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I’ve been thinking a lot about the protocols of fiction in terms of story and novel beginnings, in part because of my own recent resurgence in writing fiction but also from reading Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2312 (more on that later). Inherent in the idea of a beginning is a sense of what kind of story or mode of fiction you are about to enjoy (or hate). Some approaches to this riff off of the idea of formula, not necessarily in a bad way—it’s just as a shorthand to guide the reader to the right set of precepts for what the writer intends. Examples include prologues or first chapters of noir novels that contain certain elements—down-and-out detective, beginnings of a case—that create expectations. There will be a mystery. The main character will operate within certain constraints of opinions and options. Constraint can be a great way to write an amazing and original character, the original cliché become simply…original.
Other types of fiction require different approaches. A sloppy opening to a mystery still more or less serves the function of letting you know what you’re reading, whether the writer intends to support or subvert that expectation. But what if you’re not working off of a common pattern? For fiction that aggressively wrenches the reader out of existing patterns and modes it is even more important that the writer show the reader how to encounter the story. This is not to say that the writer is trying to straitjacket the reader, but that without an idea of the reading protocols, the reader may well feel adrift and the intended effect or effects of the story will not be part of the reader’s experience of the story. For example, take the beginning of “No Breather in the World But Thee,” a story I wrote recently and which is out in submission at the moment:
The cook didn’t like that the eyes of the dead fish shifted to stare at him as he cut their heads off. The cook’s assistant, who was also his lover, didn’t like that he woke to find just a sack of bloody bones on the bed beside him. “It’s starting again,” he gasped, just moments before a huge black birdlike creature carried him off, screaming. The child playing on the grounds outside the mansion did not at first know what she was seeing, but realized it was awful. “It’s just like last year,” she said to her imaginary friend, but her imaginary friend was dead. She ran for the front door, but the ghost of her imaginary friend, now large and ravenous and wormlike, swallowed her up before she had taken ten steps across the writhing grass.
What does this opening accomplish? Well, in some ways it may provoke whiplash in the reader, so there’s a risk involved in the approach, but in terms of an expectation set for readers it tells you that this is a story that will travel from point of view to point of view. Indeed the narrative then opens up after this paragraph into several connected set pieces from different perspectives, although at a more leisurely pace. The story is also telling you what it is and what it is not. It is a story of the weird, but it is not a traditional story of the weird. Giant birds, dead fish staring, imaginary friends, etc., all could be deployed in fairly conventional fashion in a story. Here they are not. Yet, you probably want to know what happens next.
In other cases, like my story “Komodo,” which will appear in the next issue of Arc magazine, the opening takes the opposite approach, in that the teaching to read will take place across the entire narrative:
Child, standing there in your flower dress considering me with those wide dark eyes while the mariachi band plays out in the courtyard…I’m going to tell you a story. It doesn’t matter if you can’t understand me—they can, and they need to trust me, need to know I’m telling them this for a reason. But I need you, too, because every tale requires an audience, and you’re mine. So I hope you’ll stay awhile. It won’t take long. I don’t have long, anyway.
It starts in a strange place, I’ll admit, inside of a giant green plastic alien head. I was all dressed up. I was on my way to a party. Let’s say the party celebrated something like the Day of the Dead, and that I was in a hurry to get there not even because of looking forward to the party but to the after party. The after party is always where it’s at—if you can get an invite.
I use a whole two paragraphs from the opening of “Komodo” as an example because the story is constantly redefining itself, in part because the narrator is acutely aware that too much information too soon will only confuse the issue and erode suspension of disbelief in those she is telling the story to. Thus, she is constantly finding comfortable analogies or lies to feed said listener to contextualize the story she is telling in familiar elements. Her hope is that as the story becomes stranger and stranger this approach will serve to keep the listener from becoming confused. Perhaps sneakily, perhaps not sneakily at all, this approach also saves the reader from discomfort in terms of concepts and context—especially since not only did I want to write a story that was continually unpacking and redistributing its context but also use the idea of rich nodes of exposition as tiny but satisfying explosions of micro-story within the main narrative, all framed by an engaging and energetic narrator with a personal stake in the described events. Which is to say, a more conventional approach that simply gave the full context in the first couple of paragraphs of the story would, in this case, have made the story less accessible; it also would not at all support the central conflict nor the narrator’s role in it.
