Monday, April 18, 2011

The Morning Reading: "a world already in motion"

Some smart words on beginnings via Dylan Landis:

from Beyond the Margins by Robin Black:

You know how sometimes something that is incredibly obvious, suddenly strikes you in a new way?

I was teaching a small class recently on story beginnings, and a few minutes in I had this thought: In the moment before the story starts, the reader knows nothing, and the author knows everything. (Pause here, while we authors laugh hollowly – Ha! – at the idea that we know everything; but you know what I mean.)...

...So I started to wonder about whether this incredibly obvious fact that at a story’s beginning the reader knows nothing, might provide some new ways of thinking about it all; and what has emerged for me is an approach that has less to do with ensnaring a reader with something catchy than with orienting a reader and allowing her to relax into the work, by supplying her with a sense that she has gone from being ignorant to knowing something with clarity....

...A genius version of the same (very broadly speaking) kind of first sentence is: “Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.” Again, very little information is conveyed. The reader has no idea who Mrs. Dalloway is, to whom she made this declaration, when she spoke, why there’s a need for flowers and on and on. But the sentence is orienting nonetheless because what little information is portrayed is... familiar and readily imaginable. A woman said she would buy flowers. We can all handle that. The reader immediately goes from ignorance to the sensation of having knowledge. It’s by no means true that Mrs. Dalloway as a whole is a simple work and I’m not arguing here for ‘easy’ fiction; but at a first reading that sentence is, in all the best ways, a simple one.

And of course, in their own very quiet way, both those examples are in media res openings. Something as minimal as the use of a character’s name implies a world already in motion, and in the Woolf sentence, the phrase “the flowers” vastly increases this sense. The flowers in question are specific ones, presumably meant for a specific purpose. That could be a funeral, a wedding, a party – as is the case – but there’s already a circumstance unfolding for which specific flowers are required.

I point this out because in media res is so often taken to mean something like in media crisis or in media argument or in media coitus. But the res that produces that sense of a story already happening as the reader steps in can be something very subtle – something like the need for some flowers and the entire reality implied by that need....

To read this post in its entirety, click here.


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