One of the questions fiction-writing teachers often have to field is: when should I begin the story? There’s no rule about this, nor should there be. but writers who look back over their work often discover that most of their best fiction (often all of it) BEGINS WHEN EVERYTHING HAS HAPPENED BUT THE ACTION. A lot of writers spend weeks writing pages and pages of backstory – much of it because they need it for themselves. Then they get into the middle of things and realize this is where the story really begins. That four (or ten or fifty) pages of backstory can be woven, later, into the forward action.
Another way to say this is to start in medias res – in the middle, after things have already gotten under way that will lead to the climactic moment of the piece.
One prime example: William Faulkner’s classic short story, “A Rose For Emily.”
As the story opens, Miss Emily Grierson has died and the whole town is walking toward her house after the funeral, “the men through a sort of respectful affection for a fallen monument, the women mostly out of curiosity to see the inside of her house, which no one save an old man-servant . . . had seen in at least ten years.”
Right away we know that Emily, now buried, is an eccentric object of curiosity. The events that have shaped her are in the past, soon to be revealed by the narrator during the trek to her house. She wouldn’t pay taxes. She never married but once had a beau. Etc. The pilgrimage, with these details woven in, is the present action of the story – until the shocking finale. Putting any of the “middle” of this story at the beginning would only weaken its impact. “A Rose for Emily” was originally published in 1930. You’ve probably read it but if not, you’re in for a treat.
Some other examples:
From the novel Snow Falling on Cedars by David Guterson, winner of the Pen/Faulkner Award..
“The accused man, Kabuo Myamoto, sat proudly upright with a rigid grace, his arms placed softly on the defendant’s table—the posture of a man who has detached himself insofar as this is possible at his own trial.”
The trial comprises the forward action of this brilliant novel about Japanese/American relations, and many, many other issues, in a fishing village on a small island in Puget Sound, in 1954. As the narrative moves through the trial, the reader gets to know Kabuo, his wife, the sheriff, the dead man, and others whose culture and character make up the flawed world in which they live.
“Pho,” from my collection “Kaleidoscope: 20 Stories Celebrating Women’s Fiction.” The story first appeared in the Chicago Tribune, a runner-up for the Nelson Algren Award.
“I had a small victory at the music festival in New Orleans, a first place win for my top piano student. I stayed for the awards ceremony, then drove my rental car to Biloxi to see the Nguyens before flying home to Maryland. It was late April, already oppressively hot in the muggy lowlands of Louisiana, the air so thick and weighty that my euphoria soon drained. My fingers ached, especially in the bad right hand. I struggled to grip the wheel. It was one of those days when I could hardly make a fist.”
Sheila is aging, arthritic, a bit depressed, and uncertain about retirement – all things that began long before the story does. The forward action consists of her visit with a Vietnamese family she helped sponsor more than 20 years before – a family she associates with such pleasant things as their delicious noodle soup, pho. In a small way, the visit – and the soup – cure her. When she leaves, even her hands don’t hurt.
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