent article, "In Defense of Starting Early," (Writer's Chronicle, Feb. 2009), much of the contemporary advice is to start at, or immediately following, a conflict, and proceed efficiently to the resolution. He quotes Vonnegut: "Start as close to the end as possible."
My own stories sometimes include initial settings of time and place, and character development, that may not be needed to engage the all important question of, "what is this story really about?" In most cases it might easily start a little closer to the end, but then it could become a different story. It might be done just as well or perhaps better that way, of course, but Kardos, who's job was to read several thousand manuscripts for three literary magazines over the past seven years, has come to see how frequently the story that starts late fails to develop an engaging plot.
He says that, typically, the late-starting manuscript begins in the aftermath of some accident or tragedy (twenty percent of the stories received at his literary magazine assignments) and moves forward from there, depicting how a character deals, or doesn't deal, with the accident or tragedy. Often the story doesn't work because the accident or tragedy seems to exist mainly to add gravity to the work. If the backstory were cut, the events of the dramatic present that follow wouldn't change at all. Other times, even if the accident or tragedy is directly relevant to a story told in the dramatic present, we are shown characters moving from place to place, making observations, having conversations, etc., but very little in the way of plot. This is because the important story—the gripping story—is already over. The most dramatic event in these characters' lives has already happened.
Kardos mentions the Ur-text of narrative theory, Aristotle's "Poetics," in which "the beginning of a plot is said not to follow anything by causal necessity. Rather, the beginning is, by definition, that from which events of causal necessity follow." Kardos concludes that "after-the-accident" stories are noteworthy in being "unconventional, especially when the accident is not actually an accident at all, but rather, as is often the case, the tragic result of causal factors. Often these causal factors, if rendered in the dramatic present, might make for a more compelling and satisfying story than the one actually written."
Why is this unconventional structure so common now in contemporary fiction? Kardos hypothesizes it has to do with the dominant aesthetic virtues of subtlety and restraint, as seen in the continuing relevance of Hemingway's "iceberg principle," such that "if fiction were an iceberg, then seven-eighths of the iceberg ought to remain hidden underwater." Another example given is Raymond Carver: "Most of my stories start pretty near the end of the arc of the dramatic conflict." Kardos says that "Given Carver's tendency to avoid flashback and backstory, we are typically denied knowledge of the events that have gotten his characters to where they are now, at the start of their narratives….One of the effects that Carver achieves by starting late, and skipping these earlier, character-shaping events, is the downplaying of causality—action and reaction, or problem and decision—in favor of a brief, shimmering moment in a character's life, the exact significance of which is difficult for either the character or the reader to articulate."
I think Kardos makes a good case for being wary of starting too late in your story.