I’m a bit of a pessimist. I’ve tried to work on this, but it turns out I’m pessimistic about the concept of self-improvement. So when Kelsie recently posted on her favorite story beginnings, it made me think of my least favorite story beginnings. While there are several types, I’m just going to focus on one, a species that I call “The Plea for Patience.” It goes something like this:
“This was the day that Jim accidently ran over the neighbor’s pet chinchilla with the lawn mower, spraying its guts all over his daughter’s prom dress. But he didn’t know what the day would bring when he got up that morning…”
The first sentence is often deceiving in its promise. Some big, exciting event will happen. But that second sentence will dash your hopes, because it signals that this intro is followed by six to ten pages of rather slow exposition that establishes characters, setting, and relationships. It may be well written, but it’s rarely engaging.
I have a theory about why writers do this. I developed this theory based on my own experience. I’ve done this before. I wrote a story and then fell deeply in love with it, mostly because it was mine. But I worried; I knew the end was exciting, but was afraid that readers wouldn’t stick around that long. I was afraid that they would read the first few pages, say “next,” and move on. I wanted to assure them that something big would happen, and that even if they were bored, they should stick it out.
This is the Plea for Patience. It’s a lack of confidence combined with love for the story. A writer recognizes that the beginning is slow and boring, but isn’t willing to rewrite it all in order to better engage the reader. So a tag is thrown in to the beginning, a moment of excitement that can be translated as “please please PLEASE keep reading. It will get better. I promise.” The problem is, it rarely does get much better.
This contrasts sharply with the kinds of beginnings that Kelsie mentions in her posts. If you read carefully, the words “create” and “establish” come up frequently in her explanations of why those beginnings work. Let’s look at the first one:
- “By our second day at Camp Crescendo, the girls in my Brownie troop had decided to kick the asses of each and every girl in Brownie Troop 909.” ZZ Packer, “Brownies” from Drinking Coffee Elsewhere
This is not a promise of what will happen in the story. It’s in the moment; this is what the Brownie troop is thinking now. It sets up tension that some ass-kicking may happen, but it’s no guarantee. And it’s pretty damn funny.
Here is another example that comes close to the Plea without actually being one:
- “It happened one summer when the sky was wide and hot and the summer rains did not come; the sheep were thin, and the tumbleweeds turned brown and died.” Leslie Marmon Silko, “Tony’s Story”
“It happened” is clearly a promise. Something will happen. But we expect that from any story, no matter how it starts. Things will happen. This sentence is not begging us to stick around but is setting up scene and tension. This is a rural desert community. The weather is not just bad, it is threatening the life of even the hardiest plants. And it doesn’t hurt that, within a couple hundred words, a mysterious cop batters one of the main characters. We don’t have to wait for things to happen. The threat is in the now, in the first sentence, and manifests quickly.
The problem with the Plea for Patience is that it doesn’t establish anything relevant to the present moment of the story. It promises what will happen down the line, which doesn’t create tension, but deflates it, like that one friend who tells you the climax to a movie during the opening credits. In the meantime, pages of uninteresting fiction threaten to turn the reader away.