Wednesday, December 30, 2015

starting the story in medias res--into the midst of things

A stream of consciousness flows on into
an ocean of imagination
(a site near my home)
A Happy New Year to all, and I may wish to take a sabbatical from blogging next year to devote more time to my fiction writing.  But for now:

Sometimes an author has written substantial sections of vivid, suspenseful, engaging material, but such sections lie buried somewhere in the middle, or perhaps closer to the end of the story.  The author has chosen to first introduce his cast of characters, perhaps fixes them somewhere in the social hierarchy of a place, and dramatizes a few of their strengths and weaknesses, before revealing the main tension(s) they must attempt to resolve.

It may be that if the introductory material has characters of unique personalities, and the special quality of 'voice' so often stressed in Creative Writing 101, or in countless writers' conferences, the reader may stick around long enough to reach the really compelling sections of the book.

Alternately, perhaps the better strategy for structuring the book is to consider the technique of in medias res (into the midst of things), and find a way to bring the best material forward to the beginning.  Capture the reader early on, and fill in details as needed for the progression of the story toward a final resolution.

"A Manual for Cleaning Women," by Lucia Berlin, is a collection of short stories that mostly begin in medias res.  The stories are first person narration, but since the action starts almost immediately we don't get to learn much about who our narrator is, or her relationship to other named characters, until Berlin drops the appropriate links which tie the characters and events together without interrupting the trajectory of her story.  Berlin often writes in an abbreviated, urgent syntax, sometimes inserting independent observational clauses that surprise us but increase our interest, and she uses stream of consciousness thoughts on the unfolding action.

Taking a few excerpts from the first two pages of her story, "Emergency Room Notebook, 1977:
You never hear sirens in the emergency room--the drivers turn them off on Webster Street...If it is Code Three, where life is in critical danger, the doctor and nurses wait outside, chatting in anticipation.  Inside, in room 6, the trauma room, is the Code Blue team.  EKG, X-ray technicians respiratory therapists, cardiac nurses.  In most Code Blues, though, the EMT drivers or firemen are too busy to call in.  Piedmont Fire Department never does, and they have the worst.  Rich massive coronaries, matronly phenobarbital suicides, children in swimming pools...

Madame Y is the most beautiful woman I have ever seen.  She looks dead, actually, her skin translucent blue-white, her exquisitely boned Oriental face serene and ageless.  She wears black slacks and boots, mandarin-collared jackets cut and trimmed in Asia?  France?  The Vatican, maybe--they have the weight of a bishop's cassock--or an X-ray robe.  The piping has been done by hand in rich fuchcias, magentas, oranges.  Her Bentley drives up at nine, driven by a flippant Filipino who chain-smokes Shermans in the parking lot.  Her two sons, tall, in suits made in Hong Kong, escort her from the car to the entrance of radiation therapy...

She is dead now.  Not sure when it happened, on one of my days off.  She always seemed dead anyway, but nicely so, like an illustration or advertisement.

So we're two pages in and we know almost nothing about our narrator but we see lots of activity through her eyes,  and the style of writing and quirky observational detail promise interesting reading ahead.  A writer might learn some useful structuring and elements of style from Berlin.


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