Friday, November 14, 2008


In a post earlier this week, Alis Hawkins said the hardest thing for her was opening a scene. She asked if others had problems with this--and if not, what our own 'hardest thing' was.

I'm happy to say that openings are the easiest thing for me. I love writing openings of any sort--novels, chapters, scenes--because I am less boxed in by the flow of prose, less limited by the preceding paragraph and the other sentences on the page. It's a mini-opportunity to start all over again. As Joan Didion said in her Paris Review interview:

I start a book and I want to make it perfect, to turn it every color, want it to be the world. Ten pages in, I’ve already blown it, limited it, made it less, marred it.

What she says about books applies to chapters and scenes, too.

Openings are so unconfined. One of the things I like best is that you have choices in psychic distance. When you are in the middle of a scene, moving in deeper or backing out for a wider view have to be done with utmost care so as not to upset the balance of the POV. But after a full break of any sort, you have a chance to begin again from whatever distance you choose--you can start from a birds-eye descriptive view, and then zoom in, or you can start in very tight, with a fierce, disorienting effect.

For those of us who tend to write in reasonably disciplined POV, openings--especially chapter openings--are one of the few places we can go omniscient without anyone crying foul. We can drop in some broad exposition, some description, any number of observations that are not quite from the character's viewpoint. No one seems to object to a wide shot before descending into the character's perception, but getting back out again is nearly impossible. Once in a character's head, it's easy to modulate in closer, laying out thoughts in direct narrative, or pulling back a little so the narrative voice takes over again; but it's very difficult to jump back up to a wide, non-personalized perspective. Tight POV is a bit of a bog, and it's hard to get your boots back out of the mud once they've smooshed their way up to the ankles.

(One of the few places where writers seem to pull back from tight POV into wide shots is at endings--of scenes, chapters, or whole novels. This is especially clear when the POV character has just died!)

So, I love openings. And I like writing endings, although in my first draft I often rush them.

The second-hardest thing for me is middles. I'm overly conscious of the paragraphs and sentences just behind, and even as I discover new things to say, I fret. Does that really belong? Am I running too long here? Why am I even writing this scene? There are days when it flows like any low-viscosity simile you care to insert here, but more often there are days when the middle of a scene feels like an airplane ride in high turbulence, with an underlying sensation of sickness and fear you do your best to ignore.

The fact that I am so happy to start but so reluctant to soldier on says something about my personal character. Something rather unflattering, I'm afraid, but there it is.

If all I had to do in life is write openings, I'd be one very happy fellow. Sadly for me, you have to write the rest of the scene. And the rest of the chapter. And the rest of the book.

Oh, yeah. I said middles were the second-hardest thing for me. What's the hardest? I can answer that without hesitation: Deciding what scene needs to be written in the first place.


Tim Stretton said...

"because I am less boxed in by the flow of prose, less limited by the preceding paragraph and the other sentences on the page"

I actually like this constraint. It's like writing poetry (which I can't do...). The restrictions of what you've already written create a resistance which requires extra creativity to overcome ("but two pages ago she said she hated you - so why's she kissing you now?"). Of course you can always change the original constraint retrospectively, but where's the fun in that?

David Isaak said...

Hi, Tim--

In symphonies, I find the opening of each movement to be the most exciting moment, because you don't know what is coming.

I freely admit my tendencies aren't admirable, and don't even make much sense. From one perspective, it's like saying I prefer being on slippery rocks with no foothold to having a secure place to brace myself. Or, even more prejudicially, one could say that I love making promises but find delivering on them tedious.

My tendencies are similar to those who love falling in love, but find commiting to the process of a real relationship somewhat more bothersome. So I claim no virtue in the fact that I love writing openings. But if I'm honest, I have to admit launching the boat is a lot more fun than manning the oars, and setting out on a voyage is more enjoyable to ma than weathering the storms.

Jen Ster said...

I have always had trouble with openings. A reader complained to me once that "everything seems to be taking place in a big open white space". Since then I do a kind of camera pan around the room before I start. That point of view thing is still a problem for me off and on.

S. Boyd Taylor said...

I vary on this.

In short stories the opening is definitely the fun part. And the middle is usually fun, too (if it isn't, I stop, because I assume it's also not fun for the reader). What's hard are the endings.

In the 2 novels I've written, I had to overcome the great wide open spaces before I could find any words to keep. In the first one I did character studies and top ten lists and everything. In the second I kind of started with some old stuff I had written, but I still couldn't figure out what to do. The problem in both of those instances was I had characters and a setting, but no plot.

Of course I threw most of the prep work out of the window after I started. 3 chapters in and everything was different -- but that's what made it fun.

In a short story you can "find" a plot pretty fast. In a novel, I can get lost pretty fast if I don't have a pretty good idea of what I want to happen.

David Isaak said...

Hi, Jen--

I like scene-setting. One criticism of my writing that I took to heart was when a novelist I know pointed out that many of my chapters in a row began with the same wide-angle view and then narrowed in: "Do you see that three or four of your chapters in a row have the same basic shape?" Since then, I try to vary things a bit more!

David Isaak said...

Hi, SBT--

I agree that characters and setting aren't enough. But I find that characters and a situation can be enough. The I start methodically painting myself into a corner.

Sometimes I get out again. Sometimes I end up sitting in the corner until I'm covered with cobwebs.