To continue with my posts about the Theory and Practice of the Journey Story.
In my workshop at Winter Wheat, I’m going to ask everyone to take a piece of paper (or open a document on their laptop) and list five journeys they’ve taken in their lives. These could be long journeys (to the Grand Canyon) or they could be short journeys (a trip to see Grandma, or a boyfriend). I might even ask everyone to list one imagined journey, either fantastical or simply desired – a Jules Verne style Journey to the Center of the Earth, or a journey to Tuscany during the grape harvest. And I might ask everyone to list the most amazing journey someone in their family ever took.
I want everyone to come up with a few kernels from which a complete work of fiction might grow. And sometimes family stories can be a great source for fiction.
From time to time, I’ll discuss books that have been useful to me in writing, since I want to make sure that I give credit where credit is due. And the next part of this post comes from a book I like, Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird.
There’s a plot outline in Bird by Bird that works very well for the Journey story. It goes ABDCE:
I’ll take on the first point of this outline in this post.
Beginning with action is one of the most effective ways to start a short story. It’s certainly not the only way, but it’s one that is certainly used frequently. You begin the story with the character or characters already on the way.
Consider these openings:
On his way west McRae picked up a hitcher, a young woman carrying a paper bag and a leather purse, wearing jeans and a shawl – which she didn’t take off, though it was more than ninety degrees out and McRae had no air conditioning.
“The Man Who Knew Belle Starr” by Richard Bausch
Edna and I had started down from Kallispell, heading for Tampa-St. Pete where I still had some friends from the old glory days who wouldn’t turn me in to the police.
“Rock Springs” by Richard Ford
“Opportunities,” my father says after I bail him out of jail. He’s banging the words into the dash as if trying to get them through my thick skull. “You’ve got to invest your money if you want opportunities.” It’s October of ’95, and we’re driving around Louisville, Kentucky, in my mother’s car.
“The Ant of the Self” by Z. Z. Packer
In all three of these exemplary openings, it’s clear that the characters are already in motion. The journey has already begun.
An even more basic point about these openings is that they all give you characters to be interested in. I’ve looked through many anthologies of short fiction over the years, and it’s amazing how many of the stories in them have a human being in the very first sentence. It’s almost one hundred percent of the time. There are exceptions, of course, and great ones, like Steinbeck’s “Chrysanthemums.” But this is a case where, I think, the exception proves the rule. Any story should have a human being in the very opening, and a good journey story frequently has the human being already in motion.
Here are some bad ways to open a story:
- A description of sunrise
- A description of sunset
- A description of trees at sunrise or sunset
- An alarm clock ringing
There are a few more elements in those three beginnings worth pointing out. First, place is at least mentioned. Second, the relationships between characters is already being sketched out. And third, the story beginnings look both forwards and backwards.
Let me emphasize that last point a bit. A good story beginning can have a Janus-effect – like the two-faced god, it both looks at the past and looks toward the future. In Bausch’s story, we know at least that McRae has already been driving west, and the addition of the hitchhiker promises some story in the future. In Ford’s story, we know that the narrator has some legal problems he’s running away from, and he has a vision of where he’s going to escape his troubles. And in Packer’s story, we know that the narrator has just bailed his father out of jail, and we can guess his father is going to try to talk him into pursuing some opportunity.
Beginning your journey story at a point where the characters are already in motion, a point where you can both reference the past and point toward the future, can be very effective.
I’ll discuss the second part of the Lamott’s outline, background, in my next post.