Despite the complexity of these various elements, “Komodo” is still focused on just a couple of effects repeated multiple times in an order that provides a hopefully pleasing and continually eureka-ing effect. But what if you are telling a story that wants to do several diverse things, achieve more than one effect? How do you establish reading protocols for the multi-various? The most effective technique almost seems like indecision: it requires not committing immediately to any one set of protocols, with the danger that the reader may find your story at first adrift, unfocused, even if the individual scenes are quite precise and effective. But it’s all about not creating the distinctive tell in the reader’s mind that this is a particular type of tale.
In this case, there has to be a compelling reason to continue to read even as you’re not quite sure what kind of story you’re reading…and here we come back to Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2312. It is an epic science fiction story on the one hand, a character story of the person Swan on the other. It is a love story between Swan and a man named Waltham, but also a tale of interplanetary intrigue. Robinson could have started with any of these things. He could have started with Waltham meeting Swan. He could have started with the first disastrous attack that sets off the intrigue. But he doesn’t. Instead, we start with Swan by herself, engaged in an interesting activity. From there, we are gradually are clued into the various elements of story and how they will work in combination. This serves the useful and obvious purpose, too, since it is an SF novel, of acclimating the reader to Robinson’s vision of the future. However, this inclination not to choose a position, so to speak, to foreground neither love story nor intrigue allows Robinson the space to privilege both strands, to make the novel somehow deeper and more real, less like fiction. The risk (slight in this case) is that a few readers may indeed be confused as to the point of the story for a few chapters, not to mention reviewers. At least one reviewer wrote all about the interplanetary plot and mentioned the relationships not at all, even though close to one-half the book may be said to be about Waltham and Swan. But this issue is irrelevant next to the more important point that 2312 is a better novel because of this approach.
This relates, too, to the ways in which writers sometimes destabilize their fiction to provide a more comfortable entry-point for the reader—you see these kinds of suggestions often from editors or agents, and they are not without validity; even the pushback against these ideas can provide interesting third options, or help strengthen other parts of a novel. To another writer reading such material, the destabilizations can read like deformities of structure or character; to many readers, it’s invisible and all they notice is that the launch-point into story is easy. Some would thus argue that the deformity is actually an enhancement and I’m not going to take issue with that here, in part because I think it also marks an ideological difference of opinion on what the beginning of a story is supposed to do. Some writers will argue that distortion is worth it if it provides a more efficient and readable delivery system for weirder/less conventional material embedded later on. (I personally find it irritating and disappointing more often than not.)
Sometimes the very genre creates an expectation that is more commercial—Alistair Reynolds’ early novels in particular are very, very strange, but the subgenre of space opera and the expectations the words “space opera” conjure up provide a smooth entry point for the reader, who once engaged finds themselves in marvelously weird territory indeed. So this smooth launch-point can come naturally as a function of the writer working within a recognizable and established genre, and thus it is an integrated element of the approach. I’m not arguing that the only difference between, say, China Mieville and Michael Cisco is the entry point, but if you look at Mieville’s beginnings as opposed to Cisco’s, you will note an easier time being had reading Mieville. There is no time to acclimate to Cisco. He’s not particularly interested in reader comfort levels and his idea of audience is probably very different from Mieville’s. (Yet, would Cisco’s novel The Narrator have reached more readers more easily with a different entry-point?)
I think about this issue more and more, in part because I’m working on so many different kinds of novels right now. This is nothing new for me. I had pieces of Veniss Underground and all three Ambergris novels done well before I completed them, and I can no longer tell where one started and another began. The new batch is accumulating much the same way, and in contemplating their effects, I need to think about beginnings, and where one approach makes more sense and where it doesn’t, where an easier way is a deformity as opposed to simply an enhancement, and so on and so forth. In all of it, too, you must think about what affects the reader and how, within the context of your idea of the ideal reader for the work. This is separate from the Reader that permeates the internet, the Reader that is generalized and for whom we are told all sorts of things that may or may not be true about their tastes, their wants, and what may or may not interest them.
Beginnings, then, are about levels of commitment—to the text, to the reader, to yourself. The possibilities are endless, and important.