I had an epiphany the other day about the way I tell stories and about the stories I like to read.
Strike that: It was an epiphany about my craft and about the stories I’m likely to finish reading.
(The second sentence of this essay, which is another epiphany, came as I wrote that first sentence.)
I’m most committed to stories that hook me within the first paragraph. The writer usually grabs my attention with action or language, but it’s always something about the plot that makes me finish the books I read for fun, and sometimes the books I’m assigned. I read The Mothers, a novel by Brit Bennett, earlier this year. There was a point within the book—I can’t remember the moment—when I became less invested in the characters. But I finished the book because I had to find out how The Mothers came to know what they knew and why the things referenced in the first chapter happened. I had stopped caring about some of the characters, but not about what I didn’t know.
I thought When Abortion Was a Crime and The Myth of Seneca Falls, two books I was assigned for class, would be books I skimmed. They turned out to be books I didn’t want to return to the library. Like The Mothers, they introduced (in the introduction, as is the custom for academic publications) stories I wanted the details on.
Swing Time is another example from fiction. I had waited for the book for months only to realize how challenging it would be to finish a 464-page book while writing a thesis, reading an academic book a week for my history class, and keeping up with the rest of my life. But Zadie Smith grabbed me by the jugular in her first sentence, and I couldn’t abandon the story.
Another interesting thing happened when I read Swing Time: I was well into the book before I noticed how the narrator swings back and forth between recollections of her childhood and those of her adult life. The telling is not quite chronological, but it’s fluid, and essentially knowing the end at the beginning didn’t bother me.
I wonder if I was unbothered because that’s the way my mind works. I realized recently that I resist constructing narrative. I had taken a writing notebook to the laundromat with me the other day, and I sat down to write while I waited for my clothes to dry. I knew the story, the narrative arc, I wanted to commit to paper, but I was stuck. I kept thinking, What is the best way to begin this story? It wasn’t just that life events often don’t have a beginning that’s easy to pinpoint. It wasn’t just that, when I analyzed my feelings about the subject and considered the roots of those feelings, I found many different threads, any of which could be a beginning. It was also that I wondered, “What could I start with that would make a reader continue?”
I work under the assumption that no one outside of my small but dedicated following will be interested in what I have to say unless I hook them within the first paragraph. Don’t bury the lede. It’s a journalism rule. If it bleeds it leads is another. Watch your evening newscast; death and destruction come first, human interest stories last. Teasers open the broadcast and reappear before each commercial break. “Don’t go away.” “After this.” The network wants your attention through to the end.
My literary writing has taken its cue from these journalistic positions, and the result is a narrative timeline that my writing peers tell me is difficult to follow. But it’s also difficult to break the habit. The other day in the laundromat, I couldn’t write anything because I was so busy thinking about how to begin the story.
I want that to change, for the sake of productivity if nothing else. But I also wonder if, beyond productivity, I need to change, if my habit is just my voice, my unique way as a writer, developing. If I’m honest with myself, I usually like my writing to stay as convoluted as the experience. I think I feel truer to the telling of the story if I express how jumbled it was. But I also want readers to finish reading.
So, I’m going to do an experiment. Before I fully return to the memoir/memoir in essays/memoirs, I’m committed to writing three short essays as straight narrative. This happened, then this happened, then this happened, and this is how I felt about it. And hopefully this will prove something to me about my storytelling.
In the comments, share with me please. What makes you finish a book or an essay? What makes you put one down and never return? If you’re a writer, how do you figure out what the beginning of the story is? Do you write for people you know, or try to get the attention of people you don’t know?